Black History Month: 3 Black Calgarians who changed the city's history

How a city councillor, CTrain engineer and criminal lawyer built lasting legacies that influenced Calgary.

How Virnetta Anderson, Oliver Bowen and Violet King built lasting legacies

Find out how these Calgarians changed their city

3 years ago
Duration 7:40
For Black History Month, we take a look at the lasting impact of three Calgarians.

February is Black History Month, and we recognize it by celebrating the contributions that Black Canadians have made to Canada's history and culture. 

CBC Calgary is highlighting the legacies of three Black Calgarians who broke barriers, changed the city's history and influenced its present.

  • WATCH | Find out more about their lives in the video above

Virnetta Anderson became the first Black city councillor in Calgary. (Anderson family, CBC)

When American-Canadian activist and politician Virnetta Anderson was elected to city council in 1974, she became Calgary's first Black municipal councillor.

And according to Barry Anderson, Virnetta's youngest son, the work reflected a fundamental aspect of her personality: a commitment to public service that can be traced throughout the entirety of her life.

"I think one of the reasons people still seem to recognize her and celebrate her today, after all these years, is that she brought that sense of service and community commitment to politics," Barry said.

"She had the heart of a volunteer and she wanted to serve the community. She was not naive in any way, in that she knew what politics was all about. And she was able to play that game as good as anybody could. 

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"But she did it from kind of a point of integrity and authenticity."

Politician, leader, civic champion

Born in Monticello, Arkansas in 1920, Virnetta moved from Los Angeles to Calgary in 1952 after her husband, Ezzrett (Sugarfoot) Anderson, was signed to play in the Canadian Football League.

In Alberta, the weather was colder but the prairie hospitality was warm, Barry said, and Virnetta soon became involved in the community and the United Church.

"Even as she kind of grew her base of supporters and friends and influencers, it was still all during a time when women were thought of as supporting the man. And for many years she raised the family, was Sugarfoot's wife," Barry said.

Virnetta Anderson relaxes with her family. (Submitted by the Anderson family)

But Virnetta was energetic, sharp and committed to contributing to her community, Barry said.

She would be encouraged by her friends, and people she had met through years of volunteer work, to run for a city council seat.

And in 1974, more than 20 years after moving to Calgary, Virnetta threw her hat into the political ring — and won.

"It was kind of radical for her to be a woman, a woman of colour, and to be branching out — getting out from under her husband's shadow, doing anything but church socials and church organizing, to get out and actually be a politician," Barry said.

"She never thought that politics would be a place where she would flourish, she really had the heart of the volunteer all her life, the heart of someone of service and contributing to the community in that way. 

"But, yeah, you know, wife and mother. And then all of a sudden: politician, leader, civic champion."

'It all just came down to helping people'

During her years at city council, Virnetta focused heavily on social issues, Barry said.

That funding was secured for social services, community services, and the health and welfare of seniors and disadvantaged people were priorities for her.

According to the City of Calgary, Virnetta also took on issues such as Indigenous employment opportunities, affordable housing and transportation, and influenced decisions to build the CTrain line.

"She was very much concerned about making sure that there was proper attention paid — and money — backing up these types of services and community organizations and institutions that would help people. [It] just all came down to helping people," he said.

Virnetta Anderson not only had a lot of heart, but a lot of style, too. (Submitted by the Anderson family)

However, as a Black woman in a male-dominated field, Barry said she faced challenges. Racism and sexism were forces back then, as they still are now, he said.

"People used to approach her and say, 'Well, are you for women's rights, are you for Black rights,' and all of those things. And she would always say to them … 'I'm for human rights,'" he said.

"So, she saw herself as a human being. A wife, a mother, a Calgarian, a Canadian … she was just who she was, and that's the way she carried herself her whole life."

Part of her world

Though Virnetta served only until 1977, the role built upon itself, Barry said.

It led to connections and volunteer opportunities that helped her to continue a life of public service well after her political career.

She worked with the United Way and the Calgary Rotary Club, which named her a Paul Harris Fellow in 1988.

Virnetta Anderson dedicated a lot of her time to public service over the years. (Submitted by the Anderson family)

Virnetta was also a nominee for the YWCA's Women of Distinction Lifetime Achievement Award for community service in 1992. That same year, she was nominated for the Canada 125 Commemorative Medal.

Virnetta died in 2006 at the age of 85.

