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.

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Harriet’s Magic Hat: The Disk Jockey

Written by: Sara King (Provincial Archives of Alberta) and Jared Majeski (Historic Resources Management Branch)

It was a magical time in Edmonton in 1980. One area code, the Rat Hole, liver and onions at the Silk Hat on Jasper Ave. It was also a time with enchanted headphones and a young, open-collared Bruce Bowie.

Harriet’s Magic Hats was an educational program for children created by ACCESS TV, which primarily explored different careers as a girl named Susan travelled around with the assistance of her Aunt Harriet’s collection of mystical headgear. In addition to being an example of local programming in Alberta, the episode is a time capsule of technology and popular culture of the time it was made.

630 CHED’s Bruce Bowie explaining to Susan how the music from vinyl records in their music library makes it out to the airwaves. Source: Provincial Archives of Alberta YouTube.

In this episode, Susan mysteriously transports into the booth at 630 CHED, right in the middle of a broadcast from legendary announcer Bruce Bowie. From there, Bowie shows young Susan the radio ropes, from programming commercials to the station’s automated system for playing records.

With the exception of Wings' "Getting Closer" and a Donna Summer disco hit, the playlist from CHED in 1980 is pretty middle of the road easy rock. Nice to see some pre-Kim Mitchell Max Webster in the rotation too. Source: Provincial Archives of Alberta YouTube.
With the exception of Wings’ “Getting Closer”, ELO and a Donna Summer disco hit, the playlist from CHED in 1980 is pretty middle of the road easy rock. Nice to see some pre-Kim Mitchell Max Webster in the rotation too. Source: Provincial Archives of Alberta YouTube.

This episode concludes with a jaunty montage of various Edmontonians biking, lounging, paddling and dancing along to the radio. Heck, even the bears and elephants are listening!

One can only assume a brave Valley Zoo employee had to climb that tree to place the radio. The bears seem to be enjoying the tunes at least. Source: Provincial Archives of Alberta YouTube.

Sharon Alexander, the actress who played Susan in the Harriet’s Magic Hat series, would go on to do a ton of voice acting, as well as appear in episodes of The X-Files, Da Vinci’s Inquest, The Outer Limits and Cold Squad.

ACCESS TV was the designated educational broadcaster in Alberta, created by the Alberta Educational Communications Corporation (AECC), an arms length corporation of the Government of Alberta. From its founding in 1973 until its privatization in 1995, it would produce, broadcast, and distribute television-based multimedia, in partnership with Alberta Education and the province’s universities and colleges.

The Provincial Archives of Alberta has a collection of 1506 video cassettes, 1071 video reels, 2220 audio reels, 731 audio cassettes, and 240 16 mm film reels in our ACCESS TV fonds (PR3368) as well as 1198 films and other government records transferred to the archives when ACCESS was a government body. But not all of them are quite as magical as this one.

Inside the Archives’ vault: It Happened at Vic

Written by: Sara King, Government Records Archivist, Provincial Archives of Alberta

Its film time again courtesy of the Provincial Archives of Alberta! Archival records, whether paper, photographic, film or audio, can very often provide more information about their subject than was originally intended.

Take It Happened at Vic. This silent drama production about a love triangle, created by Victoria Composite High School students in Edmonton in 1941, reveals how the school and neighbourhood looked at the time, hair and fashions typical of high school students, technology they were using such as cameras and cars, and the types of social activities that students might have been getting up to at the time (Or at the least the ones they would put on film). If the name Joe Shoctor jumps out at you from the opening credits, he went on to found the Citadel Theatre in Edmonton.


Inside the Archives’ vault: the shift to colour

Written by: Michael Gourlie, Government Records Archivist

When researchers first arrive at an archives, they often bring many stereotypes with them.  They may assume that the records are all about “early pioneer days,” the photographs are all black and white images of stern Victorian settlers, and the storage vaults look like something out of Raiders of the Lost Ark.


While they don’t look like something out of an Indiana Jones film, there are certainly many mysteries to uncover in the vaults of the Provincial Archives of Alberta. Source: Provincial Archives of Alberta.

While some elements of these impressions may be true, the Provincial Archives of Alberta (PAA) is anything but your stereotypical archives.  Its holdings include records from the 1640s to the 2010s in all media, including paper, photographs, motion picture film, tape recordings, and digital media. Although the records of the Government of Alberta comprise the bulk of its holdings, the PAA has acquired the records of individuals, families, businesses, and community groups that provide evidence of the political, cultural and economic evolution of the province.  A variety of researchers use these records, from genealogists to academic historians to even members of the public service seeking to understand past government programs.

One of the records that debunks the staid stereotypes of archives is a film titled “1967 in Selling Colour”. The Swift Canadian Company created the film to kick off a marketing campaign designed to coincide with both the Canadian centennial celebrations and the growing availability of colour television in Canada. Starting in black and white before shifting to glorious colour, the film is most definitely a time capsule of the way Canadian society viewed food, fashion, advertising, and the roles of men and women. The PAA received the film as a donation when Maple Leaf Foods, the successor firm of Swift Canadian, found the records prior to the demolition of its meat packing facilities in Edmonton.

To make these holdings more accessible, the PAA has digitized and placed them on various social media platforms. See for yourself whether or not Swift is the Meat!