Editor’s note: This article was originally published in The Yards Magazine in September 2018. It has been reprinted here with the author’s permission.
On May 12, 1922, Lulu Anderson tried to buy a ticket to ‘The Lion and The Mouse’ at the former Metropolitan Theatre on Jasper Avenue. Lulu was 36 and a member of the Black community. She enjoyed the theatre and had visited the Metropolitan many times with her friends. But May 12 was different. The theatre staff denied Lulu entry. Worse, they “assaulted” her, according to a column in the Edmonton Journal.
Lulu decided to stand up.
Few Edmonton residents know Lulu’s story. And to understand what happened to her downtown that night, in 1922, we need to back up a bit. For starters, despite many who still believe the opposite, Alberta was home to anti-black racism. Minstrel shows were extremely common in theatres; indeed, actors of the era routinely performed in blackface. In 1920, a minstrel parade was even held downtown. Segregation was also common across the city. From 1910 to 1950, Black Edmontonians were denied entry into theatres, swimming pools, bars and even hospitals. One more well-known example is from 1938, when a Black nurse was denied entry into nursing training at the Royal Alexandra Hospital.
Lulu’s story has long intrigued me. I first came across small scraps of it in a headline I found in archives of the Edmonton Bulletin: “Colored Woman Sued Theatre.” It was a story I’d never heard before. The article was sparse on details, so I kept digging. Next, I found references to Lulu elsewhere, such as a Bulletin article noting her place in a choir performance for Nellie McClung, as well as a story noting she’d sold 100 tickets for her church choir,
“Colored Woman Sued Theatre.” It was a story I’d never heard before.
I grew up in Edmonton. As a young Black child, all of my schooling was here, and during all those years at school, I was never taught about someone like Lulu or our city’s Black history. I grew up thinking Black people were relatively new here. Schools taught me the white version of history. But reading Lulu’s story and learning about Black history made me realize that people like me helped build this province.
It became my goal to find out more about Lulu. Her actions are unbelievably courageous. She stood up for racial justice 40 years before the civil rights movement hit its peak, at a time when lynching and violence were common. Her bravery is one reason I became determined to learn about her life. My journey took me to the Provincial Archives of Alberta, the City of Edmonton Archives and the legal archives at the Provincial Court of Alberta.
My first quest was to find Lulu’s original case file. This, I believed, would help for a couple reasons. First, it would give me access to her examination, where I would be able to read what happened in her own words. Second, it would have important details about her life, such as other family members and her past occupations, and these would give me more leads to follow-up on. But no luck. An archivist informed me that all case files for the period of 1921 to 1949 were destroyed in 1971.
Confused, I decided to reach out to Edmonton’s historian laureate, Marlena Wyman, to find out why. “These decisions were not made by archivists,” she told me. “Rather, it was government that decided when documents would be destroyed.” Wyman added that Alberta didn’t have the same resources devoted to archivists back then as it does now. “For example, we now have a master’s program for archivists, but back then we didn’t.”
Nevertheless, I believed a copy of Lulu’s lawsuit case must exist somewhere. My next stop was the Law Courts, to see if the case was reported in legal publications at the time. Again, I had limited luck. I discovered the docket sheet for Lulu’s case and found it lasted from May 26 to November 3, 1922, when Judge Lucien Dubuc made his decision. Thankfully, the decision was summarized in the Edmonton Bulletin. Dubuc ruled against Lulu, arguing the theatre was justified removing her. “[M]anagement could refuse admission to anyone upon the refunding the price of the ticket,” he reportedly said in his ruling.
“These decisions were not made by archivists. Rather, it was government that decided when documents would be destroyed.”
I was not surprised by this ruling thanks to my work learning about Black history in Edmonton. During Lulu’s time, Black Edmontonians were well used to discrimination. And many stood up to fight it. In 1924, a group of Black mothers protested segregation at the Borden Park swimming pool by lobbying City Hall. Another group of Black Edmontonians formed civil rights organizations, like the Alberta Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (AAACP). And of course, on May 26, 1922, Lulu sued the Metropolitan Theatre for barring her entry for being Black.
This protest was part of a tradition that spans the whole province. Examples include Charles Daniels, who in 1914 was similarly denied entry into the Sherman Grand Theatre, in Calgary, due to the colour of his skin. The unique thing about the Daniels’ case is that he won—eight years prior to Lulu, in 1914. There was also Ted King, who was the president of the AAACP and sued a Calgary motel for refusing Black patrons.
But back to Lulu. The Edmonton Journal reported she hired lawyer Samuel Wallace for her lawsuit. Wallace belonged to the law firm Joseph A. Clarke and Company, and Clarke would later go on to become mayor of Edmonton. Interestingly, the firm’s office was on the second floor of the McLeod building. This means Lulu must have visited this building to prepare her case—a building that was one block away from the Ku Klux Klan’s future headquarters, which was behind the current Westin Hotel.
