Amber Valley: Black Resistance in Canada

Written by Preston Miller

Tracing the Trails of Triumph and Trial

Amidst the early 20th century’s tumultuous tide of racial discrimination, a brave cohort of African American families uprooted their lives, seeking solace and soil in the Canadian Prairies. Their journey was spurred largely by the promise of the Dominion Lands Policy and the allure of a free life far from Jim Crow’s shadow, ultimately leading them to Alberta. This narrative unfolds a saga of a Black settlement, profound resilience, communal unity, and an indelible legacy. In this article, I delve into the history of Amber Valley, exploring the community’s spirit through the lens of historical landmarks, national tributes, and the unyielding strength of Black settlers.

The Call of the North

In the shadow of Jim Crow’s pervasive racial discrimination, African American families, primarily from states like Oklahoma and Texas, were lured to the Canadian Prairies by the Dominion Lands Policy—a federal initiative designed to promote western expansion by offering land to settlers at minimal costs. As these families settled in Alberta, communities such as Amber Valley began to take root. Sold as a beacon of freedom and opportunity in western Canada, it was not without its challenges for Black settlers. According to the Historic Resources Management Branch of Alberta, Culture and Status of Women, the influx of Black immigrants was met with significant resistance, including a petition from the Edmonton Board of Trade, dramatically labelled a “serious menace.” This reaction, backed by a substantial portion of the city’s population, illustrated the deep-seated racial prejudices of the time (RETROactive 2015).

Obadiah Place

In the heart of Amber Valley, Obadiah Place is a testament to the community’s unity and perseverance. Recognized as a Provincial Historic Resource, this site, with its distinctive wood “square house” and accompanying outbuildings, was the social centre of the settlement. Initially established by Willis Reese Bowen and later expanded by his son, Obadiah, the location became much more than a residence. It hosted the inaugural post office and the area’s first telephone, becoming a hub for community interaction and support. As noted by Canada’s Historic Places, Obadiah Place symbolizes the community’s spirit and resilience, with its well-preserved architectural features serving as a tangible reminder of Amber Valley’s pioneering past (Canada’s Historic Places, n.d.).

Philatelic Tribute

Canada Post immortalized the enduring spirit and remarkable resilience of Amber Valley’s early Black settlers in its evocative Black History Month stamp series. These stamps do more than acknowledge; they celebrate the strong community that flourished despite daunting challenges. Canada Post’s tribute captures the essence of Amber Valley’s perseverance and unity, using archival photos and symbolic imagery to honour the settlers’ legacy (Canada Post 2017).

A Sterling Tribute

Echoing the community’s indomitable spirit, the Royal Canadian Mint introduced the $20 Pure Silver Coin, a prized component of its Black History series. Priced at CAD 104.95, this coin is a collector’s item and a poignant homage to Amber Valley’s Black pioneers. According to the Royal Canadian Mint, the coin narrates the settlers’ arduous journey and the establishment of their community, bringing to life an often-overlooked chapter of Canada’s immigration history and celebrating the resilience and pioneering spirit that characterized their quest for a new life in Canada’s west (Royal Canadian Mint, n.d.).

The Grit Behind the Greenery

The inception of Amber Valley was fraught with formidable challenges. The Canadian Prairies, a stark contrast to the lush landscapes promised by the Dominion Lands Policy, presented settlers with a rugged canvas. Once relinquished by European homesteaders due to its infestation and marshy terrain, land demanded substantial labour to morph into fertile fields. Undaunted by the initial state of the land, the African American settlers dedicated two to three years of rigorous toil to cultivate and prepare it for agriculture. Complementing their farming endeavours, they engaged in ancillary work as freight haulers, lumberyard workers, and other seasonal capacities (The Canadian Encyclopedia 2021).

A Community in Bloom

From 1911 through the 1940s, Amber Valley thrived. The inception of Toles School in 1913, christened in honour of Nimrod Toles, one of the initial settlers, emerged as a pivotal element of community life. The school epitomized the community’s ethos and aspirations as both an educational nucleus and a venue for communal and spiritual gatherings. The Amber Valley baseball team, established in 1926 by J.D. Edwards, evolved into a beacon of pride and solidarity. Celebrated for their prowess and panache, the team transcended racial barriers by competing against white teams throughout northern Alberta. This dynamic was in sharp contrast to the racial segregation that permeated the Southern US. Their matches, particularly during Canada Day celebrations, attracted substantial audiences and fortified community bonds. Amber Valley’s women were instrumental in the everyday fabric of the community as midwives and business owners and in enhancing its cultural tapestry, creating the baseball team’s uniforms and fostering a legacy of resilience and tenacity (The Canadian Encyclopedia 2021).

The Echoes of Amber Valley

As the 1930s and 1940s unfolded, transformative currents reshaped the Prairies. The allure of urban life and the pursuit of employment opportunities drew many, including Amber Valley’s residents, towards metropolises like Calgary and Edmonton. This era witnessed the fading of older generations, the selling of homesteads, and the closure of central landmarks like the post office and school. Today, Amber Valley stands as a silent testament to its once-vibrant past. The community hall, housing a museum replete with artifacts from a bygone era, and the well-preserved cabin of Romeo Edwards are enduring tributes to the settlers’ resilience, unity, and unwavering spirit. Though silent, Amber Valley continues articulating a narrative of determination, solidarity, and an unrelenting quest for a dignified existence.

The Legacy of Amber Valley

As the chapters of Amber Valley’s story echo through the corridors of Canadian history, they resonate with themes of perseverance, unity, and unyielding spirit. From the steadfast foundations of Obadiah Place to the national tributes of Canada Post and the Royal Canadian Mint, the legacy of Amber Valley’s settlers transcends the confines of time and geography, honouring the past and enriching our understanding of Canada’s multifaceted heritage. Acknowledging and celebrating the enduring contributions of these pioneering settlers reminds us of the strength found in diversity, the resilience born of unity, and the profound impact of a community’s determination to carve out a place of dignity, respect, and recognition in the annals of history. With its trials and triumphs, Amber Valley is a testament to humanity’s enduring spirit and a pivotal chapter in the larger story of our nation’s pursuit of inclusivity and equality.

References

Canada Post. 2021. “Black History: Willow Grove, NB, and Amber Valley, AB.” Canadian Stamp Storie. Last modified January 22, 2021. https://origin-www.canadapost.ca/cpc/en/personal/collectibles/stamp-stories/2021-01-22-Black-history-willow-grove-nb-and-amber-valley-ab.

Canada’s Historic Places. n.d. “Obadiah Place.” Accessed February 4, 2024. https://www.historicplaces.ca/en/rep-reg/place-lieu.aspx?id=5914.

RETROactive. 2015. “African American Immigration to Alberta.” Alberta’s History. Last modified February 12, 2015. https://albertashistoricplaces.com/2015/02/12/african-american-immigration-to-alberta/.

Royal Canadian Mint. n.d. “$20 Pure Silver Coin – Commemorating Black History: Amber Valley.” Accessed February 4, 2024. https://www.mint.ca/en/shop/coins/2024/20-pure-silver-coin-commemorating-Black-history-amber-valley-lc.

The Canadian Encyclopedia. 2021. “Amber Valley.” Article. Last modified April 22, 2021. https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/amber-valley.

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