Looking back to look forward
Resources exploring Black Prairie experiences
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.
Despite more than a century of erasure and whitewashing, countless people have been diligently documenting Black Prairie history across mediums. Much of their work has influenced the Black on the Prairies project.
Below is a non-exhaustive list of articles, films, books and more that chronicle everything from 19th-century Black literary works to 21st-century Black collective action.
In this 2000 report for the The Magazine, Sandra Batson (now the host of CBC Edmonton News) explores the history of African-Americans who came to the Canadian Prairies and the discrimination they confronted in search of a better life.
CBC Winnipeg revisits the struggles and victories of the Manitoba capital's sleeping car porters.
In 1910, about 1,000 Black people moved to Saskatchewan from the U.S., including the Mayes family. Black on the Prairies co-creator Omayra Issa dives into a family history steeped in slavery, racial segregation and the fierce desire for emancipation.
CBC Calgary highlights the legacies of Virnetta Anderson, Oliver Bowen and Violet King, three Black Calgarians who broke barriers, changed the city's history and influenced its present.
The Black Experience in Manitoba: A Collection of Memories, a 123-page document compiled by high school students at St. John's High School, remains an authoritative text on the contributions of Black Manitobans. CBC Manitoba took a look at a few of the collection's 40 celebrated figures.
A landmark book when it came out in 1990, Cheryl Foggo's Pourin' Down Rain chronicles the writer and filmmaker's quest to stake her claim as a Black woman in the Canadian west.
Editor Karina Vernon chronologically lays out more than 100 years of Black Prairie literature, from never-before-published 19th century works from fur traders and pioneers, to the region's contemporary writers.
Vernon continues to look deep into the region's long standing Black presence in The whitewashing of Prairie history, an article written for the Black on the Prairies project.
Academic and writer Sarah-Jane Mathieu highlights the underreported history and life of the estimated 5,000 African Americans and West Indians who immigrated to Canada after the end of Reconstruction in the United States. Through the firsthand accounts of former sleeping car porters, and within the larger historical context of segregation and racial attitudes in Canada, Mathieu shows how porters became the bedrock of civil rights activism.
In his debut poetry collection, Bertrand Bickerstetch explores the intersection of being Black and Albertan on what he calls "storied soil."
Bickersteth also wrote Designing while Black, which looks into the evolution of Black Prairie design aesthetic, for the Black on the Prairies project.
In her debut novel, acclaimed author Esi Edugyan tells the story of Samuel Tyne, a Ghanaian emigré who believes he is destined for greatness but ends up unhappily working as a low-level civil servant in Calgary instead. Everything changes when the death of his uncle leads Samuel to inherit a mansion in Amber Valley, once the largest Black settlement in the Canadian west.
Edugyan, herself the daughter of Ghanaian immigrants in Calgary, was one one 15 people featured in Reflections on Black Prairie Life, a Black on the Prairies audio exploration of Black experiences in the region.
Directed by Dana Inkster, 24 Days in Brooks examines how the once socially conservative and primarily white Alberta town became one of the most diverse places in Canada as immigrants and refugees flocked to find jobs at the Lakeside Packers slaughterhouse. The film centres on the 24 days of the first strike Lakeside has ever seen, and the people working together and adapting to change.
Selwyn Jacob's 1996 documentary is "a nostalgic ride through history" that documents the life of Canada's Black sleeping-car porters from the early 1900s to the 1960s. The Road Taken examines the harsh and racist working conditions that blocked Black porters from other railway jobs and how in 1955, porter Lee Williams sparked a movement that changed everything.
Through meticulous research, Cheryl Foggo creatively reconstructs the life of John Ware, the Black cowboy who settled in Alberta in the late 1800s. The film follows Foggo on her quest to re-examine the mythology surrounding John Ware, and uncover who this iconic figure might have been and what his legacy means in terms of anti-Black racism past and present.
Foggo, a descendant of Black Oklahomans who migrated to Maidstone, Sask., in 1910, has emerged as one of the most prolific documentarians of early Black Prairie history. Foggo more recently directed Secret Calgary: Kicking Up A Fuss, a short film about one of Canada's earliest civil rights cases, and contributed to Secret Alberta: The Former Life of Amber Valley.
Foggo was also a member of the Black on the Prairies advisory board.
In 19 Days, sisters Asha and Roda Siad follow several refugee families in their first 19 days at the Margaret Chisholm Resettlement Centre — an experience that hits close to home for the Somali-Canadian filmmakers, who arrived in Calgary in the 1990s. Devoid of voiceovers and interviews, this short documentary is an honest portrayal of newcomers trying to integrate into the quiet Calgary neighbourhood of Bridgeland.
We are the Roots chronicles the lives of Alberta's Black pioneering families who left the Jim Crow South to establish settlements in Alberta and Saskatchewan between 1905-1912. Told from the point of view of 19 descendants of the original settlers, the documentary focuses on the discrimination Black settlers faced in rural Alberta and Edmonton, and how they triumphed.
Much has been said about the Canadian government's early hostility toward African Americans migrating to the Canadian west in the early 1900s in search of a better life. This history of racist immigration practices is laid bare in more than 200 pages of news clippings and correspondences between hopeful Black immigrants in the U.S. inquiring about the much-advertised cheap land on the Prairies, and Canadian immigration officials discouraging them from making the trip north.
See Library and Archives Canada's Black History in Canada section for more documents and fonds.
The Shiloh Baptist Church is the only protected site in Saskatchewan that is connected to a community of African descent.
The church was established by the Shiloh People, founders of the province's first Black Settlement north of Maidstone, Sask.
Leander Lane, a descendant of one of the settlement's founders, Julius Caesar Lane, established the Shiloh Baptist Church and Cemetery Restoration Society in 2002 and raised thousands of dollars to restore the church to its former glory. Lane worked with a genealogist to uncover the lives of the dozens of Shiloh people buried in the cemetery and has recreated the cemetery's burial list through news clippings, census records, death certificates and other documents.
Edmonton's Ernest Brown acquired many historical photographs over the course of his life, including stunning portraits of Black Albertans from the early 1900s. The fonds of his work are available at the Provincial Archives of Alberta.
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.