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February is Black History Month — agents try to stop “The Black 1000” at Emerson border crossing
Feb 27, 2009

by Bruce Cherney (part 1)

When the first black president of the United States met Canada’s first black governor general, it was a poignant moment filled with historic significance.

On February 19, American President Barack Obama stepped off Air Force One and was greeted by Canadian Governor General Michaëlle Jean on the tarmac of Ottawa International Airport. The Canadian Press reported Jean as saying, “You would never have imagined that you and I could be here today, coming of African descent.”

An immediate connection was formed between the two who engaged in animated conversation. Jean laughed at an Obama quip, throwing her arm around the American president’s back as they strode side-by-side into the reception centre for a private conversation.

CP was told by Jean’s spokeswoman Martha Blouin that the laughter arose when the governor general said “she felt it was like a love affair between him and Canadians.

“He said to her he knew that ... he’d been informed that he was very popular in Canada. Then he joked and he added, ‘Well, it’s good to know, because if things don’t go well for me in the States, I know I can come to Canada.’

“That’s why she was laughing so much.”

Ironically, if this meeting in Canada had been staged in 1911, the enthusiasm shown for a black American would have been decidedly absent. At that time, blacks were harassed at the U.S.-Canada border and a concerted effort was made to discourage them from entering the country.

Such was the fate of some 1,000 Oklahoma black settlers who arrived at the Emerson border crossing with the expectation they would be greeted with open arms and once across be given the same opportunity afforded other immigrants to show their worth as new Canadians.

The blacks had been landholders and successful farmers in their home state, but a series of new laws conspired against them and forced them to pursue a new life in a new land. The blacks had lived in relative comfort in what had been Indian Territory  in the U.S., but when Oklahoma became a state in 1907, and a massive influx of white settlers followed, the blacks were becoming increasingly segregated. 

“Jim Crow” legislation was passed in 1907 and 1908, creating separate black and white schools, establishing separate railway and street cars for blacks and whites, voting statutes were reconfigured to make it difficult for blacks to exercise their right to vote, their property rights were being eroded and a miscegenation statute was passed making it against the law for anyone of African descent to marry anyone who was of non-African descent.

The state government organized Okfuskee County as Oklahoma’s black segregated region, which included the all-black towns of Okemah and Weleetka.  

Black unease intensified in May 1911 when whites hanged two black men from a railway bridge crossing the North Canadian River near the black community of Boley.

The New York Times on April 2, 1911, said Oklahoma blacks fleeing the “Jim Crow laws” were educated at federal Indian schools “and are owners of considerable property.”

The segregation laws and violence made Oklahoma blacks look for a safer haven in a new land, but what they didn’t realize was that the Canadian government was not entirely sympathetic to their plight.

In the early years of the 20th century, Canadian immigration agents were actively seeking American settlers from the Midwest agricultural states, and the Oklahoma blacks felt they should become part of the exodus to the “promised land” in order to escape the oppression closing in on them. 

Following the election of Prime Minister Sir Wilfrid Laurier’s Liberal government in 1896, Canada’s immigration laws were made less stringent. After the election, Brandon Liberal MP Sir Clifford Sifton, the minister of the interior responsible for Western Canadian immigration, encouraged “stalwart peasants in sheep-skin coats” from Eastern Europe with an agricultural tradition to settle in Western Canada. Until then, Galicians, as the settlers from Ukraine were called, would have been classified as “undesirables,” while the favoured were those from the British Isles.

The relaxing of the immigration laws gave Oklahoma blacks the impression that they would also be welcomed in Western Canada. They believed their arrival would be as eagerly anticipated as was the white American settlers. They also hoped to acquire 160 acres  of farm land from the government under the Homestead Act of 1872 at a cost of $10 with the promise to build a home and cultivate a portion of the land within three years.

Sifton’s relaxation of immigration rules also made it possible for ethnic and religious  groups “who could farm” to obtain  blocks of free land in Western Canada.

