Edmonton·Black Prairies

Lulu Anderson: The history and present of Black civil rights in Alberta

Although Lulu Anderson is a very early example of Black activism in Canada, her case is much less known than some others.

The first step of solving a problem is acknowledging it exists

We don't know exactly what Lulu Anderson looked like, but we know she is an early example of a Black Canadian refusing to accept systemic racism. (Brnesh Berhe)

This story is part of the Black on the Prairies project, a collection of articles, personal essays, images and more, exploring the past, present and future of Black life in Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba. Enter the Black on the Prairies project here.

In May 1922, Lulu Anderson walked down the bright streets of Jasper Avenue in Edmonton toward the Metropolitan Theatre. She held a ticket for The Lion and The Mouse, a play that was reported as "taking the city by storm." 

Theatre management refused her admission. According to the Edmonton Journal, she was thrown out onto the street and assaulted.

Anderson didn't accept the injustice she faced. Instead, she hired a local lawyer and sued the theatre.

Although Anderson is a very early example of Black activism in Canada, her case is much less known than some others.

Viola Desmond is often called "Canada's Rosa Parks." She is even on our $10 bill.  Desmond fought against segregation in New Glasgow, N.S., and was subsequently arrested for her advocacy.

Desmond's case took place in 1946 — nine years before Rosa Parks' famous refusal to sit in the Black-only section of a bus in Montgomery, Alabama. So in reality Rosa Parks is "America's Viola Desmond."

Of course this is not a competition, but it must be noted Lulu Anderson's case was 24 years before Desmond's.

That this odd comparison is even made is due to the lack of knowledge Canadians have of our own rich Black history.

Very few people know about Anderson. Alberta's provincial curriculum outright ignores her. 

LISTEN | Bashir Mohamed on Alberta's history of Black resistance

Bashir Mohamed was motivated to dive into Alberta's Black history after experiencing racism firsthand in Edmonton.

Lulu Anderson

The case of Brown Investment Company v Lulu Anderson lasted seven months and was decided before Edmonton Judge Dubuc, who ruled in favour of the theatre. He declared that "management could refuse admission to anyone upon refunding the price of the ticket." 

Anderson's case attracted national attention. The Winnipeg Tribune declared the "color line confirmed." 

A crowd lines up in front of the Metropolitan Theatre in Edmonton. (Glenbow Archives/NC-6-8019)

Unfortunately, not much else is known about the case, as her court records were destroyed by the Alberta government in 1971, along with all case files from 1921 to 1949. 

Very little is also known about Lulu herself. She was born in Atlantic City, New Jersey, in 1885. She lived near downtown Edmonton and was 36 years old at the time of the court case. She was married to Cornwallis Anderson. It's unclear if they had children. 

Despite the lack of details, her actions were historic and deserve to be remembered, not only due to what she did, but because of the historical context that is ignored and whitewashed. 

That historical context must be understood to realize the magnitude of Lulu's stand.

Lulu Anderson was denied entry to Edmonton's Metropolitan Theatre, despite have a valid ticket, in 1922. She went on to fight the theatre in court. There are no known photographs of Anderson. (Brnesh Berhe)

Historical context

Black people have lived in Alberta for more than 200 years. The earliest recorded Black Albertans were fur traders who came for work. 

The largest wave of early Black immigration occurred in the early 1900s, with hundreds arriving from the United States. 

Unfortunately, they faced large organized resistance. Petitions were circulated and signed by thousands of Edmontonians. Edmonton City Council passed a motion opposing Black settlers, saying they pushed away more "desirable" white settlers. 

In 1911, Lethbridge Member of Parliament CE Simmonds gave a speech entitled "We Want No Dark Spots in Alberta." He argued that Black Albertan's were among the lowest class of immigrants. He feared a large wave of Black immigration and, "Alberta being called Black Alberta. We do not want this name attached to us nor do we want to have the province Black in Spots."

Dr. Ella Synge, a gynecologist, was quoted in the Edmonton Bulletin saying that Black men were a danger to white women. She predicted, "the finger of fate pointing to lynch law ... which will be the ultimate result as sure as we allow such people to settle among us." 

This organization by white Albertan's pressured the federal and provincial government to make immigration more difficult. In fact, historians have found that doctors doing medical exams at the border were offered bonuses for each Black person refused entry. 

A long history

Those who did immigrate — despite this mass white fragility and terrorism — faced barriers so horrifying that I feel their exclusion from our curriculum and history books must be intentional.

