Hidden history explored in new doc as Alberta celebrates Black History Month

Cheryl Foggo wonders why certain aspects of Alberta’s history are not common knowledge. The author, historian and playwright contributed to a new documentary called Secret Alberta: The Former Life of Amber Valley, which airs for the first time this week.

'Why are these communities secret?'

Violet King Henry, Oliver Bowen came from Amber Valley area and made history 0:55

Cheryl Foggo wonders why certain aspects of Alberta's history are not common knowledge.

"Why are these communities secret?" she asked in a conversation with CBC News.

"Why don't we all know about them? Why aren't they a part of our knowledge of our history and heritage because if they were, I think we would stop repeating the cycles of ignorance that just seem to carry on and on."

Foggo, an author, historian and playwright, contributed to a new documentary called Secret Alberta: The Former Life of Amber Valley, which airs for the first time this week.

The doc looks at black settlements in Alberta, including Amber Valley, in the early 1900s. It mentions Albertans like the first black female lawyer in Canada, Calgary-born Violet King Henry, and Oliver Bowen — the engineer who designed Calgary's first C-Train.

The film's producer says Amber Valley, which was populated by black people fleeing racism in the Southern U.S., was the start for a lot of black pioneers.

"I was actually surprised when I did my research, how many women and how many people from the arts were also part of that legacy and what a remarkable number of achievements came out of such a small community," Holly Dupej said.

Foggo says King was very inspiring.

"She was a very accomplished pianist, a very talented and intelligent young woman," Foggo said.

Violet King was the first black person admitted to the Alberta bar in 1954 and became the first black female lawyer in Canada. (Glenbow Archives)

In 1954, King was the first black person admitted to the Alberta bar.

In 1963 she moved to the U.S. to work in high-level positions with the YMCA. In 1976, she was the first woman tapped for a senior management position at the national level with the organizations.

"She had a brilliant career and was a really lovely person in addition to being so smart and accomplished," Foggo said.

"Her family were pillars of the Calgary black community."

King was a bridesmaid at Foggo's mother's wedding.

Oliver Bowen, who was a descendant of Amber Valley settlers, was an engineering graduate of the University of Alberta before he moved to Calgary to work in the public transit department. 

Oliver Bowen, from the Amber Valley area, was the engineer in Calgary's first C-Train. (City of Calgary)

Bowen was the engineer who designed Calgary's first C-Train. The city honoured him by naming an LRT maintenance facility after him.

"He was a very beloved figure as well, to his family," Foggo said.

"He was very, very well-liked. He was extremely personable. He was very handsome and a sharp dresser."

History repeats itself

Foggo said to understand where we are today and where we are going, we have to have an understanding of where we came from, as a province.

"The thing that struck me, is how much history repeats itself," Foggo said.

"These folks came up and experienced tremendous hardship in terms of the physical territory that they were farming on, but also in the racism and the response to them. I just keep seeing that repeated in our history. I just keep seeing people not made to feel welcome, or people being branded as the wrong kind, which is very much what happened to my ancestors."

Value as human beings

She said, however, that everyone can make a contribution, not just individuals who went on to success in the public realm.

Historian, author and playwright Cheryl Foggo contributed to the documentary, which opens during Black History Month in Alberta. (Cheryl Foggo)

"People don't have to become a super star in order for us to think that they have value as human beings," Foggo said.

"So those are some of the things that I am thinking about just because of the world that we are living in right now."

Alberta has become the fourth province to officially recognize February as Black History Month, and the province is currently looking at a curriculum update that could expand program content on the contribution of black Albertans.