“The black settlers appeared to want two things especially: land near railroads and distance from the United States,” wrote Colin A. Thomson in his book, Blacks in Deep Snow: Black Pioneers in Canada.

Following 1907, a trickle of blacks had made their way to Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta, but 1911 was expected to be a year of mass immigration, especially of settlers headed for Alberta. This mass exodus would become known as “The Black 1000.”

Noting the proposed black immigration, William Thoburn, a Conservative MP from the Ontario riding of Lanark North, said “as long as we give the free homesteads in Canada’s northwest, they (blacks) will come by the tens of thousands. I would like to ask the government if they think it is in the interests of Canada that we should have negro colonization in the Canadian northwest. Would it not be preferable to preserve for Canada the land they propose to give to negroes?”

The Winnipeg Board of Trade  suggested a head tax of $500 be imposed on black immigrants, but the New York Times reported “ministers declared that there was no intention to class negroes with Chinese,” who at the time were forced to pay a head tax of $500 for entry into Canada.

“But it would seem that the attitude of the (Canadian) government is more hospitable than that of the neighbours of these unwanted Americans.” 

Oliver left questions on black immigration in the House of Commons mostly unanswered, merely saying “so far as my information goes there is a very strong sentiment on the part of a great many people in this country against the admission of negroes.”

Only relatively minor objections arose over earlier black immigration, but the reports in 1911 of the mass exodus aroused consternation and prejudices among federal officials, politicians, and in the Western business community as well as a number of newspapers. These were the same newspapers that reported with horror the lynching of blacks in the Southern U.S., condemning such acts of wanton violence as contrary to the traditions of “British” justice.

Ironically, the same prejudices that unjustly degraded blacks and gave rise to lynchings in the U.S. were being expressed in Canada. Twelve Albertans wrote to Frank Oliver, who had replaced Sifton as the interior minister, expressing the concern that “negro immigration” would discourage white settlement and depreciate land values. 

The letter further said blacks posed a sexual threat to white women. “We do not wish that the fair fame of Western Canada should be sullied with the shadow of Lynch Law but we have no guarantee that our women will be safer in their scattered homesteads than  other white women in other countries with a negro population,” wrote the 12 Albertans.

Surprisingly, the Edmonton Bulletin, a newspaper owned by Oliver, warned that “increased negro immigration could serve potentially as an incitement to racial violence as yet unknown in Canada.”

Dr. Ella Synge, a spokeswoman for a group of Western women opposed to black immigration, said the potential for black “outrages” against white women “is pointing to lynch law” as “the ultimate result, as sure as we allow such people to settle among us.”

A black woman originally from Maryland living in Ontario correctly asked, “Why should there be race riots of we hold true to British law?”

According to the Toronto Mail and Empire of April 27, 1911: “If negroes and white people cannot live in accord in the South, they cannot live in accord in the north. Our western population is being largely settled by white people from the United States. If we freely admit black people from that country,we should have race troubles that are a blot on the civilization of our neighbours ... The negro question is of the United States’ own making and Canada cannot allow any part of her territory to be used as a relief colony on that account.”

In 1911, the Edmonton chapter of the United Farmers of Alberta joined the Edmonton and Winnipeg boards of trade in claiming “negroes undesirable as fellow citizens.” F.T. Fisher, the secretary of the Edmonton Board of Trade, said, “those negroes who have been here some time have had a square deal and been treated as whites. But if you would get a thousand more in, conditions would be much changed. They would be treated as they were in the south.”

A June 6, 1906, letter to the editor of the Morning Telegram in Winnipeg expressed the opinion that blacks must show the patience of Job, mentioning “a growing disposition on the part of many of Winnipeg’s population to belittle, deride, discourage and to embarrass the negro in his effort, even to become a recognized human being in Winnipeg’s upbuilding.”

Letter writer Carlos Regas, a black resident of the city living at 704 Main St., said “many of us who come with credentials of good character, that would prove worthy citizens if only an opportunity were offered, and the slightest tendency to ‘good fellowship’ shown. But, alas! Negrophobia seems to be a world contagion.”

