North·Profile

Black History Month: How a Yukon miner's parents fled the KKK

Peter Risby, who died in 2011, was a respected Yukon miner and prospector. His family history was rich in drama - his dad was black, his mom was white, and not everybody in 1920s Kansas approved.

The late Pete Risby was a direct link between Yukon and the racially divided U.S.

Pete Risby, who died in 2011, believes his parents wouldn't have survived had they stayed in Kansas. (Submitted by Wayne Risby)

In 1920s America, the Ku Klux Klan was enjoying a resurgence in popularity, due in no small part to D.W. Griffith's 1915 movie The Clansman, later renamed Birth of a Nation.

It depicted black men as brutish and violent, and found ready acceptance from the public, even being screened in the White House by an enthusiastic president Woodrow Wilson. 

The KKK disapproved strenuously of even the thought of a mixed-race marriage. And that had severe repercussions for a young couple that met and fell in love.

That couple were the parents of the late Peter Risby — a respected prospector and miner, who in his life served as a direct link between Yukon and the racially-divided U.S. 

Pete Risby's dad was black, and his mom was white, and his parents incurred the racist wrath of the KKK by marrying. Years later, Risby recalled how his parents were forced to swim against the tide. 

An undated photo of Peter Risby's father, in Kansas. (Submitted by Wayne Risby)

"And that was the problem," Risby said. "[The KKK] would lynch them or whatever, burn down their houses, the whole family, houses, the whole shantytown or whatever."

Risby said his paternal grandfather had been a slave on a horse ranch in Kansas. When Risby's dad was young, he got a job on the Grand Trunk Railroad out of Wichita, which eventually took him into Canada.

"That's where he met my mother," Risby said. "She was a university student that was travelling from a small prairie town ... in Saskatchewan, to the University of Saskatoon. She was taking nursing and my dad was a porter on the train."

Risby said after his parents married, they lived in a shantytown in Abeline, Kan., which is where he was born in 1931.

But Risby said "word got out" that the mixed-race couple had a child.

"Whenever authorities come looking for this child — which was me — I was kept in a chicken coop all the time. That's where I lived 'til I was about three years old," Risby once said.

The "authorities" Risby referred to were the KKK.

Fleeing to Canada

Risby said luckily for his family, his father met a friendly priest while working as a porter on the railroad. The priest travelled a lot between Winnipeg and Edmonton, and got to know Risby's father.

An undated photo of a young Pete Risby. (Submitted by Wayne Risby)

When the priest found out that Risby had grown up on a ranch, he arranged for him to come work for the mission school in Desmarais, Alta.

"He then eventually provided my father with not only money to travel and to get there, but also 25 acres of free land. And then the whole family, all of the relatives, we all packed up and moved to the new place."

Risby remained "eternally grateful" to the Catholic church for the rest of his life, saying his family never would have survived otherwise.

Risby's maternal grandfather, meanwhile, disowned his daughter, his wife and his other six children when he learned of the marriage.

"He disowned the whole works, so my dad basically provided for all of my mother's immediate family, until the Second World War and those girls were all old enough that they got wartime jobs."

'We weren't that much different, as far as skin colour'

Risby said after his family escaped from Kansas, he had a wonderful childhood in northern Alberta.

"When I was a child, being black meant not a lot to me because all of my friends — other than my immediate family — were all Cree. So we weren't that much different, as far as skin colour," he recalled.

Risby learned to speak Cree and was proud of his lifelong fluency.

Risby was inducted into the Yukon Prospectors Hall of Fame in 1996. (Submitted by Wayne Risby)

"I was raised up speaking Cree and doing the same things the indigenous peoples did, hunting, gathering, fishing. That's how I was raised."

He later went on to fight in the Korean War, and a few years after that, in 1957, made his way to Yukon, where he lived the rest of his life.

His first job in the North was at the Cassiar mine, just south of the Yukon border. Soon after, he got into mineral exploration and prospecting, and spent decades in the field, working not just in Yukon, but Bolivia, Chile, Mexico, and the U.S. 

In 1996, he was inducted into the Yukon Prospectors Hall of Fame. 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Raised in Ross River, Yukon, Nancy Thomson is a graduate of Ryerson University's journalism program. Her first job with CBC Yukon was in 1980, when she spun vinyl on Saturday afternoons. She rejoined CBC Yukon in 1993, and focuses on First Nations issues and politics. You can reach her at nancy.thomson@cbc.ca.

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