For example, in 1914, Charles Daniel was refused admission to the Sherman Grand Theatre in Calgary and sued the theatre. The Calgary Herald headline for this story was "Calgary N----r Kicks Up Fuss" (it did not use dashes in its original form). 

In 1924, the newly opened Borden Park swimming pool in Edmonton refused Black patrons despite advocacy by local Black families. 

In the 1920s and 1930s, Edmonton hospitals refused Black patients. While this level of cruelty may surprise you, it must be noted that health care and white supremacy are linked, especially in the Prairies. For example, a ward of the Moose Jaw Hospital was funded by the Klan and a plaque was affixed dedicated to "confederation...our public schools, law and order, separation of church and state, freedom of speech and press, white supremacy."

In 1938, Rhumah Utendale tried to break this connection by becoming the first Black nurse in Edmonton. She was refused admission to nursing training school because she was Black.

In 1940, white soldiers from the Calgary Highlanders launched a race riot in response to a Black musician talking to a white woman. Military police arrived after Black property was damaged and marched the soldiers home to their barracks. It is unclear if any were charged. 

In 1959, Ted King, the president of the Alberta Association for the Advancement of Coloured People, was refused admission at a Calgary motel and later sued. He lost the case and the judge lashed out at him for using the courts to pursue "social justice." 

Ted King, the president of the Alberta Association for the Advancement of Coloured People, was refused admission at to Barclay's Motel in Calgary in 1959. He later sued the motel. (Brnesh Berhe)

These are just a few examples of the barriers Black Albertans faced. They demonstrate how hostile and systemic racism toward Black people was. 

This history only further shows how brave Lulu Anderson was in launching her court case and should pressure us into adding this history into our curriculum.

Correcting this wrong

Provincial governments ranging from the social democratic NDP to the conservative UCP have promised to include Black history in Alberta's curriculum. Despite decades of advocacy, this history remains absent.

Dr. Jennifer Kelly, a professor in the department of education policy at the University of Alberta, said in an interview that Black people are often not regarded as part of mainstream Canadian society. 

"Often we are regarded as temporary," Kelly said. "We are not seen as legitimate and some of our concerns are not seen as legitimate."

She said this leads to only white or European people being seen as "authentic citizens."

"[Black people] are what Ralph Klien would describe as 'special interest groups.' Which was used to deny whatever claim was made by a group in society," Kelly said.

I reached out to Alberta's education minister for this story. Their office responded with a statement about commitment to including provincial Black history in Alberta's future K-12 curriculum. It said the UCP government "have engaged various experts, including Black scholars." 

No timeline for including Black history in the curriculum was provided.

Regardless of when it happens, Dr. Kelly said how it's implemented is just as important. She said the topic is complex because "the past is something that is present. It is present in national tradition — what we choose to recognize." 

This point is perhaps extra relevant in our current political climate, still fresh from the massive protests following the murder of George Floyd. 

It's important to note that this history is not intended to "shame" white Canadians. 

"It is not about intent. People say 'I'm not a racist.' That is not the point," Dr. Kelly said.

"The point is that racism is like the air we breathe. We cannot escape it. So unless we actively struggle against it things will revert to what is the norm."

Acknowledging is first step to solving

I can't help but think that the norm Dr. Kelly refers to is the racism and discrimination Black Albertans face to this day. 

Earlier I detailed a long and consistent timeline of segregation, race riots and exclusion. The racism that caused these things has not gone away. It is important to understand that there is no magic line where racism 'ended.'

Emmell Summerville, an 11-year-old Black boy, was questioned about gang affiliation after wearing a do-rag to his Edmonton school in 2019. (Brnesh Berhe)

This disturbing timeline continues to this day. A Black student can be accused of being in gangs just for wearing a do-rag. Black Albertans are more likely to be 'carded' than white Edmontonians.

I was called a n----r while riding my bike home just four years ago.

This reality is painful, but it is also important to understand that Black history extends beyond the pain that Black people were and still are subject to. Black joy and hope must also be at the forefront of this new curriculum so that we are properly represented. 

Regardless, the first step of solving a problem is acknowledging it exists. Acknowledging this history and Lulu Anderson's story will move Alberta toward being a province that no longer whitewashes its history. 

The Black on the Prairies project is supported by Being Black in Canada. For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians, check out Being Black in Canada here.

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


Bashir Mohamed is an Edmonton-based writer. He is interested in Alberta's history and how past legacies connect to the present. Aside from his day job, he spends his free time cycling or researching historic stories. Brnesh Berhe is an art director, graphic designer, illustrator and writer from Edmonton, Alberta.