In 1909, when segregation laws and the Ku Klux Klan were terrorising the southern United States, a group of 160 African-American homesteaders travelled north to Alberta to find freedom and opportunity.
These pioneers settled the land, creating an African-American outpost in the heart of Canada’s prairies.
By 1911, almost a thousand had made the journey, drawn by word of mouth and the promise of 160 acres for a $10 registration fee ($200 today).
This made many white Canadians very unhappy.
Petitions were signed to stop their immigration, and in 1911, Prime Minister Sir Wilfrid Laurier passed an order-in-council to ban African Americans from entering Canada for one year because “the Negro race… is deemed unsuitable to the climate and requirements of Canada”.
The order was repealed, but the message was clear: Canada was not as friendly as they had thought. Black immigration from the US almost ceased.
John Lindsay, 81, grew up in Wildwood, Alberta, the son of two African-American pioneers from Mississippi and Oklahoma. He still lives on his family’s land.
“When they first came here, when the first people come up here, you know how they came? With a horse team, axe, bucksaw, an axe and grub hole and clear out a bunch of land. You got to pay, $10 to get your title. We’re talking about 1908, 10, 12, 14, a lot of people came out then. You can just picture it, eh? Mud, water and frogs.”
He says: “It’s good up here. All of them come up here to get away from down there in the States.
“Because in the States it was bad. Bad. That’s what you call segregation down there.
“We had two little German kids come to school here one time, they couldn’t speak English that good. Then the kids come and try and poke fun.
“Our teacher is on the ball, she called us kids in and said ‘Them kids come to learn now don’t you start picking on them, they’re just like anyone else. They’ll take a little time to learn to speak English and write it and if I see anybody pick on them you’re gonna stay after school and you’re gonna get the strap.’
“And we kids cut it out. We were happy as a bug in a rug.”
According to Leroy Williams, 72, “The thing that brought the community together was the sense of sameness. Because most everybody was black during that time.
“In Amber Valley, there was a sense of community because everyone owned farms.
“They had the same issues, they had to deal with the land… Everything was kind of a communal issue.
“I remember the times when they used to have the threshing bees where everyone would stook all the grain, then they’d go by and get a big threshing machine and they’d separate the wheat from the stock and the chaff.
“It was great because all the members of the family, all the families around, even the white families, would all come together and they’d pool their resources and start the harvest time, they’d harvest one farm and then everyone would move to the next farm.
“All the time the host family would be supplying all the food and drink and everything.
“So it was a great sense of community there.
“We didn’t really realise anything about our colour until we got to the city.”
The Shiloh Baptist Church, one of the oldest black Canadian churches in Canada was established in Edmonton in 1910.
During the Great Depression and World War II, more black families from rural communities like Amber Valley and Wildwood moved to the city of Edmonton for greater economic opportunity and found refuge within the church community.
Today, Shiloh still plays an important role for the descendants of those early settlers and new waves of immigrants from the Caribbean, East Africa and other parts of the world.
Sixty-four-year-old Deborah Dobbins’ grandfather moved to Wildwood from Texas to escape the Ku Klux Klan. She has become an advocate for preserving the history of the black pioneers of Alberta and is president of the Shiloh Centre for Multicultural Roots.
“My parents didn’t like us using the word black, that we were black, because we were the same as everyone else and we were not supposed to see our colour. When colour became an issue was when our cousins came up from the States.”
She adds: “There was no such thing as Black History Month until 2017, in Alberta anyway. The ‘African-American-Canadian-Albertans’, we didn’t have cultural celebrations… we were excluded and we weren’t considered a culture.
“When all the other festivals from the other cultures started coming… we said ‘Hey! What about our culture?’
“That’s when I stood up and said hey, somebody has to represent us, because we are the roots.”