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Fixing Obadiah Place

by Mikell Montague

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

"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."

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.


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