Editor’s Note: February is Black History Month, a time to honour the legacy of Black Canadians and their communities. Throughout the post below are excerpts of the poem “Our Pioneers” by Gwen Hooks, appearing in the book The Keystone Legacy: Recollections of a Black Settler. The banner image above is Ron Smith, grandson of Elizabeth Hayes, in front of the Hayes family home. Breton, Alberta, circa 1950. Credits: Nellie Whalen, Breton and District Historical Museum.
Author’s note: I am grateful to the past work of the Breton and District Historical Society, who have made these compelling histories so accessible to the public through various public awareness initiatives. This post greatly relies Gwen Hook’s excellent book The Keystone Legacy: Recollections of a Black Settler. I would also like to express my gratitude to Allan Goddard of the Breton and District Historical Museum for being so gracious with his time and knowledge.
Written by: Laura Golebiowski, Indigenous Heritage Section
The Black Pioneers to a new land came,
Around the year of nineteen ten,
Oklahoma and Kansas they left behind
A strange new life to begin.
As heritage professionals, it seems an unwritten rule that we must stop and read every historic interpretive sign we pass. It was in this way I was first introduced to the story of Keystone, driving home from Paul First Nation in the summer of 2021. The big blue highway sign spoke of a distinctive community built by Black families who arrived in the area from Oklahoma in the spring of 1911.
I was familiar with the story of Amber Valley, understood to have been the largest Black settlement west of Ontario. I quickly learned, however, that Amber Valley was only one of several Black-founded communities in western Canada at the turn of the century. Others included Wildwood (east of Edson), Campsie (northwest of Edmonton), Maidstone (in west-central Saskatchewan), and Keystone, now named Breton, located southwest of Edmonton.
They left a country so warm and rich,
With fruit plus nuts and grain,
They chose Alberta that was rugged and cold,
Huge trees covered the rough terrain.
The origin stories for these communities are much the same. A chain reaction of land dispossession saw the settlement of Indian Territory, forcing the removal of the Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Creek and Seminole Peoples from their lands. Oklahoma statehood introduced Jim Crow laws and segregation, making the area incredibly dangerous for the Black families already residing in the new state. Thus began the Black migration north: from 1905 to 1912, between 1,000 and 1,500 African Americans moved to western Canada from the United States in search of a better life. However, upon arrival, pervasive racism in city centres prompted Black settlers to establish roots in rural areas.
The late writer and educator Gwen Hooks wrote: “Black [settlers] sought isolation which made it possible for them to establish a Black community, relatively free of conflict with whites. Most Blacks wanted to form their own communities and rule them without interference. They wanted to live in communities free from prejudice and racial tension.” William and Mattie Allen were one of the first Black families to arrive in Keystone, and encouraged several others from Oklahoma to join them there.
The boreal forest of northern Alberta would have been a far cry from the landscapes of the southern states. In February 2022, I reach Breton by traveling north on Highway 20, passing plowed fields and industrial developments. The land has changed significantly from the early 1900s. But when I come across pockets of forested areas, it becomes easier to imagine what the earliest settlers experienced as they made their way to Keystone. With loaded wagons and teams of horses, families embarked west on the bush trail from Edmonton before cutting their own trails to their respective parcels. Sam and Neoma Hooks, along with their four children Virginia, Ellis, Elmer and Victoria left Oklahoma in 1911. “There were no roads, just trails, but Mrs. Hooks and the girls couldn’t help admiring the tall stately tree that stretched toward the sky.” Those tall, stately trees would soon bring prosperity to the region: the lumber industry was successful in Breton until the 1950s.
In this new country they could purchase land,
For every man and grown up son,
With ten dollars they filed on homesteads
But their hard work had just begun.
Homesteading took time and intensive effort. Land clearing quotas had to be met before one could obtain a deed, and there was a finite amount of time each year when the weather made such work possible. “During the summer months, the men would work at clearing and building…Often the women came out to help the men in the summer, but everyone went back to the city for the winter. The men worked at different jobs, such as hauling coal or working in the coal mines to make some money during the winter.” Neighbours came together to help one another, sharing livestock and equipment to make and keep the home and life they had travelled so far for.
They built tar-papered shacks close to a creek,
Cleared land for garden and grain,
Gathered wild berries and edible herbs
To prepare for snow and rain.
The first settler houses were small, built of logs with tar-paper roofs. Gaps between logs were filled with mud, straw and sometimes manure using chinking and daubing techniques. “When the mud dried, it was hard as cement.” Families worked hard to bring comfort and peace to the prairies. Women were resourceful, creating rugs and curtains from sugar sacks and rags. Precious heirlooms, like Neoma Hooks’ oak table and chairs, made the journey from the southern states by freight to the border and then on wagons to be unloaded carefully at Keystone.
