Black Heritage in Edmonton and Northern Alberta: Establishing A Presence

By, Owais Siddiqui, Multicultural Narratives Supervisor, Fort Edmonton Park

*Before sharing some fascinating details about Edmonton’s (and the surrounding area’s) Black heritage, I would first like to extend my gratitude to a few notable people who have provided me with profound insight into the backgrounds and histories of individuals, and incidents, that have made a remarkable impression on the development of Edmonton’s society, and the Province of Alberta. 

I Would like to start by thanking Dr. Jennifer Kelly, Associate Professor at the University of Alberta, and the creator/curator of the exhibit ‘And Still We Rise: A Black Presence in Alberta’. Without Dr. Kelly’s archived research, and support for the development of Black Heritage Programs at Fort Edmonton Park, the development and representation of Black history at the Park wouldn’t have been capable of moving forward. I am grateful to Dr. Kelly for graciously sharing her research with me and my colleagues at Fort Edmonton Park; and I deeply appreciate the counsel she has provided us.

Next, I would like to thank Junetta Jamerson, a descendant of Alberta’s Amber Valley Black pioneer community, and a longtime activist for Black Rights and Human Rights in Edmonton. There are few individuals who so ardently represent the zeal and integrity for the distribution of equity in society as fiercely, and with as much determination, as does Junetta. Not only have I had the honour of attending many of Junetta’s speeches on the topic of Black Rights and Human Rights for marginalized communities, I’ve also had the pleasure of getting to know Junetta through conversations, and to say that she was a source of motivation for me in the endeavour to represent Edmonton’s multicultural heritage honestly and with integrity would be an understatement.

Lastly, but most importantly, I want to thank the Black Heritage Interpreters of Fort Edmonton Park’s Multicultural Narratives team: Mahalia Jamerson-Carter, Ayla Verbonec, and Athena McCusker. They have brought a wealth of knowledge, and a kaleidoscope of perspectives, on Black heritage to Fort Edmonton Park. Mahalia, Ayla, and Athena have contributed countless hours of research towards the development of Black Heritage Programs (often on personal time), and have presented their programs to the thousands of guests who visit Fort Edmonton Park during the summer. Their determination to articulate the significance of Black heritage, and its influence on the development of Edmonton’s society, is highly regarded by me and the visitors to the Park alike. Without their participation and involvement in the development of Black Heritage Programs at Fort Edmonton Park, the representation of this vital component of our collective history simply would not be possible. I am truly indebted to their efforts, and entirely proud of their work.

Thank you, all!

“If you're in a country that reflects the consciousness toward the importance of education, it's because the woman is aware of the importance of education.” - El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz/Malcolm X


*I would also like to point out that by sharing the information of the legacies I mention here I am by no means attempting to speak for their personal experiences, nor that of the Black community (which are directly unique to the individual themselves). Through these legacies, I would largely like to emphasize what I’ve come to learn, understand, and share my appreciation of Edmonton’s Black heritage, as well as encourage others to continue exploring Black heritage in Canada.*


Amber Valley/Pine Creek, Campsie, Junkins/Wildwood, Keystone/Breton (Alberta’s Black Pioneer Communities)

It was during the mid/late 1800s that Black pioneers slowly began settling in Alberta. Many of the first Black pioneers first entered Alberta as members of various labouring teams (such as Daniel Williams with the Palliser Expedition, and John Ware with American cattle herders), and after arriving in Alberta they decided to build communities in the province. By the early 1900, Black pioneers who decided to leave behind the frustrations and adversity they experienced in America had established Amber Valley, in the area of Pine Creek, as a settlement in Alberta - however, Black pioneer settlements also included the communities of Campsie, Junkins/Wildwood, and Keystone/Breton. These communities were located within close proximity to Edmonton. Although a few Black families had also decided to make Edmonton their home (about 30%), the majority of Alberta’s Black residents resided in the settlements they founded around the city of Edmonton during this period.