When the restoration of Calgary's Historic City Hall was completed in 2020, a municipal reception hall was named after Virnetta, to honour her legacy.

"She was just an amazingly loving woman," Barry said. "But I also just remember how much fun she was … as well as her ability to to bring that all together, to connect with people and make them feel comfortable and make them feel part of her world."

If you've ever taken the CTrain in Calgary, you have Oliver Bowen to thank for the ride. (City of Calgary Archives, CBC)

Oliver Bowen was a civil engineer with the City of Calgary who would become the architect of Calgary's CTrain system.

He graduated from the University of Alberta in 1965, and moved to Calgary to work in the public transit department that same year — and that work would be groundbreaking, said Nicole Dodd.

Alongside Cindé Adgebesan and Pam Tzeng, Dodd is a founder of the AB Anti-Racism EDU Committee that campaigns for Black Canadian history and anti-racism coursework to be included in Alberta's K-12 curriculum.

Dodd said that with a $144-million budget and five-year timeline, Bowen was tasked with creating and building the CTrain — which he completed under-budget and with time to spare.

"Oliver Bowen is very inspirational, because he has had a lasting impact on the City of Calgary with the design and implementation of one of the largest infrastructure projects in the city," said Dodd.

"[And] his legacy, design and leadership are still benefiting Calgarians today."

Full of the dickens

Bowen was born in 1942 in Alberta's Amber Valley, which is about 170 kilometres north of Edmonton.

It was one of several communities in Alberta and Saskatchewan settled by Black people from Oklahoma, Texas and other southern states, who were looking for a life away from racial segregation and violence in the early 1900s. But they still faced pushback in Western Canada.

Oliver Bowen got a job with the City of Calgary right out of university. (Submitted by the Bowen family)

Peggy Brown, Oliver's cousin, lived a mile and a half from him. She remembers Oliver as funny, impish and well-liked; he delighted in driving too fast and cheating at board games, she said.

"[Oliver] was full of the dickens, he was always full of mischief," she said. "He had a little shy smile, a little grin, and you knew right away that he was up to something."

Bowen had a strong work ethic, however, and that dedication led to a quick professional ascent. 

'He was going to do it'

According to Brown, Bowen studied hard throughout university, and when he was offered a job with the City of Calgary before graduating in 1965, he would go on to work hard there, too.

Bowen began his career as the city's first special project engineer, where he was responsible for construction of major roads, Brown said. 

Oliver Bowen was known by his colleagues for his hard work. (The City of Calgary Archives)

And he would be promoted many times until 1977, when he became the manager of light rail transportation construction and implementation. 

The division was responsible for designing and building Calgary's first light rail transit leg.

"[Oliver] had sort of an ability to figure out things … if a situation came up, he could think of how to manage it," Brown said.

"He just put his mind to it — that he could do it, and he was going to do it, as far as I know of, and it happened. But it was by no means easy."

The opportunity to shine

It was not easy, Brown said, because of how much work the role required. But there is a likelihood that Oliver faced other challenges, too. 

If Bowen experienced racism and discrimination, he did not discuss it with her directly — but Brown acknowledged it was commonplace.

"I would imagine he did, as we all did, once we left the farm and went into work," she said.

"We all had difficulties getting jobs, being promoted. Now, did he have that or not, I don't know, because he was promoted through the city quite rapidly, and did very well."

Dodd said Bowen was likely recognized by progressive administrators within the city for his sterling qualifications and his committed work ethic.

"Obviously, there was some visionary leadership who provided him the opportunity to shine," Dodd said.

Bowen's legacy

Oliver Bowen receives a gift as Ralph Klein, who served as premier and Calgary mayor, looks on. (The City of Calgary Archives)

Bowen died in 2000. Nine years later, the City of Calgary paid tribute to the transportation pioneer by naming a light rail transit maintenance facility after him — the Oliver Bowen Light Rail Facility in the city's northeast.

But what he leaves behind goes even deeper than that, Brown and Dodd said.

"Black students, and specifically Black male students, are often funnelled into athletics, or into music," Dodd said.

"It's important for … all students, really, to be exposed to a historical figure such as Oliver Bowen, because he breaks those stereotypes."

Bowen, Dodd said, was involved in science, technology, engineering and math before it was called STEM. His accomplishments and legacy are lasting, still seen and used by Calgarians every day.

