As February comes to a close, so too does Black History Month 2018, an annual month of reflection and recognition of the contributions and experiences of citizens of African and Caribbean descent. As a city, and a province, we have a difficult past to reconcile when it comes to the history of racism and discrimination against people of colour, whether as settlers in the early twentieth century, or, more recently, as newcomers to Edmonton.
Black History Month is an important opportunity for Edmontonians to come together, share experiences, and embrace the full story of our city. We haven’t always made room for the voices of those so often pushed to the margins of history. It’s our hope that, as a heritage community, we can carry forward the spirit of Black History Month through all twelve months of the year and work to better support those documenting and sharing the diverse stories our city.
To mark the conclusion of Black History Month 2018, we caught up MLA David Shepherd for his reflections on the importance of Black History Month.
In 2015, I was elected as only the third person of African descent to serve as a Member of the Legislative Assembly of Alberta. I didn’t know it at the time. You see, despite having lived most of my life here, I’d never learned about the history of Albertans of African descent, or, in fact, even my own family heritage.
But as I started attending events with African and Caribbean communities in Edmonton where I heard how much it meant to have someone who looked like them was in a position of power. I was asked to speak at events welcoming immigrants and new citizens. And I realized I needed to sit down with my father and learn more about his history.
In 1967, at the age of 23, my father left Trinidad and arrived in Edmonton to start a new life. He’s told me some stories of those early days.
How at the height of the civil rights protests in the US, an older white woman was startled to notice him walking behind her on the street and quickly moved to get away from him.
How after confirming with a landlady that she had a suite for rent, it wasn’t available once he arrived in person but suddenly available again when another friend called shortly after.
How after he met and became engaged to my mother, the white daughter of Dutch immigrants, it took her parents some time to accept him.
Then, in early 2016, I started getting invitations to speak at events for Black History Month. I sat down to do some research and was surprised to discover a whole other story I’d never encountered before – that individuals of African descent had been part of Alberta’s history for over 130 years.
I learned about famed rancher & cowboy, John Ware. I read the story of the exodusters, African-Americans who came here seeking relief from prejudice & segregation in the US and founded communities like Amber Valley, Keystone (now Breton) and Campsie. And I learned about Violet King, the first black female lawyer in Canada.
I also learned how these men & women found they also faced racism and prejudice here. About Ms. Poston who led a community protest against whites-only access for Edmonton’s public swimming pools. About Charles Daniels who sued after being denied a seat he paid for on the ground level of a public theatre owned by the grandfather of the late Premier Lougheed (Daniels won).
In speaking with Minister of Culture & Tourism, Ricardo Miranda, we both agreed these stories needed to be remembered & told. Together we approached Premier Rachel Notley who, on January 31, 2017, made Alberta the fourth province in Canada to officially recognize February as Black History Month.
Representation matters – in our communities, systems of power, media and telling of our history. I’m proud to serve with a government that recognizes that fact and look forward to continuing to work to ensure the story of Alberta includes all Albertans.
David Shepherd is the MLA for Edmonton Centre.