Keystone Legacy: Recollections of a Black Settler
by Gwen Hooks
February is Black History month in Canada. This is a fairly new recognition despite the fact that people of African descent have been playing a role in Canadian history since the time of Samuel de Champlain. Black History Month began as Black History Week in the 1970s. By 1976 it had become Black History Month. It was officially recognized by the House of Commons in 1995 and in 2008 the Senate unanimously passed a motion to recognize the event. This is a great step towards the recognition of the contribution that Black Canadians have made to the fabric of this nation. I learned nothing about the history of black Canadians when I was a child so when I came to work in the library and worked with the local history collection, I was surprised and intrigued to read about the history of Alberta’s black settlers.
Many African Americans came to Alberta from Oklahoma, after it became clear to them that the whites flooding into the new state were going to make life very difficult for black people. Life in Alberta was not going to be easy but it looked much better than facing the segregationists at home. So many made the trek and homesteaded in Alberta. There is a wonderful book that tells the story of one such family who settled in Keystone (now Breton, Alberta): The Keystone Legacy: Recollections of a Black Settler by Gwen Hooks. Gwen and her late husband were both descendants of settlers who came to Alberta in the early part of the 20th century. The trials and tribulations they faced were many. The land was virgin forest and settlers were expected to clear it to make a farm. Many were unprepared for the winter, not knowing how cold it could be and how much snow could fall. Farming methods were different as well. Many made the best of things, however, and eked out a life for themselves and their families.
They did not escape the prejudice and xenophobia that they had encountered in their old homeland, however. It was made clear that several groups were vehemently opposed to having communities of black settlers in the province and tried to get legislation passed that would ban their immigration and settlement. Many homesteaders had to work off their farms to supplement their income. Black homesteaders who needed to work could often only find menial jobs, their children were refused educational opportunities, public facilities were often segregated or even off limits.
Possibly to get away from the prejudice they encountered in the big cities, many settlers headed to land farther away from the major centres and settled in areas where they could establish their own institutions. The land they settled may not have been as good as that near Edmonton, but they had their own communities and were able to find a peaceful way of life.
Now, however, as in many rural communities, the young have moved away from the old homesteads. This creates all kinds of problems for farming communities but the impact is even greater for communities like Keystone. With no one in the area who remembers the old days, the history and struggles of this tenacious group of pioneers could be forgotten. That is why efforts such as those of Gwen Hooks, who not only recorded the history of Keystone, but also was instrumental in the restoration of the cemetery where many of the settlers were buried, is so important. There is also a museum in Breton that collects and displays artifacts from the black homesteader communities in the area.
The Keystone Legacy: Recollections of a Black Settler is a very good starting point for anyone who would like to understand the history of this group of pioneers. It is available at several library branches as well as in the Community Heritage and Family History Room. There is also a very good website that talks about Alberta’s Black Pioneers http://www.albertasource.ca/blackpioneers/index.html
And be sure to check out the panel discussion we have lined up to discuss “What is Black History?”: http://blog.calgarypubliclibrary.com/blogs/cplnews/archive/2010/11/27/black-history-month.aspx