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Fixing Obadiah Place

By Mikell Montague

"For the past number of years, the spokesperson for the black people in Canada has been West Indian and/or African and the Canadian black has been, to a large extent, silent. With the development of the Obadiah Place heritage site we will recognize the many Canadian black people who immigrated here [90 years ago], what they accomplished, what the heritage was that they gave us—we speak for ourselves, we don't need others to speak for us."

Shirley Bowen, a member of the Friends of Obadiah Place Society, speaks passionately for her group and their cause.

Most Canadians know a little of the connections between black Canadians living in the east and the politics of the United States before their Civil War began in 1861. Not many know about the migration that occurred after 1907, the year Oklahoma became a state and Obadiah Bowen was born. Earlier hopes for a primarily black state were dashed; after statehood thousands of African Americans faced a series of repressive laws designed to restrict their freedoms and deny them the vote. For some, the solution was to come to Canada.

Obadiah Place is located in Amber Valley. Originally named Pine Creek, Amber Valley is about 100 miles north of Edmonton, 15 miles from Athabasca on today's modern roads. In 1910, however, when 160 black settlers filled rented boxcars with household goods, farm implements, and livestock and left Oklahoma to homestead in north central Alberta, the road from the railhead in Edmonton was not as straight. The trail from Athabasca Landing, through muskeg and dense bush, was 20 miles of slow travelling. That year, Willis Bowen, Obadiah's father, organized a group of five families who immigrated from Oklahoma to Vancouver.

In 1913, the Bowens joined their friends in Alberta and filed on a homestead. Obadiah Bowen grew up there and lived on the site until 1996, when he moved into a nursing home in Athabasca. In 1938 he replaced the original log structure with a two-storey house. The Friends of Obadiah Place Society, with help from the Alberta Historical Resources Foundation, is restoring the house as a museum, a place to preserve items from many former residents of Amber Valley.

As the Society sees the house as part of the whole farm setting, they will also restore the chicken coop and smoke house and reconstruct the barn. Settlers had to wrest their homesteads from dense bush, mixed forest of spruce, poplar, willow, and muskeg. Clearing the land was slow, back-breaking work involving axe, hoe, and horses or oxen when available. "It was discouraging for some of the black families, because they weren't used to the climate or the changes in the weather. Some stayed as little as a year or two and went back because they couldn't handle it," says Shirley Bowen. Despite the challenges, 75 of the original 95 black homesteaders in the Amber Valley area cleared enough land and stayed on it long enough to receive their homesteads. Hardship fostered cooperation. Neighbours used neighbours' teams of oxen and horses; later, tractors and combines made the rounds.

Large gardens provided food for families, grain and hay fields for livestock. They kept chickens and cattle for food. With rifles and shotguns, they hunted "rabbits, bear, and moose, prairie chicken, Hungarian partridge," says Norma Jean Bowen. Norma Jean and Shirley, two of Obadiah's four surveying children, and their cousin Ruby Bowen, recall berry-picking expeditions from their childhood.
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Reprinted with the permission of Mikell Montague and Legacy (Summer 2000): 23-25.

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