Sam and Neoma Hooks built a 12 x 16-foot cabin into the hillside above the creek than ran through their 160 acres. As the years progressed, the village of Breton built up around the Hooks’ homestead. In 1929, the family built a larger house above the ravine. “It seemed so large; there were eight rooms. Mother was very happy because at last she had a place for the children to enjoy life…The house stood like a sentinel overlooking the valley until it was destroyed by fire October 23, 1974.”
The ravine is quiet on the Friday morning that I visit. Chickadees and red squirrels seemingly chide me for breaking the silence with crunching snow beneath my feet. The Hooks’ homes no longer stand, but their mark on the landscape is remembered: the Breton and District Historical Museum unveiled a plaque naming Sam Hooks Ravine, on the 80th anniversary of his homestead claim.
Next, it was time to build a community. In September 1911, the Good Hope Baptist Church held its first service. “It’s name was appropriate, because to succeed in the harsh environment the parishioners needed not only strength of will but also a heavy dose of hope. Our religion always gave us that.” The Allens were instrumental to the formation of the parish: holding the first organizational meetings in their home. The church was built to the south of Fifteen Lake; there are no known photographs of the church. Lloyd Ellis’ recollection informed the below sketch of the modest log structure.
Funnell School, located to the north, opened in 1912. Education was a strong priority for the families of Keystone, and this is evident in the settler recollections of school days. The one-room log building supported the learning of dozens of schoolchildren from grades one through nine. The pot-bellied stove at the back of the room was put to the test each winter, when studies would be interrupted in favour of gathering around the stove for warmth. The school hosted community celebrations and events: “In the warmth of the fire they would sing songs, especially Christmas songs. By the time the Christmas concert rolled around—the biggest event of the year, drawing people from miles around—everyone learned quite a few songs…The school was so crowded that Santa had to enter through the window.”
Funnell School closed in 1954, but the building remains a pillar of community as the Funnell Community Society Hall. Allan Goddard, curator and manager of the Breton and District Historical Museum, believes the school is the area’s oldest standing structure still in its original location.
We say “Thanks” to these people who settled our land,
They worked hard and subdued all their fears,
May God bless them every one
Our Faithful Pioneers.
By the 1940s, many of the Black families that settled in Breton had moved away, starting new chapters in Calgary, Kelowna and elsewhere. But their stories and contributions to Keystone are remembered. My last stop is to the Keystone cemetery, established in 1910. “The people of Keystone could not decide where they wanted the cemetery to be situated. They wanted it on the main road, but no one knew when the main road would be built. Finally, it was agreed that the first family to lose a loved one would donate land for the cemetery. The first death occurred in the Harry Allen family so the Keystone cemetery was put on the southeast corner of his quarter.”
On the day of my visit, deep snow drifts cover most of the cemetery, but I stumble my way to the large monument, erected by the Breton and District Historical Society. It commemorates the families buried there, who endured hardships yet persevered to make this land a home: the Allens, Banners, Briscos, Burtons, Fords, Hayes, Jefferies, Jones, Kings, Proctors, Rosses, Shaws and Tostons.
From the documentary film We Are The Roots: “For a whole generation of black pioneers, the rural settlements had, for the most part, served as a safe haven from discrimination. By forming these communities, they were able to get support from each other, as well as work together with their neighbours from other backgrounds who were also trying to make a life for themselves on the prairies.” Allan Goddard believes this was largely the case for Keystone. Incidences of discrimination are not completely absent from the historical record, of course, but the close relationships that the museum maintains with the descendants of Keystone’s founding families indicates that this is a place fondly remembered.
The stories and settlers of Keystone are reminders of the strength and tenacity of Black families on the Canadian prairies, and their contributions to the community, industry and social fabric of Alberta.
Sources and further learning:
Bailey and Soda Films and Shiloh Centre for Multicultural Roots. (2018). We are the Roots: Black settlers and their experiences of discrimination on the Canadian prairies.
Breton and District Historical Museum. (2022). Keystone, the journey.
Breton and District Historical Museum. (2022). The Story of Breton.
Breton and District Historical Society. (1980). The ladder of time: A history of Breton and district. Breton and District Historical Society.
Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. (2021). Black on the Prairies.
Hooks, Gwen. (1997). The Keystone Legacy: Recollections of a Black Settler. Edmonton, AB: Brightest Pebble Publishing Co. Ltd.