A closer look at Black History Month

For historians across Canada, February has been designated as Black History month. It is an opportunity to write about and discuss the rich history of a part of our community that was long overlooked in many history books.

In our region, the Central Alberta Historical Society dedicated nearly its entire newsletter to Black History month.

The newsletter included several stories about the history of the black community in Central Alberta and across Canada. Moreover, on Feb. 15th, Allan Godard, manager of the Breton and District Museum, gave a talk on the early black community of Keystone in the Breton area.

Keystone was one of a number of black settlements established in Alberta between 1908 and 1911.

The other significant ones established were Amber Valley, Campsie and Wildwood.

Most of the early settlers in these communities came from Oklahoma. Oklahoma had achieved statehood in 1907 and, subsequently, instituted an extensive legal system of discrimination.

While the black settlers from Oklahoma were fleeing harsh discrimination, segregation, and frequent outbreaks of violence, the reception in Alberta was generally hostile.

In 1911, the Edmonton Board of Trade spearheaded a major effort to have the Canadian federal government ban further immigration of blacks to Canada.

The organizers of the Alberta-wide petition argued that black settlers would be, “Ill-suited to the cold climate of Canada.”

That argument clearly ignored the fact that many Afro-Americans from the northern States experienced just as harsh winters as Canadians.

Fortunately, when the Edmonton Board of Trade’s petition was referred to its Red Deer counterpart, two local members vigorously opposed supporting the measure.

They were Raymond Gaetz, first mayor of the Town of Red Deer and Francis Galbraith, first mayor of the City of Red Deer.

Both men were vehemently against such obvious racism.

Moreover, some highly respected blacks had already settled in Central Alberta. Among them were Edward (George) Thompson and his family, who settled in the Magic/Earlville district, southeast of Ponoka in 1905.

Edward Thompson was born in Missouri, the son of Virginia slaves. He married his wife Hattie in 1888. Their daughter Latechange was born in Nebraska in May 1894.

Two years after the Thompsons arrived in the Magic school district, tragedy struck. The winter of 1906-1907 was one of the worst on record. Deep snow forced Edward to take a detour from his usual route to the Earlville store and post office.

Despite the detour, the trip through the heavy snow was exhausting. Edward collapsed on the return journey. He was found frozen to death along the trail, less than a kilometre away from his home and safety.

After Edward’s death, Hattie and Latechange moved to Ponoka, where Hattie took in boarders, did laundry and cleaned other people’s houses. The Thompsons eventually moved to Edmonton in the mid-to-late 1920s. Hattie passed away on Aug. 28th, 1936.

Another early Central Alberta black pioneer, who came to Alberta just after the turn of the last century, was Fred Douglas Hall.

He was born in Warren County, Iowa, on April 28, 1865. He came to Alberta in 1903 and was soon working on ranches and farms in the Innisfail area. He became a naturalized Canadian in 1907.

In 1911, his older brother Benjamin moved to Alberta to join him.

Just after the First World War, Fred and Benjamin moved to Red Deer, where they got jobs working as horse trainers at the Red Deer Exhibition grounds.

Fred eventually moved out to the Centreville district, where he acquired a farm in 1934. As he got older, Fred moved to Innisfail for a while, but then moved to Fillmore, Saskatchewan in 1956, to live with his sister-in-law and her family. Fred passed away in 1959 at the age of 92. He is buried in the Fillmore Cemetery.

After Benjamin left Central Alberta, he moved to the Seattle, Washington area. He died there in the mid-1930s.