"For all students to recognize that Black achievement has many, many different outcomes, and it's not simply in entertainment or in sport, I think, is very important."

And as a Black man who was so influential in Calgary's history, and its present, Brown hopes Bowen serves as an inspiration.

"I'd think that [young Black people] would be encouraged to try, if they wanted to — in whatever field they wanted to work in. I think they would think of, well, 'Oliver made it back then, certainly, I can make it now,'" Brown said.

"So I think they would be encouraged, and think, well, they would pursue what they wanted to do, with Oliver in mind."

In 1953, Violet King became the first Black graduate of the University of Alberta's faculty of law. She was the first Black woman to practise law in Canada after being called to the bar in 1954. And she would become the first Black lawyer admitted to the Law Society of Alberta. (Glenbow Photo Archives, CBC)

To understand the impact of Violet King's legal career is to recognize a series of broken barriers.

In 1953, she became the first Black graduate of the University of Alberta's faculty of law.

She was the first Black woman to practise law in Canada after being called to the bar in 1954.

And she would become the first Black lawyer admitted to the Law Society of Alberta.

"She is just a trailblazer in terms of being a Black Canadian, and having her achievements reach such high levels, during a time that was historically quite discriminatory and racist toward people of African descent," said Dodd.

"Today there are Black student law associations, there are all types of associations specifically for different Black professionals in their fields. And I feel like somebody like Violet King was a trailblazer to allow for those types of organizations to exist today.

"So, her impact in Alberta and in Canada was truly immeasurable."

Her character

Born in Calgary in 1929, King lived in the northwest community of Sunnyside and went to Crescent Heights High School, where she excelled, Dodd said.

King would attend the University of Alberta in 1948. Six years later, she would become Canada's first Black female lawyer.

And to accomplish what she did, Dodd said, King was likely confronted with both racism and sexism in a field that was overwhelmingly represented by white men.

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

"I think it says a lot about her character, it says a lot about her ability to look past, probably, comments and behaviours that were discriminatory," Dodd said.

"It speaks to her ability to just continue moving forward with the belief that this is what she was supposed to be doing, and nothing can stop her. Not racism, not discrimination and not barriers against women.

"And I believe that that is truly what powered her through her law career."

Strong and resilient and tenacious

King defied stereotypes that would undermine Black women's achievement and success, Dodd said.

And as a Black woman who also attended the University of Alberta while completing a bachelor of commerce, Dodd said she would ask King about her experience if she could.

"I remember my own experience at U of A, feeling relatively isolated and not really feeling like I saw a lot of people that looked like me in leadership positions," Dodd said.

Violet King, right, stands beside her family as her brother, Ted, arrives back in Calgary in 1946. (The Canadian Encyclopedia)

"I can't even imagine how it would have felt in 1948, walking through those halls.… I just would be interested in knowing: Where does she get her resolve? Her resolve to keep going, her resolve to make a difference, her resolve to do something, that she literally had never met anybody else who looked like her who was doing that same thing. 

"That is truly incredible, and something within her must have been very strong and resilient and tenacious to keep going."

And, indeed, King would openly acknowledge the struggle for people of colour in the workforce. 

According to the Canadian Encyclopedia, King delivered a speech in 1955 at a Beta Sigma Phi sorority banquet in Calgary.

"It is too bad that a Japanese, Chinese or coloured girl has to outshine others to secure a position," she said.

Standing on their shoulders

King practised criminal law in Calgary before she moved to Ottawa, where she worked for the federal department of citizenship and immigration for seven years.

Eventually, King made her way to New Jersey, where she became the executive director of the Newark YMCA's community branch. She also got married and started a family — becoming the Violet King Henry known today that has an Alberta building named after her.

Violet King, pictured as a young Calgary lawyer, was guest speaker at the Beta Sigma Phi pledge banquet in 1955. (Glenbow Archives)

In 1976, she became the first woman to have an executive position with the National Council of the YMCA's Organizational Development Group.

King Henry died in 1982. She was 52.

She was inducted into the National YMCA Hall of Fame in 1998.

"As somebody who later pursued higher education beyond my undergraduate degree, I think knowing about Violet would have helped me to feel as though my accomplishments are not novel," Dodd said.

"That there are people who have accomplished great things in Canada who look exactly like me, and, in fact, I am standing on their shoulders."

For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.

A banner of upturned fists, with the words 'Being Black in Canada'.

With files from Monty Kruger and The Canadian Press