A project to develop a new school curriculum about this area’s long-neglected history of black settlement is a great idea, of course. Better late than never. But I can’t help but wonder how those early black settlers might feel and what they might say, knowing it would take so long for their presence to be celebrated with such interest. I have an idea, based on a brief conversation I had many years ago with an angry man in a place called Amber Valley, an historic black settlement in northern Alberta. But more about that later.
The fact people of African descent, many of them runaway slaves from the southern United States, were among Grey County’s earliest settlers was an under-appreciated part of local history for far too long. All traces of it were in danger of being lost entirely until the Negro Creek Road controversy of the mid-1990s suddenly put it in the public spotlight. That misguided and ultimately failed attempt by municipal councillors to change the name of the Williamsford area side road to Moggie Road, in honour of an early white settler, had the unexpected effect of putting Grey County’s black history back on the heritage and history map in a big way. The Annual Grey County Black History Event in Durham is expected to attract people from the U.S. who have family roots in this area. The research team developing the new curriculum hopes some of those visitors will be able to help recover at least some of the lost history.
The history of black settlement in Canada doesn’t do this country a lot of credit, which may help explain why those of us who belong to an earlier generation never heard much about it in school. How else to explain the almost complete neglect of a topic that’s so obviously interesting, compared with, say, the growth of responsible government in Upper Canada? Yes, we heard about the Underground Railroad, how runaway slaves found their way across the border into Canada through an underground network of sympathizers and safe houses. We learned Chatham and Owen Sound were “terminals” where they were finally able to surface and safely breath the fresh air of freedom. It was all so noble. We were subtly encouraged to pat ourselves on our little backs and feel good about being Canadian. But that’s where the history lesson stopped. We learned nothing about the racism people of African descent encountered after they arrived in Canada and tried to build new lives for themselves and their families.
I didn’t really start understanding the reality of the historic black experience in Canada, and the surprising scope of it, until 30 years ago when I was in Edmonton and happened to hear one day about a small, historic black settlement called Amber Valley, well north of the city in the Athabaska area. You can’t go much further north in Canada and still find arable land. That alone speaks volumes about how the people of Amber Valley ended up there after an epic trek that began in the deep south, stopped for some years in Oklahoma, and finally took them across the border into a country where they hoped to find freedom and equal opportunity. By some accounts they found a degree of acceptance. But they also ran into a lot of the same sort of bigotry they had experienced in the post-Civil War U.S. and hoped to escape from in Canada. But, finally, it must have seemed there was nowhere else to go, but back. So they stayed and did the best they could.
I heard about Amber Valley while staying with friends in Edmonton. I quickly decided there might be a story there, and talked a photographer I’d met in Edmonton into going up with me. We drove for a couple of hours, had lunch in Athabasca, and asked for directions to Amber Valley from there. A few miles out of town, on the highway going east, we were told. We drove for what seemed like far too long without seeing anything like the small village or hamlet we imagined the community would be. We turned around for another look. On the way back I noticed a small sign that pointed the way to the “Shiloh Tabernacle” down a side road. For some reason I thought that might be promising, so we headed in that direction. But all we could see along the road were a few widely scattered, modest homes and sheds. Then near the end of one driveway we spotted a man outside. He was maybe about 65 years old, and, yes, he was black. So we pulled in and I got out to talk to him. I explained we had heard about Amber Valley, about it being an historic black settlement, and we were interested in getting more information for a possible article.
Evidently we were not the first people to show up with that purpose in mind. Suffice it to say he was not pleased and not the least bit interested in being part of such a project. “You people come up here with your tape recorders and your cameras,” I remember him saying. “Where were you when we needed you,” he added angrily, referring to injustices his community had suffered over many years in its struggle to survive.
So I apologized for bothering him, and we backed down the driveway and drove away. We stopped at one more house where another man about the same age turned out to be more friendly, after he took a moment to calm his big, barking dog. We mentioned our experience at the other house down the road. He allowed as how, yes, his neighbour was bitter about the past, but with good reason. Life in Amber Valley over the years had not been easy, far from it. There weren’t many people left, and it was doubtful the community could survive, the way young people were always moving away in search of a better life.
We left without making any notes or taking any photos. There was a story worth telling to be sure, a story that should have been told a lot earlier. But at that moment, rightly or wrongly, neither of us had the heart any more for a project that suddenly seemed tacky and exploitive. I remember a distinct feeling of shame.
The drive back to Edmonton was fairly quiet. But I recall we both expressed amazement the two men we had met that day still spoke with a distinct southern accent.
There is some information on the Internet about Amber Valley and other historic black communities in Alberta and Saskatchewan. They were settled by several hundred immigrant families who came to Canada from Oklahoma, starting in 1909. They left the state to escape racist state laws that were denying them their rights, including the right to vote and to own land. They had heard Canada was a free and peaceful, law-abiding country where nobody ever got lynched. But by 1912 the Canadian government, under pressure from a white, racist backlash in the west, was actively discouraging further black immigration from Oklahoma. The government even sent agents there to warn other blacks thinking of coming to western Canada the land wasn’t good for farming. Meanwhile, white immigration was still encouraged.
Yes, it’s too bad so much local black history will never be known. There are no driveways, no doors to knock on, to ask what was it like for blacks trying to live, farm and sustain small, rural communities in this part of Canada. Why, one can’t help but wonder, did those communities not survive? That must be quite a story. But we’ll never know more than a small part of it now.
Originally published in The Sun Times in 2005.