Driving along the highway in northern Alberta, Canada, around two hours north of the provincial capital of Edmonton, the seemingly boundless prairie is punctuated by a pale yellow community hall, a church, and a cemetery. Today, Amber Valley looks like any number of small, rural communities. But a couple of dilapidated log cabins hint at what was once Canada's northernmost all-Black settlement.
“It’s surprising how many people didn’t know that Black Canadians have been in Alberta for over 100 years,” Debbie Beaver, cofounder of the Black Settlers of Alberta and Saskatchewan Historical Society, tells Mental Floss. Beaver’s great-grandparent’s were part of a diaspora of over a thousand African Americans fleeing racial discrimination who found their way to the Canadian prairies at the start of the 20th century.
The Migration North
The exodus largely began when Oklahoma established statehood in 1907, which was followed by pernicious Jim Crow policies that triggered an onslaught of racial violence. At the same time, the Canadian federal government was implementing the Dominion Lands Act, which created cheap homesteads to encourage settlers to move out west—despite the Indigenous groups already inhabiting much of the land. The act advertised the Canadian prairies as “the last best west” and drew in droves of Eastern Europeans, Scandinavians, and French homesteaders. Advertisements also landed in newspapers across the United States, where African Americans, largely from Oklahoma, Alabama, and Texas, caught wind of Canada’s “promised land.” Between 1905 and 1912, around 1000 to 1500 Black Americans made their way to the Canadian prairies.
“Things got very ugly in Oklahoma,” Myrna Wisdom, Beaver’s relative and a cofounder of the Black Settlers of Alberta and Saskatchewan Historical Society, tells Mental Floss. “They just wanted to go somewhere where they could be left alone.” Wisdom’s grandparents, Jeanie and Willis Bowen, are Beaver’s great-grandparents, and they trace their ancestry to a plantation in Alabama where the Bowens were once enslaved. After being freed in the 1860s, the Bowens fled to Texas, then Oklahoma, evading racial persecution along the way. The Bowens tagged along in the journey northward and arrived in Canada around 1910.
The area homesteaders settled on was wild and unkempt, and they had to clear untamed forest and grassy bogs called muskegs to establish arable farmland and build a home. “For one summer they actually lived in a dugout while they built their house,” Beaver says, referring to her maternal great-grandparents. According to Wisdom, her ancestors had to live in a tent for their first winter, braving the frigid climate.
Overall, the homesteaders settled in five communities across the prairies: Amber Valley, Campsie, Wildwood, Breton, and Maidstone in the neighboring province of Saskatchewan. Amber Valley, boasting 300 residents at its peak, was the largest.
The Racial Discrimination Continues
On top of the challenge of surviving and settling in what was an unforgiving landscape, Canada proved far from the racism-free utopia the new settlers had hoped for. When Canadians noticed the trainload of Black Americans trekking to the prairies, they sent a flurry of letters and petitions urging the government to halt the influx.
Canadian immigration authorities dispatched agents to Oklahoma in an attempt to dissuade Black migrants from coming, saying the Canadian prairies were too frigid and inhospitable for African Americans. The discriminatory messaging and racist rhetoric was largely successful—by 1911, the influx of African American settlers had mostly stopped.
“There was discrimination but not to the extent that they had dealt with in Texas or Alabama,” Beaver says. She gave the example of her aunt, Annie Beaver, who grew up in the settlement of Campsie about 87 miles (140 kilometers) northwest of Edmonton. “When Auntie Annie was just about ready to go to school, the schoolmaster had a bit of a problem with Black people,” she says. One of Annie Beaver’s Black classmates was so upset she threw a rock through the window, resulting in several of the Black schoolgirls being expelled. Tensions were further exacerbated when a girl’s father went to have a word with the school principal, which ended in an altercation. Annie Beaver and her schoolmates had to wait several years before another school was constructed.
Still, within their all-Black communities, the residents thrived. Wisdom’s maternal grandparents, Samuel and Beulah Carothers, became the first Black family in Alberta to operate a post office, and their family also ran a blacksmith shop and a general store. Once a week they would go to the neighboring town of Athabasca to pick up mail and supplies for the store. “My mom would go to Athabasca and she would say ‘that’s a prejudiced little town!’ but it never stopped her. She always found a way to deal with it,” Wisdom says.
The Legacy of Amber Valley
As the decades tread on, most of the Black residents left the small towns for work and education in larger cities like Edmonton or Calgary. Some of the Amber Valley descendants went on to become pioneering Canadians, such as Oliver Bowen, an engineer who managed the construction of Calgary’s first light rail transit system. There’s also Violet King, who became the first Black woman to pass the bar in Canada, and Eleanor Collins, who became the first Black person in North America to host a television show.
“I feel like we did not do too badly considering where we came from,” Wisdom says. Yet, she notes that there was, there is, and there probably always will be racism. She is hopeful that the Black Lives Matter movement will encourage more Black people to bring their narratives to light.
That was the aim for creating the Black Settlers of Alberta and Saskatchewan Historical Society. “Our mandate is to educate people and promote our history,” Beaver says. She grew tired of people asking her where she was really from, without knowing that Black people have an established history in the prairies. “People just don’t know we’ve been here this long.”