A sign once hung in the window of a downtown Red Deer café near the old train station and Windsor Hotel.
‘Whites Only’ it read.
This was the early 1960s and in the midst of the African-American civil rights movement, the third such movement within a span of a century. While the store owner wasn’t doing anything illegal, it was only after pressure from the Red Deer Ministerial Association and other community members that the sign came down.
It’s incidents like this that make it important to celebrate Black History Month each February.
Around the same time that sign went up and came down, a black man by the name of Vern King was being hired on at the Red Deer General Hospital. He would later become a construction labourer and then a janitor, before briefly operating a small shoe shine stand near Gaetz Avenue and 51 Street. He passed away in 1985.
“King was born in the Keystone community near Breton in 1918,” says Red Deer historian Michael Dawe. “He was the son of John and Stella King. His grandparents had moved to Keystone from Oklahoma in 1911.”
King’s sister Violet would eventually become the first black woman lawyer in Canada when she was called to the bar in 1954. King’s family was far from the first to have immigrated to Canada from Oklahoma.
Following the 1901 Census which found only 27 black people were living in Alberta, a great surge began in 1908, according to Dawe.
“Although there were no formal rules against their immigration, there were a great many informal rules which restricted their ability to cross the border into Canada,” Dawe says. “In 1911, the Edmonton Board of Trade made a major effort to have the Canadian government ban further immigration of blacks into Canada.”
Dawe tells the story of two early Red Deer mayors, Raymond Gaetz (1901-03) and Francis Galbraith (1912-13), who both vehemently stood against the racist proposal, which claimed black settlers would be ‘ill-suited to the cold climate of Canada. That claim of course ignored the fact that many African-Americans from the northern states had already experienced just a harsh winter.
Despite the growing province-wide backlash against blacks coming to Alberta, they continued to do so. Two of them were Samuel Watts and his wife, Margaret.
“Samuel was born in Texas on May 25, 1882 and moved to southern Alberta with Margaret around 1912. He eventually got a job as a cook in the Olds area,” says Dawe.
Four years later, at the age of 34, Watts enlisted with the 187th Battalion in Innisfail and shortly thereafter was named the trumpeter for the regimental band.
"A lot of people in their 30s did not enlist in the military because they were looking for people 17 to 30. He was 34, but he still felt he should enlist and serve his new country,” explains Dawe, who would later speak with a soldier named Vernon McDougall, who fought alongside Watts in WWI.
Dawe says McDougall pointed to Watts in an old photograph and told him, "We were going to do a trench raid. I didn't really want go, so Sam Watts says to me 'I'll go for you this time and you take my turn next time.' Watts went over the top and never came back.”
“It was something that bothered Mr. McDougall for the rest of his life," Dawe adds. Watts is now buried in the Lapugnoy Military Cemetery in the Pas-de-Calais region of northern France.
“Because we've become so much more diverse in the last 30 or 40 years in particular, a lot of racism has subsided, because it's one thing to hate a group you know very little about or don't really know any members of,” says Dawe. “But when they're people that you know, a lot of that mistrust, dislike, and overgeneralized hatred vanishes and you start judging people on who they are as individuals, not by what group they belong to.”
“When I went to high school, 40-some years ago, at Thurber, it was pretty homogeneous. There were some Chinese-Canadian kids, but it was the classic white-background situation. That's not the life experience for my daughter, who went to school and it was very diverse. For her, she doesn't see that somebody is from a particular background the same way I might have. That's what she's always known, it's just what it is and I think that's a positive,” Dawe concludes.
According to the 2006 National Census, there were 680 black people living in Red Deer (details from the 2016 census are not yet available).
Michael Dawe will be speaking during a free ‘Cultural Café’ Black History Month event at the Central Alberta Refugee Effort (5000 Gaetz Avenue) on February 22 from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m.
More details are at immigrant-centre.ca.
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