He said he could understand the discrimination shown to blacks in the U.S., but “in Winnipeg — in Canada! A name fully as euphonious to a negro’s ear as Home!”

Regas said Winnipeg blacks were denied rooms in hotels, openly told they were not welcome in restaurants or simply ignored while awaiting service, and the police put blacks “on par with that of a yellow dog.” 

An example of how blacks were treated by police was reported in the Telegram  in the fall of 1908. A number of blacks from Nova Scotia were brought to Estevan as part of the annual “Harvest Excursions” pool of farm labourers. One of the group, Charles Pollowis, wrote a letter to the CPR office in Winnipeg, saying that  immediately upon arrival in Estevan he and five other blacks had been arrested as vagrants by police. They appeared before a magistrate, were each fined $1.50 and ordered to leave town that night. Able to pay their fines, they were released from jail.

The plight of the previously jailed blacks attracted the attention of town residents. Some of the men were given jobs in the coal mines 16 kilometres southeast of Estevan. A man named Davis also took “an active interest in the case, and (called for) an indignation meeting of the citizens ..” to protest the treatment the Canadian blacks received.

Davis said one of the party broke down and wept at the “injustice” afforded “British citizens.” Their treatment should be considered extremely unjust when taking into account that blacks had been residents of Nova Scotia since 1783, when thousands of freed U.S. slaves were settled in the province as a reward for fighting for the British during the American Revolution. 

“An important factor in the case is that the men were all furnished with money and had return tickets back to their homes,” reported the Telegram. “The immigration authorities in Estevan are doing their best to help the negroes out of their predicament and the CPR is also being appealed to.”

The citizens of Virden took care of a party of Barbados blacks (also British citizens) unable to find farm work since reaching the town on August 12, 1908. It was reported “the farmers’ wives in the district are afraid to have them working on their places ...” 

Virden Mayor Clingan wired immigration authorities in Winnipeg asking “for advice on what to do with them.”

“We are neither better nor worse than other people; some good, some bad ... We hope and pray for a better understanding here among the people of Winnipeg, where we have all assembled to build up one of the greatest cities in the middle northwest,” Regas said in his letter.

Regas told Telegram readers using the word “nigger” was “an insult to the race, and should not be indulged in by people of refinement and good taste ... because it creates and ferments race hatred ...” 

Unfortunately, the disparaging word was then commonly used by newspapers and others, especially — but not exclusively — when discussing so-called “Nigger” music (ragtime) and black entertainers. Advertisements in 1870s Winnipeg newspapers for a carriage company, said  customers “may be favoured with horse-shoeing: A specialty by Nigger George, the champion horse-shoer of the Province.”

A March 2, 1897, article in the Winnipeg-based Daily Nor’Wester article, entitled An Honest Porter, related the story of a white Winnipegger who, while on the train in St. Paul, lost a $350 diamond ring that was found and returned by a black porter. The newspaper refused to concede that similar to whites the vast majority of blacks were capable of honesty, and instead commented that the porter was “an exception to the general run of niggers.”

In 1911, the Free Press repeated the ridiculous theory then making the rounds in Canadian newspapers that the climate of Western Canada was unsuitable to blacks. “Here the cold of winter reached intensity, and it is not regarded as physically possible for the coloured race to thrive and prosper under conditions so foreign to its origin.”

Immigration agents in Winnipeg prepared a memorandum suggesting that blacks should be barred because they could not “become adapted to the rigorous northern climate and consequently become a public charge.”

What newspapers and the agents failed to mention was that blacks had been living for decades under the same adverse winter conditions experienced by whites in Ontario and Nova Scotia. Actually, when it was reported many blacks preferred the cold winters of Alberta to living in the Southern U.S., this argument fell apart and other reasons had to be found to keep black immigrants out of Canada.

