'It's educational': How this Black community north of Edmonton is keeping its history alive
EDMONTON -- Gilbert Williams is working hard to keep the history of Amber Valley alive. He helps maintain a small museum in the community hall located 170 kilometres north of Edmonton.
"I let people know about Amber Valley and how it came about and keep the history going. It’s important. It’s educational,” says Williams, who lives just outside the town.
William’s father came up from the southern United States in the early 1900s after buying a rugged quarter section of property from the Canadian government for $10.
“It’s all interesting; the whole thing about their struggles and living off the land and breaking the land.”
Myrna Wisdom’s grandfather was also one of the first settlers to come to Amber Valley.
“He had a store, he ran the post office and once a week he would travel to Athabasca to get supplies,” she says.
Between 1909 and 1911, about a thousand Black Americans from Oklahoma and Texas moved to Alberta and Saskatchewan, settling in communities such as Amber Valley. Most headed north seeking a life away from racial hostility, which Wisdom’s grandfather, the son of a freed slave, had seen too much of in the United States.
“He had two phones: one line was to his white neighbours and one was to his black neighbours. Somebody had cut the lines to his black neighbours and he was not happy,” she recalls. “That, as I understand, prompted his move to Canada.”
Wisdom, who is an amateur historian of Amber Valley, admits the killing of George Floyd and the worldwide response through wave after wave of Black Lives Matter protests has taken their toll on her.
“I have just found the past two weeks very exhausting because I know why my grandparents left the south and came here because they wanted us to have a better life.”
Life in Amber Valley has changed. Most of the descendants of the black settlers moved away to make new lives in larger cities. Their famous baseball team has long been disbanded, the school closed in the 1950s and the post office was shut down in the 1960s.
Williams and Wisdom are now both trying to preserve the history of Alberta’s black settlers with a goal is to get young people more interested in keeping the legacy alive.
“Maybe we’ll have schools charter down here and have a trip to amber valley so we can make this a teaching moment,” says Williams
“It is a fascinating story and it really should be in the history books,” says Wisdom.