There are several reasons why many of the Black families entering Alberta chose to build communities outside of Edmonton. The most practical reason was so that the Black pioneers could purchase affordable land being sold by the Dominion Land Act, and enterprise through the practice of farming and mining in these locations, with Edmonton being close enough to be able to obtain supplies from. The prospect of building a community guided by Black leadership, where they could preserve their culture and provide for their families was also enticing. A less encouraging reason was that racism, discrimination, and cultural adversity often created challenges and dangerous environments for Black families moving into larger cities. The irony is that while a few Black individuals were hired by White employers who were surveying the land in Alberta during the mid/late 1800s, consequently displacing the local Indigenous population, and cementing White settlements, the growing presence of Black communities in the early 1900s wasn’t considered desirable. It was one thing for Black labourers to be employed by various organizations to build White societies, but it was another thing altogether for Black families to enter Alberta and build communities of their own.

The growth of Black communities in rural surroundings outside of Edmonton was met with considerable resistance from the established White society. Black individuals would often be rejected for employment, especially in the city. Local newspapers in Edmonton and Calgary would run negative articles portraying Black people as “unsuitable” for the northern climate, or depict them as criminals. Municipal and federal governments would send agents to America in order to campaign against Black individuals from emigrating to Canada and Canadian cities. False accusations of violence were sometimes made to target Black individuals. Black pioneers often found it difficult to receive fair deals for the purchase of farming equipment (some shop owners wouldn’t do business with them at all). In April of 1911, the Mayor of Edmonton, George S. Armstrong, and the Edmonton Board of Trade enacted a resolution to disallow Black pioneers from homesteading in Alberta (audaciously, and clumsily, claiming “...that the matter is not approached in any spirit of race prejudice and that nothing is put forward as to the undesirability of the negro settlers who are coming, apart from their color. Our Board take the ground that the fact that the presence of colored people in the homestead districts is keeping out the most desirable class of white settlers.”).

Nevertheless, Black pioneers maintained the presence of their communities, building schools, churches, businesses, and their families. Over the course of the following years, although social attitudes slowly began to improve somewhat, changing weather patterns and larger companies moving into the area of Black settlements made it difficult to continue farming and mining in Amber Valley and the other Black Homesteads. In time, residents of Alberta’s first Black settlements eventually relocated to larger cities, other provinces, and (in some cases) back to the United States. The descendants of Amber Valley and the first Black settlements of Alberta that continue to call Edmonton and Alberta their home have kept the memory of their history alive, and apply the experiences of their ancestors to raise awareness of their heritage, as well as to bring attention to the persistence of the inequitable social conditions that continue to affect racialized and marginalized residents of Edmonton and throughout Alberta. 

Further Reading/Sources:

  • A Window of Our Memories, by Velma Carter and Wanda Leffler Akili, 1981



George W. Slater Jr. (Pastor and Editor of ‘Our Negro Citizen’ Column for the Edmonton Bulletin and Edmonton Journal)

Reverend George Washington Slater Jr. was a Pastor by profession, and a disciple of renowned Black socialist preacher, Reverend George Washington Woodbey, in Chicago, Illinois. He received his education at Wilberforce University in Ohio, and was a Minister at the Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Clinton, Iowa. In Chicago, Reverend Slater had submitted articles for the Chicago Daily Socialist and the Christian Socialist publications. Although Reverend Slater had only written for the Chicago Daily Socialist and Christian Socialist for about seven months, his articles were the first time in American history that a socialist publication ran articles by a Black person.

Reverend Slater’s decision to relocate to Alberta was one that he possibly considered to be of a missionary purpose, to help organize and provide support to the Black community of Edmonton and Alberta. After arriving in Edmonton sometime between 1919-1920, Reverend Slater held the position of a Pastor at the Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal (EAME) Church between 1921-1924. Soon after establishing himself in Edmonton, Reverend Slater also became the editor of the weekly newspaper column, ‘Our Negro Citizens (ONC)’, which was printed in the Edmonton Bulletin and Edmonton Journal throughout the first half of the 1920s. It is noteworthy that while relating on the activities of the Black community in Edmonton and the surrounding areas, Reverend Slater infused much of his writing with the elements of socialism, attempting to raise awareness of social responsibility towards the Black residents of Edmonton and Alberta.

