The history of blacks in Alberta invariably begins with John Ware, and often seems to end there too. Ware was the legendary cowboy who came to this area in 1882 after being freed from slavery in South Carolina. He worked on ranches around Calgary, started his own ranch in 1890, and was killed in 1905 — the year Alberta became a province — when his horse stumbled and crushed him.
Ware looms large in Alberta myth because he rates co-billing in the history books as a contemporary of Col. James F. Macleod, Rev. George McDougall, Father Albert Lacombe and other notable white pioneers of the frontier era.
But was he the only black settler? You rarely hear about any others. So you might be forgiven for thinking Ware was — as the late bluesman Big Miller used to describe himself — the lone fly in the buttermilk.
If that were true, you would also be forgiven for believing — as many do — that today’s blacks in Alberta are either recent immigrants from the U.S., Africa or the Caribbean, or visiting singers and football players who come here for a short time then go “back home” to someplace else.
The reality, however, is different. The reality is that some Alberta blacks are third, fourth and fifth generation Canadians, with roots running deep into prairie soil. And while they do occasionally conform to the stereotype, and achieve recognition in the fields of entertainment and sports, they don’t necessarily do so as touring players. Sometimes “back home” means right here.
This month provides an opportunity to recall their contributions. February is Black History Month in Calgary. After a low-key beginning in 1988 — when the Winter Olympics served to overshadow it and just about every other non-Olympic event of the period — it has become a significant annual celebration for blacks in Alberta.
The history of the province’s blacks can be traced back to 1908, three years after John Ware’s death, when the first real wave of immigrants came here from the American south. Hundreds left their homes in Oklahoma after that state adopted the oppressive segregation policies commonly referred to as the Jim Crow laws.
More than 800 black refugees homesteaded north of Edmonton in the Athabasca region, and a few settled in the urban areas. By 1911, Calgary had a small but growing black population of 72. Today, according to 1996 census figures, it numbers 10,575.
That first wave of black immigration was also, for many years, the last. The Canadian government, responding to prevailing anti- black sentiments in the white population, hired agents to travel to Oklahoma to discourage blacks from moving north. “The land is unproductive, and the climate harsh,” warned the agents. “Go to Washington, Montana or Mexico instead.”
In Calgary and Edmonton, the hostility was nowhere more apparent than on the front pages of the newspapers. “Negroes are not wanted in Alberta,” declared the Calgary Albertan in May 1911. “Many desirable white settlers have been deterred from settling in the country.”
Though the opposition was sporadic and short-lived, it was enough to make the immigrants hang together and keep their heads down. You don’t find any of that first generation of Calgary blacks listed as members of the Law Society, the Ranchmen’s Club or the board of trade. They worked as railway porters, janitors and seamstresses, and tried to ignore the small-mindedness and the discrimination.
The federal Liberals never went so far as to introduce actual legislation barring American blacks. That would have alienated both the U.S. government and the black voters in Eastern Canada. But through various deterrent strategies — including the implementation of tough medical and financial restrictions at the border — they kept other blacks from entering Canada.
Over time, the number of blacks in the rural settlements gradually declined, but their pioneer influences helped shape society across the West. Their descendants brought with them a well- developed sense of looking after their own when they moved from the rural areas to the cities.
Among the first generation of black settlers were Willace Bowen and Harrison (Parson) Sneed, whose descendants today include retired Calgary transportation director Oliver Bowen, the architect of the LRT, and drummer Floyd Sneed, who achieved fame as a member of the rock group Three Dog Night.
Other prominent descendants of pioneering black Canadians include Calgary writer Cheryl Foggo, whose novel One Thing That’s True was nominated for a 1997 Governor General’s Award; lawyer Violet King Henry, who became the first black woman to practise law in Canada; and singer Hazel Proctor, who has fronted several popular Dixieland groups in Calgary.
Proctor is a member of a family prominent in Alberta musical circles since the 1920s. The roots of commercial black music in Alberta go even deeper. Both Edmonton and Calgary boasted lively musical scenes, featuring predominantly black dance bands, from the First World War onwards.
Calgary’s first jazz was played in the basement cabaret room of the Lougheed Building, home of the now-threatened Grand Theatre. The Cabaret Garden Jaz (sic) Band was the resident attraction. The ad in the Herald boasted that bandleader Lawrence Morgan “seldom ever looks at the keyboard of the piano when playing.”
In sports, Alberta blacks excelled in such fields as boxing, baseball, track, hockey and professional football. Sugarfoot Anderson, Rollie Miles and Johnny Bright were pioneering black football players who also made their homes in Calgary and Edmonton. Anderson’s wife Virnetta became the first black municipal politician in Alberta when she was elected to Calgary city council in 1974.
In boxing, black Edmontonians Doug Harper and Harvey Bailey won national amateur championships. In track and field, Jesse Locksley Jones beat all comers in every kind of amateur event, and qualified for the 1924 Olympics. His son Lionel later became the first black judge appointed to the Court of Queen’s bench in Alberta. In hockey, John Utendale and Billy Geary left their mark as professionals with the Edmonton Oil Kings.
Black churches provided important focal points for the black communities of Calgary and Edmonton. Rev. Ralph Horner and Rev. Andrew Risby were prominent pioneering leaders of the Standard Church of America, the largest multi-racial church in Calgary, founded in the 1930s.
Add to these the stories of the unsung railway porters, the janitors, the shoeshine men, and the later generations of skilled trades people and university-educated black professionals, and you have the makings of an Alberta literary epic that would do Alex Haley proud.
It’s a saga of adversity, survival, pride and dignity in the face of discrimination and isolation.
Cheryl Foggo has documented some of the story in her writings. Growing up in Calgary in the 1970s, she says, “we tried to leave issues such as racial and cultural hatred to the adults.” Her concern was more with trying to look as cool as the visiting black entertainers with the big hair and the big rings.
It was hard to be cool in Calgary, says Cheryl, when one didn’t have access to the hair creams and picks that would have allowed her to look like one of the Family Stone.
Yet for all its smallness and lack of coolness, Cheryl would not have traded her tightly-knit black Calgary community for all the Afros in Harlem.
“Because in the little culture within a culture where I live, I stubbornly continue to believe the best of human nature is still the truest of human nature,” she has written.
“You get to know people, you grow to love them, and the fact that they are from somewhere else or look different becomes meaningless.”
In her autobiographical book Pourin’ Down Rain, she tells a charming story about going to eat in Chinatown as a child with her family, and being stared at by white Calgarians.
“I believed,” she writes, “that the staring was something we had earned, an acknowledgment of our status as important and beautiful people.”
She did not learn about racial discrimination until later.Click here for reuse options!
Copyright 2016 Brian Brennan - Writer