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Keeping the Keystone Legacy

by Debbie Culbertson

"Come on in," says Gwen Hooks, ushering me into the bright entranceway of her Leduc home. On this frosty winter evening, a gas fire warms Hook's cozy living room. Photographs of children and grandchildren fill coffee tables and shelves. Mementos of past achievements also hold special pride of place - one bookshelf holds numerous awards Hook has won for her poetry.

However, the most prized keepsake of all may be a large aerial photograph, hanging on the wall near the fireplace. It shows a tidy square farmhouse set amidst rolling fields edged with poplar and spruce. Until a few years ago, the farm belonged to Hooks and her late husband Mark - descendants of some of the first black settlers in Keystone (now Breton). Hooks has recently written a book entitled The Keystone Legacy: Recollections of a Black Settler, describing the lives of those brave homesteaders.

As she boils the kettle for tea, Hooks describes the early black settlers who came to Alberta in the first decades of this century. Most came from Oklahoma where they experienced segregation and racial violence.

In the years before it became a state, Oklahoma had been officially designated as "Indian Territory" by the American government. Many of the blacks who lived in the territory were slaves of the aboriginal people. After the Civil War, these slaves were freed, and the government ordered that they be given parcels of land. The aboriginal people accepted the decision, and the two groups coexisted.

For a while it looked as though Oklahoma had become a safe haven for blacks. However, in 1898, the government - under growing pressure from white settlers interested in the fertile soil and climate of Oklahoma-forced the aboriginal people to cede most of their rights to the state's rich farmland. Whites flooded into Oklahoma and by the time statehood was established, segregationist policies were again in place. These policies, supported by white supremacist organizations, forced many black farmers to sell their land and look elsewhere for peace and security.

At the same time, the Canadian government was making changes to its immigration policies, Clifford Sifton, Canada's minister of the interior, persuaded the Laurier government to promote the settlement of the prairies. Under Sifton's direction, the Immigration Department began advertising in the U.S. and Europe in an effort to draw immigrants to the West. An immigrant farmer would be given title to a quarter section of land (160 acres) for just $10, if he stayed on the land for three years and improved it by clearing, planting and building a house.

As Hooks points out in her book, this new offer was a powerful incentive for Oklahoma blacks. Thousand sold their farms and began the long journey to Canada. "They came over in family groups in order to survive," says Hooks. If one group went to one place, the whole family went there." Both Hooks's family and that of her future husband Mark made the long trek to Canada.

The new settlers faced many challenges. The most daunting was clearing the land. Mark Hooks's mother once remarked in wonder, "the trees reach right up to the sky." Another challenge was the weather. Most of the black farmers were accustomed to the warm climate of the American South. "They didn't bring the proper clothes for Canadian winter," says Hooks. "They would wrap gunny sacks around their feet to keep them warm." In Oklahoma, farmers might get two or three crops from their vegetable garden. In Canada they might be able to grow only one. However, wild game was more plentiful and helped many settlers survive their first hard winter.

Perhaps a greater obstacle than the physical demands of clearing the land and surviving the winter was the prejudice that blacks encountered north of the Canada/Us border. Between 1910 and 1914, during the largest exodus of blacks from Oklahoma, politicians like Frank Oliver and organizations like the Edmonton Board of Trade and IODE (Imperial Order of the Daughters of the Empire) spearheaded campaigns to keep blacks out of Alberta. While these efforts didn't translate into federal legislation, blacks were made to feel unwelcome.

Like many homesteaders, blacks often had to work in Edmonton for at least part of the year to help support their families. However, the jobs they were given were often dangerous or degrading. "People wouldn't give them good jobs - only housecleaning and shining shoes. They were glorified houseworkers." Blacks also worked in High Level Bridge. Yet despite their hard work and contribution to society, they faced discrimination at every turn. As Hooks writes: "There were hospitals that refused to accept blacks into nurses' training. Some landlords refused to rent to them. Blacks were often barred from dance halls, bars, swimming pools, skating rinks, and other private and public facilities."

Hooks attributes the rise in racism during this period to the huge influx of white American settlers who brought their understanding of race relations with them when they moved to Canada. Blacks who were able to emigrate despite the subtle and not-so-subtle barriers they faced, chose to found communities far distant from Edmonton - in Amber Valley, Campsie, Wildwood, and of course Keystone. "There was good land near Edmonton, but they chose to live far away to raise their families in peace," says Hooks. In these rural communities, blacks created their own institutions. "In Keystone they built their own church - the Good Hope Baptist Mission," says Hooks. "They also built a school and established a cemetery."

Today cultivated fields have replaced the wilderness that greeted the people from Oklahoma. Records and artifacts from the black settlers have been preserved in the Breton and District Museum, and the Keystone Cemetery, where many of the original settlers have been buried, has been restored through the efforts of people like Gwen and Mark Hooks.

But there is a bittersweet footnote to the Keystone story - now only one descendant of the black pioneers still lives and farms in the community. In search on work and new opportunities, the children of Keystone have moved away to larger urban centres or to farm elsewhere. As the area changes, there is a real fear that the history of the early black settlements may also be lost. That fear is what prompted Jim Musson, owner of Brightest Pebble Publishing, to encourage Hooks to write about Keystone.

Musson hopes that Hooks's book won't be the last word about black settlement in the west. "If more books about black history aren't written, then that part of our history will go into oblivion because the people who lived it are dying. They didn't write things down - they were too busy building homesteads. The only information we have from that era is oral."

Although the black community of Keystone may no longer exist as it once did, it remains alive in the memories and lives of its descendants. Despite cold weather, racism, and all the challenges of establishing farms and communities, there are over 10,000 black people living in Alberta, some of whom are descendants of Keystone, Amber Valley, Wildwood and Campsie. According to Gwen Hooks, the legacy they have inherited from the black pioneers is endurance and determination.

"They taught us to work and to be independent," says Hooks. "And that you have to work together to change conditions and make things better."

The Continuum Encyclopedia of Symbols defines a "keystone" as a wedge-shaped stone placed in the top of an archway, often displaying a coat of arms. In a sense, it is a marker letting people know about the family that lives in this place. No one seems to know why Keystone was given its name. However, The Keystone Legacy seems an apt title for Hooks's book. In a sense, her book has sent a message - "we were here." Her book is a coat of arms for the people who once lived in this place and made it the thriving community it is today.

Reprinted courtesy of Debbie Culbertson and Legacy, Alberta's Cultural Heritage Magazine

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