The name of the case was Lulu Anderson vs. The Brown Investment Company (which owned the Metropolitan Theatre). Despite the frustrations at the Law Courts, my search for Lulu continued. Perhaps the most personal and one of the most important pieces of information I found was from a column in the Edmonton Journal, called “Our Negro Citizens.” The column was written by Black Edmontonians and provided “stories of interest” for the city’s Black community. After spending hours scanning the columns, I was able to confirm Lulu was active in the Black community and a member of the Emmanuel A.M.E. Church— one of the two all-Black churches in Edmonton, the other being the Shiloh Baptist Church.
[M]anagement could refuse admission to anyone upon the refunding the price of the ticket.” – Judge Lucien Dubuc, as reported in the Edmonton Bulletin.
Lulu was an active member of the church choir with numerous articles specifically noting her when reporting on concerts. As already noted, Lulu performed for Nellie McClung—a member of the Famous Five and an Alberta MLA. In addition, it seems Lulu was friends with Mrs. Poston who, in 1923, challenged segregation at the Borden Park pool.
The most important document I came across on ancestry.ca was an immigration slip from one of her visits to the United States. From this slip I determined Lulu was born in Atlanta City, New Jersey, in 1885. At some point, the immigration slip suggests, she came into Canada and settled in Edmonton. She lived at 9609 105 Avenue, near what is today the Bissell Centre. She was 36 years old at the time of the court case and had a sister named Bernice White, who lived in Los Angeles. She was also married to Cornwallis Anderson. It’s unclear if they had children.
Aside from this, I wasn’t able to find anything else about Lulu’s life. But I was determined to find a photo of her.
Civil rights cases in Canada are often void of a personal connection. We rarely have images that show Canada’s segregation in images and those who fought against it. Contrast this with the United States, where we have vivid photos of segregation and intimate profiles of those who stood to fight against it. Finding a photo of Lulu was deeply important.
Thankfully, her connection to the Emmanuel A.M.E. Church provided me with my first lead. I looked for all possible references to the church in the city and provincial archives but came up with nothing. But I came across a photo when reading an article by Jennifer Kelly – a Black University of Alberta professor. At the top of the article was a photo of a congregation, with a description that read, “Emmanuel African Methodist Church Congregation, early 1920s, Edmonton.”
The bottom right of the photo has the tag, “McDermid Studios.” My hope was the original photo would have a more specific description, so I went through the McDermid collections at the Glenbow Museum. I found that the photograph was taken in 1921. Lulu was active in the church in 1921.
I was left with one conclusion: Lulu was in this photo.
I don’t remember how long I stared at the photograph but it was a long time. I scanned every face, looking at the emotions and weight each expression carried. I couldn’t help but become emotional. Until now, I only read about the experiences of these Black Edmontonians. But for now I was seeing their faces for the first time and felt a more personal connection. These were the Black Edmontonians who came before me and paved the way for my own civil rights. These were people who, for now, history has forgotten and whose stories deserve to be told.
“I don’t remember how long I stared at the photograph but it was a long time. I scanned every face, looking at the emotions and weight each expression carried.”
Unfortunately, the photo included no detailed information. I was unable to find where Lulu was. It’s a strange feeling, having gotten this close. Lulu is someone I spent days researching. I ended with this photo. She is there but I don’t know exactly where.
Still, knowing she is somewhere in the photo is humbling. I look around the group and, even though I don’t know who exactly she is, I know she is there, surrounded by community. Every face in that photo represents a friend who she sang with or who stood by her when she fought against racial discrimination. In many ways the photo represents her case. She fought against racial discrimination with others. Lulu may have been one person but had a community behind her.
Lulu lost her case but her stand was significant. She stood for racial justice 20 years before Viola Desmond stood up, after similarly being denied entry into a theatre in Halifax. Viola is now being honoured on our $10 bill. And Lulu stood up 30 years before Rosa Parks, who fought against segregated buses in the United States. Today we know about Viola and Rosa. But still little about Lulu.
It saddens me there are no memorials to Edmonton’s heroes in this fight, or that their history is not taught in our classrooms. I believe this is all part of the consistent whitewashing of Edmonton’s history. A sign on the wall of the Gibson Block building downtown, which said, ‘White Help Only,’ was literally painted over at some point with white paint. And Frank Oliver, who aggressively worked against black immigration, is nevertheless honoured with a neighbourhood named after him.
Perhaps we can use Lulu’s case as an example to challenge or begin undoing this white washing. Perhaps we can take action as downtown residents and celebrate our very own hero in Lulu Anderson.
She should be a major historical figure in Edmonton. I’m glad I finally found her.
Written by: Bashir Mohamed
Bashir Mohamed works for the provincial government. In his free time he researches and writes at http://www.bashirmohamed.com/blog