By Debbie Beaver
As a women of color a question that I have been asked numerous times in my life is “Where are you from?” My response is I was born in Barrhead, Alberta and raised on a farm in Tiger Lily, Alberta. Next question is “Where is your family from; “your parents”? “My response is “my father was born in Campsie, Alberta and my mother was born in Maidstone, Saskatchewan.’ This is still not sufficient for some, so I explain that my Grandparents were both born in the US and came here as children when their parents left the southern US in 1912 or 1913 due to racial segregation. This answer seems to satisfy those curious minds, surprisingly many people are unaware that black families settled in Alberta a century ago.
The Black Settlers of Alberta and Saskatchewan Historical Society (BSAS) is a non-profit organization that was started by four women who are all descendants of the black settlers that came to Alberta and Saskatchewan from the United States between 1905-1911. These settlers migrated from the rural South via Oklahoma to escape racial oppression and Jim Crow laws.
We developed a research plan and applied for funding to begin an oral history project titled “In their Own Words”. The scope of our project is to collect oral histories from elderly descendants (80 +years of age) of the pioneering Black Settlers. The majority settled in one of five areas: Campsie, Junkins (now Wildwood), Keystone (now Breton), Pine Creek (now Amber Valley) in Alberta and Maidstone, Saskatchewan. Maidstone has been included in our research because all the settlements are connected in some way, be it shared farm work, working on the railroad, social events or marriage. Many also settled in Edmonton and Calgary.
Women have played a significant role in this rich Canadian history. In the rural areas many women worked the land beside their husbands; they looked after the livestock, planted gardens, canned, pickled, cooked, nursed and looked after their families. In the early years it was difficult for young black women to find employment and many worked as “domestics” or housekeepers for wealthy families. For example an aunt of mine first worked as a housekeeper on a farm, and then moved to Edmonton to work for a doctor who assisted her in securing a job as a cook at a hospital where she continued to work until her retirement in 1986.
Other stories include that of Hattie Robinson’s soul food Diner “Hattie’s Harlem Chicken Inn”. The diner was a mainstay for the black community in Edmonton when it opened downtown in 1944. The diner not only provided good southern home cooking; but was a place for prominent musicians such as Big Miller, Pearl Bailey, Tommy Banks, and athletes to meet. The diner was a frequent hangout for black musicians because of restrictions on where blacks could eat at that time.
Hattie was a humanitarian and never let anyone go hungry even if they could not pay. She employed several young black women and some men who could not find other work. In the early 1950s some of these women were able to attend college and some even attended university and became teachers but not without struggles of racism.
There was also Mrs. Amy Broadie who acted as a midwife/nurse (1908-late 1930) and delivered many babies in and around neighbouring districts. She travelled from house to house by horse and wagon a day or so prior to the expected date of delivery and would stay with the family a few days after the birth as well.
Although times have changed, the hard work and sacrifices of these early settlers continues to influence their descendants, and many are well educated and successful in many areas today. These stories need to continue to be told, preserved and passed down to the future generations as this is an important piece of Canadian history.
We have completed 40 interviews which are digitized and transcribed and housed at the Provincial Archives of Alberta. The project seems to have taken on a life of its own as we have been invited to speak at conferences and other events and we have had the opportunity to collaborate with various community groups including the Breton Museum on “Keystone Memories” which is on the CHIN virtual museum website. We are currently updating our website and working with the Royal Alberta Museum which will have an exhibit in the museum when it opens in Dec 2017.
Deborah Beaver is a fourth generation descendant of the Black Settlers the left the southern US in about 1909/1910 due to racial segregation. In 2006 a group of women all descendants of these black settlers formed a non-profit society: Black Settler of Alberta and Saskatchewan Historical Society. The purpose of our project was to collect oral histories from elderly descendants (80+year of age) of the pioneering Black Settlers that came to Alberta and Saskatchewan from the United States between 1905-1911. We developed a research plan and applied for funding to begin an oral history project titled “In their Own Words “. We have completed about 45 interviews which have been digitized and transcribed and will be placed in the Provincial archives.