Canada Post honours Black community of Amber Valley, Alta., with new stamp

For Black History Month, Canada Post is honouring the forgotten community of Amber Valley with a postage stamp, in hopes of educating Canadians.

Commemorative stamp to be issued Friday as part of Black History Month

This stamp, being released by Canada Post in honour of Black History Month, features prominent members of Amber Valley, a forgotten Black community in Alberta. Canada Post hopes to educate Canadians about this important piece of history. (Supplied/Canada Post)

Canada Post is commemorating Amber Valley, a forgotten community of all-Black settlers in northern Alberta, with a stamp for Black History Month.

The community, 170 kilometres north of Edmonton, was settled by hundreds of African-Americans escaping racial violence and segregation in the United States in the 1900s.

Myrna Wisdom, a historian and descendant of Amber Valley settlers, said she wasn't too surprised when Canada Post reached out to her a couple years ago to consult on the stamp. 

"I just think it's about time," Wisdom said. "What took you so long, I guess, is one of the questions before they started profiling these people, you know, because we've been here for the past 100 years."

The yellow-toned stamp features a scene of a caravan rolling through the Prairies with photographs of the earliest members who helped settle the community. The image is set against a backdrop of Amber Valley on the Alberta map.

The settlers include Henry Sneed, Jordan W. Murphy, with great-granddaughter Bernice Bowen and granddaughter Vivian (Murphy) Harris and Amy Broady, a midwife.

Wisdom said Broady provided an essential service. "She rode horseback, because there were no good roads, but she delivered babies. And it didn't matter what colour you were, she helped everybody out." 

She said it was appropriate to have Murphy on the stamp as before the land was called Amber Valley, it was referred to as Murphy's Land. 

She added that Bowen was also the first graduate of Toles School, the local school in Amber Valley. She went on to study teaching at the University of Alberta and is still alive today.

"She's in her 80s, late 80s, but she will be able to see the stamp. That's what I think is nice about it," Wisdom said.

Jim Phillips, director of stamp services at Canada Post, said the postal operator has been celebrating Black History Month for the past 13 years, especially by telling the stories of the early communities, heroes and cultures.

"We are honoured and pleased to be able to tell this story and to create some lasting artwork and kind of open a discussion about this community across Canada and among Canadians who may not know about it," he said. 

The stamps will be available Friday in post offices across Canada. But Phillips encourages people to buy them online due to the pandemic.

He said Canada Post prints a finite number of stamps and normally they would last a year unless they get sold out.

"We've had a lot of interest in these stamps … people just seem to want to resonate with the story," he said. 

"I would suggest if anybody really wants them, that they don't wait that long because I think they'll be gone in a couple of months."

Five families at first

Amber Valley was settled by five families in 1910.

Some 300 people started arriving from Alabama and Oklahoma, braving hostile conditions at the border and undergoing rigorous medical exams before boarding the train for Edmonton. After that, they followed a dusty wagon road to Amber Valley.

By 1911, about 1,000 settlers had settled in the community. 

Wisdom said she still wonders why they came all the way north, instead of stopping at some place like Vancouver.

Before the original families settled, a trio had scouted the area and decided it was a good place despite the bush.

Today, only a few barns and homes remain of the once-thriving settlement. Wisdom said her grandfather's house burned down last week.

"I grew up seeing that house, you know, walking by there," she said. 

"It was just a landmark that's been there."

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.

With files from Emily Senger