Black History is Alberta’s history
We need to remember the stories
of all our pioneers all of the time
By Mariann Roberts
SURROUNDED BY historical books and wooden shelves, I sit at an old, oak table pushed against the wall of a small library. Two small, wooden bears stare down from a glass-door bookcase, patiently waiting to hear what an outsider is doing at the Strathcona County Museum and Archives an hour before opening.
The executive director, Mat Levitt, sits across from me in an almost identical wooden chair.
He places his arms on the table and politely intertwines his fingers, waiting for my first question. A smile warms his face.
We are halfway through Black History Month, so it seems only natural to be talking to the curator of an exhibition designed to tell the unique stories of early black settlers of Alberta: I Am From Here at the Royal Alberta Museum.
Before taking on his current position at the Strathcona County Museum, Levitt’s previous role at the RAM included collecting objects, pictures and quotes from various members of the community to help bring the stories of early Black settlers in Alberta to life.
“In Alberta, we had a community of people whose story was not necessarily being shared in a large-scale institutional sense,” Levitt says. “The black settler community is admirable in their sharing of their own story. But what we were seeing is that … almost even a strictly governmental sense, it was not being told. We need to hear their stories, from them, in their words, because that’s where the meaning will come from.”
I Am From Here, opened on March 23, 2019, at the RAM’s Human History Hall. It runs until Sept. 7.
The exhibit focuses specifically on the wave of settlers who arrived in Alberta from 1908 to 1911, bringing to light their contributions, as well as the racism they endured.
“They left a place because of the racism they were experiencing, and when they came here, they encountered racism,” Levitt says. “The racism was very real, and, in fact, is still real. And I think that when that isn’t acknowledged, it’s not dealt with.
“Understanding who we are as a province, we need to know the people who make us, us. What they encountered when they came here, it’s part of that therapeutic process to become better.”
The exhibit aims to share the truth behind Alberta’s history in its entirety, reiterating the fact that Black history is Alberta’s history, which explains why the museum opened the exhibit right after Black History Month.
“This isn’t a Black History Month thing, Levitt says. “This is an Alberta thing,”
Michelle Weremczuk worked with Levitt during the creation of I Am From Here. As the designer, she says she also saw the need to tell Alberta’s history in its entirety.
“Alberta is a complex place with many different interwoven and overlapping histories, and to ignore this rich history in favour of a standard narrative does a great deal of injustice to all the people that have made this province what it is.
“Our black settlers clearly experienced a great deal of racism throughout their lives. And I think as Canadians we often turn a blind eye to the injustices that happen on our soil.”
Although he died in 1905, and falls outside the purview of the exhibit, John Ware is one of the many black pioneers who helped lay Alberta’s foundation. The first black cowboy in the province, Ware became a legend. His name is too little known, and his story has been far too seldom told.
Ware’s story and significant contribution to Alberta is one that inspired the man responsible for the education of thousands upon thousands of students – me included.
Grant MacEwan (yes, that one) wrote a biography about Ware in 1960: John Ware’s Cow Country.
The biography explores the illustrious life of Ware, from the day he was born into slavery at a cotton plantation in Georgetown, S.C., in 1845, to his successful ranching career in Alberta as one of the first black people to arrive in the area.
MacEwan has said that there were three main motivators behind his book, “a sincere admiration for the Negro rancher who so completely captured pioneer hearts. Then there was a hope that the story of John Ware’s career, clearly a success story, might carry the bigger one about ranching on the western range during his lifetime.”
His third reason, however, reiterates the dialogue that is a pivotal discussion for present-day society. (To be clear, I mean this present-day, not just MacEwan’s present-day in 1960.)
MacEwan acknowledged that the story of a successful, generous, strong and well respected black man is a story that simply needs to be told, and told well.
“And, finally, the author would wish to proclaim a conviction that present-day society, with some silly and shameful prejudices, needs the story surrounding the big, powerful, skilful and generous black cowboy,” MacEwan wrote.
Stories such as Ware’s – and those of countless other early black settlers – need to be shared and talked about at length. These are stories we must acknowledge during Black History Month, of course, but they are not stories that should be acknowledged only during Black History Month.
We cannot possibly understand the history of our city, our province, or our country without acknowledging the important contributions of people of all skin colours.
When we discuss our history, we must discuss our entire history. We must acknowledge and give credit to the critical contributions of all the non-white pioneers, and of course, the Indigenous peoples who got here first.
We must talk about the highlights of our history as well as our dark shortcomings. We must openly discuss the wrongdoings of our past, from slavery and Residential Schools to the heinous racial slur (the n word) that was placed in front of John Ware’s name for location names and historical publications, including in his notice of his death published by the Edmonton Bulletin.
Black History Month provides the opportunity to learn about and celebrate the great contributions of so many Black Canadian pioneers. However, it also provides the opportunity for change. It allows us to discuss a racist and unflattering past that is not typically associated with the history of Canada. Despite our global reputation for inclusivity and politeness, we are not pardoned from the blemishes of our past, but we are granted the chance to be on the right side of history.
Let’s talk about Alberta’s history during Black History Month, but not just during Black History Month. Let’s keep the conversation open, honest and transparent. Let’s celebrate the contributions of non-white pioneers and learn from the faults of white pioneers who practised racism and inequality.
Let’s understand our past, so we can be on the right side of the future.