Checking out Black History Month

February is Black History month in Alberta. Until recently, this event has not been noted very much in Red Deer and Central Alberta. This is probably due to the fact that for much of Red Deer’s early history, there were very few blacks living in the community.

That was also the situation across Alberta at the beginning of the last century. The 1901 federal census found only 27 blacks living in what was then known as the Territory of Alberta. Those individuals lived mainly in Calgary and Edmonton, with a few living in Southern Alberta.

Probably the most famous of Alberta’s black pioneers was John Ware. He was born a slave on a plantation in South Carolina. After emancipation the end of the Civil War, he decided that he did not wish to remain in his home state.

He consequently decided to try the new opportunities on the western frontier and moved to Texas. He became a highly skilled cowhand. In 1882, he was part of a cattle drive through Montana and into Southern Alberta. He liked the new country and decided to stay.

He moved to the fledgling town of Calgary in 1884. However, he did not like the incidents of racism that he experienced. For example, the North West Mounted Police questioned him about local horse thefts, solely on the grounds that he was black.

He left Calgary and got a job on the Queen Ranch. Later, he was able to acquire his own land on Sheep Creek near Millarville. In 1892, he married Mildred Lewis, a young black woman from Ontario. Together, they were to have five children.

In 1902, the family moved to a new ranch in the Brooks district. Tragedy followed. In 1905, Mildred became seriously ill and died. That autumn, John Ware was fatally injured when he fell from his horse. His in-laws, the Lewis family, subsequently raised the children.

The first black, for which there is a record, to live in Central Alberta was Ed (George) Thompson. He moved from South Dakota to Alberta with his wife and daughter in 1904. He took out a homestead in the Magic/Earlville district, northeast of Lacombe.

Tragedy struck in early February 1907. The winter was one of the worst on record. Deep snow forced Thompson to take a detour from his usual route to the Earlville store and post office, which was some 6.5 km away.

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

Another early black to live in the Red Deer area was Samuel Daniel Watts. Born in Texas, he had moved to Alberta with his wife Margaret during the boom years prior to the First World War. He worked as a cook.

After the First World War broke out, although he was 34 years old, he enlisted with the 187th Battalion, later transferring to the 50th Battalion. He was killed on Aug. 22, 1917, near Lens, France, after he volunteered to take another man’s place in a trench raid.

Meanwhile, after strong pressure from such organization as the Edmonton Board of Trade, the federal government put increasing restrictions on the immigration of blacks from the United States.

Consequently, Alberta’s black population hovered around 1000 until well after the Second World War. Most of those black residents lived in Calgary, Edmonton, or such small black agricultural settlements as Amber Valley, Wildwood, Campsie and Breton.

On Feb. 27th starting at 6:30 p.m., the Central Alberta Refuge Effort (C.A.R.E) together with the HUB at 4936 Ross Street will be holding a celebration of Black History Month. All are welcome.

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