February is Black History Month in Alberta. It is a time to reflect on the history and contributions of a relatively small, but important group in our province.
Black people began arriving in Alberta about 140 years ago. However, as late as 1901, the federal census found only 27 Black people 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.
One of the first Black people to live in central Alberta was Frederick Douglas Hall. He was born on April 28, 1866, in Hammondsburg, Warren County, Iowa. His father was Alfred Hall, who was born in Cummington, Kentucky, around 1837. It is probable that Alfred was born into slavery. Fred’s mother was Virginia (Jennie) Johnson, who was born in 1843, in Cincinnati, Ohio. In the census records, Jennie is listed as “mulatto,” which means that she was deemed to be of mixed race.
Alfred and Jennie were married in 1863 in Iowa. After their marriage, Alfred’s name appears on a list of draftees to serve in the Union Army. It is unclear, however, if he ever saw active service. Alfred and Jennie had nine children. Fred was the second son.
After leaving the family farm, Fred lived for a while in the Dakotas. He arrived in Innisfail, Alberta, in 1903, when he helped to bring a boxcar load of household effects for a settler from Des Moines, Iowa. Fred liked what he saw in the area and decided to stay.
In 1906, Fred is listed as a hired man on the farm of John and Catherine McInroy near Innisfail. He continued working on ranches and farms in the Innisfail area for the next several years.
Fred became a naturalized Canadian in 1907. In 1911, his older brother, Benjamin (Ben), moved to Alberta to join him. Just after the First World War, Fred and Ben 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, south and west of Sylvan Lake, where he acquired a farm in 1934. He was very well liked in the community and made many friends.
As he got older, Fred moved to Innisfail for a while. He 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. Ben, who had already left central Alberta, spent his remaining years in Seattle, Washington. He died there in 1932 or 1933.
Other early Black settlers in central Alberta included Edmond (George) and Hattie Perry Thompson. Edmond was born in Missouri, the son of Virginia slaves. Hattie was born in 1847 in Louisville, Kentucky, and was originally a slave.
More than 25 years after Emancipation, Ed and Hattie met and got married in 1890 in Nebraska. In May 1894, they had one daughter, who they named Latechange. After leaving Nebraska and living for a while in North Dakota, the Thompsons moved to southern Alberta, where Ed found work on the local ranches.
In 1904, they decided to get their own place. They, consequently, moved to the Magic/Earlville district southeast of Ponoka where they took out a homestead.
Tragedy struck in early February 1907. Deep snow forced Ed to take a detour from his usual route to the Earlville store and post office. Exhausted during the return trip, he collapsed and froze to death less than a kilometre from his home.
After Edmond’s death, Hattie and Latechange moved to Ponoka. Hattie took in boarders, did laundry, and cleaned other people’s houses in order to make ends meet. In 1918, Latechange gave birth to a daughter she named Alice, but who was better known by her nickname, Nellie.
Latechange passed away until 1922. Hattie and Nellie moved to Edmonton where it was thought that employment prospects would be better. However, the following years remained a significant financial struggle. On August 24, 1936, Hattie Thompson passed away just short of her 89 birthday. Her sole surviving relative was Nellie.
Red Deer historian Michael Dawe’s column appears Wednesdays.