Black History at the Provincial Archives of Alberta

Editor’s note: In our continuing recognition of Black History Month, RETROactive contributors from the Provincial Archives of Alberta highlight some of the resources available for researchers wanting to know more about the history of Alberta’s Black community.

Written by: Michael Gourlie, Government Records Archivist and Karen Simonson, Reference Archivist

Researching the history of Black communities in Alberta can be challenging.  Sources can be limited and potentially scattered among many institutions within Alberta’s heritage communities.  Much of the access is dependent on knowing a person’s name or having some additional background clues or information.  But the history of Alberta’s Black communities can be teased out of the records preserved by the Provincial Archives of Alberta (PAA), and all the resources described below are available for researchers to see and consult for themselves during regular opening hours of the reading room.

Unidentified woman with dog, ca. 1920 (Ernest Brown fonds, BP2-15552)

In addition to published books and newspapers providing context to the community, the PAA is fortunate to have received donations of records from private individuals such as Fil Fraser, Selwyn Jacob and Junetta Jamerson.  While these records can only tell part of the story, looking more closely at some familiar holdings at the PAA reveals perhaps some unexplored and unexpected traces of Alberta’s Black history.

Homestead Files

The federal Dominion Lands Act of 1872 allowed individuals to apply for a quarter section (160 acres) of land. After they had occupied the land for three years and made certain improvements, they could apply for the title to that land. The township maps and files resulting from the homesteading process are among the most used records at the Provincial Archives for a variety of purposes, including genealogy and the history of particular parcels of land.  The files contain numerous references to the land taken up by Alberta’s Black settlers, including John Ware in Southern Alberta in the 1890s as well as the settlers of Amber Valley north of Edmonton in the early twentieth century.  Using the name index created by the Alberta Genealogical Society, researchers can locate the microfilm reel and file numbers for specific settlers to learn about their experiences.  While some files may be thin, they typically contain information about a settler’s origin as well as the state of the homestead at specific points in the homesteading process.

Statement of John Ware, 1898 (GR1970.0303, reel 2020, file 337153).

Vital Statistics Registrations

If a person was born, married or died in Alberta, there is usually (but not always) a registration of that event within the province’s vital statistics records.  Although the details they capture vary over time, the registrations provide invaluable evidence of locations of births, the parent’s names of brides and grooms and burial locations.  The PAA’s holdings include birth records that are 120 years or older (from the date of birth), marriage records that are 75 years or older (from the date of marriage), death records that are 50 years or older (from the date of death), and stillbirth records that are 75 years or older (from the date of stillbirth).  The records available at PAA would likely capture the birth of children of the earliest settlers, their marriages, and the deaths of those early settlers.  Although his registration provides limited detail, it records that Henry Sneed, the man who first scouted Amber Valley and returned with settlers, died in Edmonton in 1914.

Township Map featuring Amber Valley, ca. 1927 (GR2004.0214, folder 1478).

Probate Case Files

Directly related to death registration are the probate files, which deal with the disposition of a person’s property after their death.  The files typically contain administrative correspondence of limited interest, but they also contain certificates of value and relationship that show a beneficiary’s relationship to the deceased person.  This document is valuable for genealogical purposes, particularly when trying to locate the married names of any daughters of the deceased person.  For Henry Sneed, he has a probate case file located in the District Court of Edmonton.

Death Registration of Henry Sneed, 1914 (GR2015.1540, 2229-R)

Civil Court Case Files

Through determined searches in newspapers and other sources, researchers have discovered significant civil rights courts cases found among Alberta’s court records. In 1914, Charles Daniels sued the owners of the Grand Theatre after they refused to honour his ticket to sit in the front row in favour of sitting in the segregated seats in the balcony. The case file includes a transcript of the trial, which outlines the experience of a Black man living in Calgary at the time. A 1959 court case involved Ted King suing a motel owner who refused to rent him a room because he was Black, a case that went to the Supreme Court of Alberta.  Both court actions document civil rights initiatives undertaken by Alberta’s black community and, while these are the most well-known, there may be others waiting to be discovered.

Other Sources

Occasionally sources crop up in unexpected places.  The PAA has held the records of noted early photographer Ernest Brown since the 1960s, and his remarkable images have illustrated dozens of publications about the history of Alberta.  Less explored is his studio portrait work, which captures the images of everyday Albertans.  Although the portraits are indexed only by the last name of the individual who paid for the portrait and not necessarily who is depicted, the images include a cross-section of Edmonton’s Black community between the 1910s and 1920s. Aside from the name of the purchaser, the photographs are unidentified but provide a limited yet tantalizing view of Edmonton’s Black community during this period.

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