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Black Settlers Come to Alberta

Tom Spencer homestead in about 1909 approximately 5 miles west of Millarville store. Although black settlers came to Alberta in relatively small numbers, their history in the province is a unique and courageous one.

There had been black people in Alberta since before the 1870s, mostly single men who worked as fur traders or cowboys. In 1901, 37 black settlers had been documented to live in the province, and, in 1903, an Oklahoma newspaper article documents an exodus of blacks from Oklahoma into Canada.

Black family, Vulcan, Alberta, 1903. L-R: Master Darby; Herbert Darby; Mrs. Darby; Mrs. Darby\’s sister; three girls in front are the Darby\’s daughters.Herber Darby was first cook in Imperial Hotel when it was moved to Vulcan from Frank, Alberta, after the slide. Between 1908 and 1911, approximately 1,000 black settlers arrived in Alberta from Oklahoma in response to advertising campaigns initiated by the Canadian Immigration Department. Many of them had been forced to sell their land because of racially discriminatory policies, and looked to Canada as a land of tolerance and opportunity. Regrettably, many of their new white and Indian neighbours in Alberta were as little prepared to treat them as equals as had been the Americans, and they usually chose to settle together in rather isolated locations. Some did move to Edmonton or other urban centers, but their prospects there were limited: black men usually worked as railroad porters, and most women found jobs as domestic servants.

Black band on sightseeing car in Calgary, Alberta, ca. 1912. Beside Palace rooms on 9th Avenue SW. Rooms located at number 104. The Canadian government never proposed any direct legislation against black immigrants for fear of tainting their public image or damaging their relationship with the United States. Once black settlers started arriving in larger numbers, however, they did rely upon indirect methods to discourage these "undesirables" from undertaking the journey up north. While simultaneously advertised as hospitable and inviting to the American whites, the climate of the Canadian west was presented as much too cold and severe for any blacks. Strict economic and physical standards aimed at restricting newcomers, but most blacks passed the tests. Finally, agents hired by the Canadian government were sent Oklahoma to persuade these potential immigrants that Albertan soil was poor and that they would, in any case, have difficulty crossing the border. These informal policies were effective, and by 1912, black immigration to Alberta had all but ended.

In 1911, the Boards of Trade in Strathcona, Calgary, Ft. Saskatchewan and Morinville had drafted a petition to Prime Minister Laurier opposing the entry of any more blacks into the province. The petition contained over 3,000 signatures.

No one could remove the black settlers who had already arrived, however. Several black communities survived and even thrived in the earlier part of the twentieth century. Amber Valley, Junkins (now Wildwood), Keystone (now Breton) and Campsie were established by some of Alberta's most resourceful pioneers.

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  • Amber Valley and Black Settlement - Hear about the first black settlement in Alberta and Jefferson Davis Edwards, one of its most important members. Then discover how Amber Valley got its name.
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            For more on the history of settlement in Alberta, visit Peel’s Prairie Provinces.