While some opposed black immigration, there were its vocal supporters. The MP from South Essex in southwest Ontario, where a large black population existed — primarily former black slaves who had fled the U.S. via the Underground Railway for freedom in Canada and their descendants, as well as the descendants of the ex-slaves of United Empire Loyalists from the U.S. — criticized Ottawa for taking steps to prevent blacks from entering Canada. The MP said, “Coloured people in my experience have been amongst the most loyal citizens of this country.”

The MP for West Kent, another area with a large black population, commented that black farmers “are amongst the most industrious and successful citizens of the Dominion.”

It should be noted that unlike the U.S. no “Jim Crow” laws against blacks could be legally enacted in Canada. Any black adult male — women weren’t given the federal vote until 1917 — residing in Canada who was a citizen by virtue of residence had the right to vote. 

Yet, the federal Chinese Exclusion Act of 1923 denied the vote to Chinese Canadians until repealed in 1947. Japanese Canadians had their citizenship taken away during the Second World War and were interned in camps for the duration of  the war. They were not allowed to again vote until 1949.

In transit, most of the Oklahoma black settlers were expected to be processed at the Emerson border crossing due to its rail link with St. Paul Minnesota.

“Driven from Oklahoma, where they claim they had been robbed of property and the right to vote, a band of negroes are in St. Paul, facing the problem of being barred from Western Canada, where they had hoped to start anew,” reported the Winnipeg-based labour newspaper The Voice, on March 31,1911.

The newspaper said those gathered in St. Paul were the advance party for a group that was expected to number 5,000 — eventually only “The Black 1000” crossed into Canada in 1911.

“The Dominion (Canadian) government last year let in a few people of mixed Cree Indian and negro blood, but the authorities apparently scenting a ‘race problem’ have taken steps to stem the tide, with the result that when the families in St. Paul reach the Canadian border at Emerson, they may find themselves forced to return to Oklahoma or some other state in the union.”

This would have been an unexpected outcome as the blacks had apparently been encouraged by some whites to immigrate to Western Canada. Oklahoma newspapers reported that the “exodus of negroes” was in part sponsored by a white-owned colonization company in the state. Under the impression that all immigrants were welcome, a year earlier blacks headed to Canada to scout out what  land was available to them. They experienced no problems and brought back a favourable report.

Canadian immigration officials sent from Winnipeg to Oklahoma to “stem the tide” suggested the Rock Island and Southern Pacific railways had been exaggerating the attractions of Western Canada so that the railways could buy up vacated black-owned land cheaply. What they didn’t say was that “exaggeration” was used extensively by the same agents to attract white settlers.

Yet, the party in St. Paul was undeterred by the rumours that difficulties awaited them at the border.

The March 22, 1911, Manitoba Free Press reported their arrival at Emerson: “The hopeful and optimistic sentiment which pervaded the party of negro immigrants now under inspection at this port of entry, has given place to a feeling of apprehension as the medical inspection continues.”

When confronted with reports of the rigourous inspections, the New York Times on April 2 said the Canadian government indicated “all immigrants were tested solely upon their desirability, and were dealt with altogether apart from the question of their colour.”

Winnipeg-based American Consul-General John E. Jones arrived in Emerson to help the prospective black settlers after hearing rumours that medical inspections were to be used as a pretext to prevent black immigrants from entering Canada. He warned the Canadian government that all American immigrants were to be treated equally regardless of colour, and that any restrictive measures imposed on blacks would be seen by the U.S. government as an unfriendly act. 

“It is difficult to take any high view regarding the inhospitality of Canadians,” editorialized the New York Times on April 2, “both citizens and officials, toward ‘nationals’ who are fleeing from equal intolerance at home, and ill-treatment at the hands of both neighbours and legislators. Nothing reported from Canada is so shocking to humanity as the statute book of more than one state.”

Prior American Secretary of State Philander C. Knox summoned Jones to Washington to discuss the treatment of black immigrants at the border and the souring of U.S.-Canada relations. Knox warned Jones not to act on behalf of the black immigrants until evidence arose of discriminatory treatment. Jones didn’t have to wait long. 

(Black History Month ends February 28, but part 2 will appear in the next issue.)