Red Deer celebrates Black History Month: Local historian recalls early black settlers

Michael Dawe to speak at CARE’s Culture Cafe on Feb. 22

A century before the proposed U.S. ban on Muslim refugees, there was an ignominious local parallel.

In the early 1900s, black Americans were steadily crossing into Alberta to escape from discriminatory Jim Crow laws. These newcomers were considered “a serious menace” by some uneasy white Albertans.

The prospect of more blacks settlers so alarmed the Edmonton Board of Trade that a petition was started demanding the federal government act against ‘negro’ immigration — or “bitter race hatred” would result.

It was endorsed by the Fort Saskatchewan, Strathcona and Calgary Boards of Trade, and signed by over three thousand Edmontonians, out of a population of 24,000.

But not everyone was on board. Two impassioned Red Deer delegates travelled all the way to Edmonton in 1911 to speak against the petition.

Red Deer’s former mayor Raymond Gaetz (son of city founder Leonard Gaetz), and Frances Galbraith, first publisher of the Red Deer Advocate argued: “You don’t keep people out because of the colour of their skin. You judge people on the basis of whether they’ll be good immigrants,” said local historian Michael Dawe.

Many of the black pioneers had met all the criteria Alberta had established for newcomers. “They had money, were educated, and had good character references,” added Dawe. But the petition was sent anyway.

While Ottawa didn’t officially ban black immigrants, a campaign of dissuading African-Americans from coming north was launched, resulting in a sharp decline in numbers.

Dawe, who will speak at a Feb. 22 Cultural Cafe celebrating Black History Month, said Central Alberta’s handful of early black settlers were hard-working, good neighbours. Among them were well-liked farmers living near Markerville.

There were also black homesteaders north of Rimbey. A descendant, Calgarian Violet King, was the first black Albertan to graduate with a law degree and the first black female lawyer in Canada.

And there was Sam Watts, a Texan who arrived in Red Deer to work as a railroad cook in 1910. Six years later, he was fighting in France during the First World War.

Dawe remember a conversation he had 40 years ago with a Penhold veteran from the same battalion. Vernon McDougall told Dawe he’ll always remember how Watts offered to go on a trench raid across enemy lines in his place after McDougall hesitated.

“He said, ‘I’ll go for you this time and you can go for me next time…’”

But there was no next time. Private Samuel Watts, of the 187th Battalion, Canadian Expeditionary Force, a talented horn player with the regimental band, was killed in the raid near Lens in 1917.

The Culture Cafe will be held from 6:30 p.m. on Feb. 22 at CARE, at 5000 Gaetz Ave. Everyone’s welcome.

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