Through the ‘ONC column, Reverend Slater connected Black residents of Edmonton, and throughout Alberta, highlighting their weddings, birthdays, church socials (of both, the Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church and the Shiloh Baptist Church, the only two Black Churches at the time), and also the challenges they collectively encountered as a marginalized community. Reverend Slater’s humanizing advocacy of Edmonton and Alberta’s Black community was in direct contrast to the stereotypical and (all too often) discriminatory depiction of Black People in contemporary society.

Further Reading/Sources:

  • The Black Prairie Archives, An Anthology, (Edited) by Karina Vernon, 2020
  •  Black Socialist Preacher: The Teachings of Reverend George Washington Woodbey and His Disciple, Reverend G.W. Slater, Jr., by Philip Foner, 1983      



Eleanor Collins (Canada’s First lady of Jazz), and Ruby Sneed (Critically Acclaimed Classical Pianist)

Born in Edmonton, Alberta, in 1919, Ellanor Collins (maiden name, Elnora Ruth Procter)  was the daughter of Black-Indigenous (Afro-Indigenous/Creole) parents who migrated to Edmonton from Oklahoma, sometime between 1906-1909. Eleanor, along with her older sister, Ruby Sneed (maiden name, Ruby Evelyn Proctor, or perhaps, “Evelyn Ruby Procter”), were raised around music from a very early age singing hymns, anthems, spirituals, and participating as members of Shiloh Baptist Church’s choir. In 1934, at the age of 15 , Eleanor won a talent contest in Edmonton, and then shortly afterward she went on to form a band, The Three-Es, with her sister, Ruby Sneed, and Edna Panky - it is assumed that the Three-Es stood for: Eleanor, Evelyn (Ruby Sneed), and their friend, Edna. 

Along with being a collaborator and supporter of her younger sister, Eleanor Collins, Ruby Sneed (born in Edmonton, in 1917) is also an acclaimed musician in her own right. Ruby, is a classically trained pianist, and a graduate of the ARCT (Associate of the Royal Conservatory of Toronto) Program, receiving the highest marks among all the ARCT students from Western Canada when she completed her training. She also trained under Canadian pianist and composer, Jean Coulthard and European concert pianist, Jan Cherniavsky, and was mentored by the celebrated African American contralto, Marian Anderson. Ruby has also performed in televised programs alongside Eleanor Collins, as well as showcasing her own piano recitals, for the CBC.

In 1938, Eleanor and Ruby relocated to Vancouver, British Columbia, and started performing with the Swing Low gospel quartet (which consisted of The Three-E’s and Zandy Price). The Swing Low quartet performed on CBC Radio between 1940-1942; and in 1945 Eleanor began performing with Ray Noris jazz quintette on the CBC show, ‘Serenade in Rhythm’, which was broadcast to troops overseas. In 1954, Eleanor became a cast member of the CBC show, ‘ Bamboula: A Day in the West Indies’, which became the first televised interracial program to be broadcast in Canada. Between June-September of 1955, the CBC invited Eleanor to headline ‘The Eleanor Show’, making Elneaor Collins the first person of colour (as well as the first jazz performer) to star in a nationally televised program - predating the American ‘Nat King Cole Show’, which premiered in 1956.

[*Because the majority of Eleanor Collins’ and Ruby Sneed’s success and acclaim was achieved through their performances for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) while they built their career in Vancouver, some sources for the information about Eleanor and Ruby has been pieced together from archival information retrieved through various websites from Vancouver, British Columbia, the CBC, and the Canadian Encyclopedia. Nonetheless, because Elneaor Collins’ and Ruby Sneed's birthplace was Edmonton, and the recognition of their talent and artistic capabilities were first realized here, Edmonton has every right to be just as proud of Eleanor and Ruby as does Vancouver - if anything, their legacy should motivate Edmonton’s society to support our local artists to the fullest so that can they can be provided with every opportunity to realize all the heights of success as may be available to their ambitions - thanks to Eleanor Collins and Ruby Sneed!] 

Further Reading/Sources:



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