Trailblazing Black Albertans who, too often, are hidden in provincial and Canadian narratives. These stories, as the achievements of these Black Albertans, act as a corrective to misconceptions of Black Albertans as newcomers and the deficit narratives that function to limit Black aspirations and achievements.
Written and curated by Malinda S. Smith, PhD, Vice Provost (Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion), Associate Vice-President Research-EDI | UCalgary
Joseph Lewis (1772-1820)
Fur trader and voyageur Joseph Lewis, also known as Levy Johnston, arrived in the Indigenous territories now known as Alberta and Saskatchewan circa 1799. He is believed to be among the first Black people to visit the area, although in the Hudson Bay records Lewis is sometimes identified as Black, as “coloured” and as mulatto or mixed race. Lewis was born in 1772 in Manchester, New Hampshire. He moved north to Montreal circa 1792 and was part of another fur trading company before signing a contract with the Hudson Bay Company in July 1796 for 20 pounds a year as a steersman. The records also suggest Lewis was respected as sober, reliable, and hardworking. A few years later he migrated westward to the Lac La Biche area, where he was employed with Peter Fidler, founder of Greenwich House. Lewis met and married a First Nations woman, whose name is not yet uncovered in the historical records. They had a son James and two daughters Margaret and Polly. In 1814 Lewis left the Hudson Bay Co and worked as an independent businessman. In an encounter with a Blackfoot he was killed in May 1820. His children moved to Red River, Manitoba, where they married into, and became part of, the Métis community.
- Bertrand Bickersteth. “Black Fur Traders in Alberta,” Canadian Encyclopedia (March 4, 2020)
- Paula Simons. “The Story of Joseph Lewis: Diversity is Alberta’s strength,” Alberta Views (January 1, 2020)
- Paula Simons. “Strong and free: The adventures of Joseph Lewis, Edmonton's first black voyageur,” Edmonton Journal (February 25, 2017)
Annie Saunders (ca 1836-1898)
Annie Saunders is an early embodiment of the entrepreneurial spirt among settlers on Indigenous territories now known as the province of Alberta. Born in the United States circa 1836, it was a serendipitous encounter that led to her migration to area nearly 30 years before Alberta became a province. In 1877 she was a steamboat stewardess when she met and was hired by Mary Macleod to serve as nannie and housekeeper for the family. Macleod, the wife of Colonel James Macleod of the North-West Mounted Police, was on route to Fort Benton, Montana, and then to Fort Macleod. Saunders lived with the Macleod family from 1877 to 1880. Although it could not have been easy for a single Black woman to navigate the race and gender relations of the time, Saunders later branched out on her own and ran a number of successful small businesses, including a restaurant and catering business, a laundry service, and a boarding room service for children. Saunders died on July 19, 1898 in Pincher Creek and her funeral on 27 July, 1898 was reportedly well attended by the local residents.
Violet King (1929-1982)
Born in Calgary to descendants of the Black pioneers of Alberta, Violet King was a woman of many “firsts.” She grew up in Sunnyside, attended Crescent Heights High School and, in Grade 12, she became the president of her high school’s girls' club. In Law School, she was the only woman in her graduating class, and the first Black person to graduate with a law degree in Alberta (UofA 1953). After articling with the Calgary law firm of Edward J. McCormick, Q.C., in 1954 King became the first Black person admitted to the Alberta Bar and the first Black woman lawyer in Canada. During a November 1955 speech, King noted, “It is too bad that a Japanese, Chinese, or coloured girl has to outshine others to secure a position.” King practiced as a lawyer for several years before leaving Calgary to work at the Department of Citizenship and Immigration in Ottawa. King later migrated to the United States to work at the YMCA. In 1976 when she was promoted to Executive Director of the YMCA’s National Council, she became the first woman to hold a national executive position with that organization. She was only 52 years old when she died of cancer in New York on March 30, 1982.
- Bill Macfarlane. “Alberta's first black lawyer remembered by childhood friends,” Calgary CTV News (February 20, 2020)
- Susan McLeod. Outshining others to secure a position,” Th Whig, Kingston (February 13, 2020)
- Lindsay Ruck. “Violet King” The Canadian Encyclopedia (November 16, 2017)
- Malinda S. Smith. “Beyond a Single Story: Black Lives and Hidden Figures in the Canadian Academy,” Ideas Idees (February 2-18, 2020)
John Ware (ca. 1845-1905)
John Ware was born an enslaved Black man on a cotton plantation in the United States circa 1845 near Georgetown, South Carolina. He survived enslavement, anti-Black racism and discrimination to become among Alberta’s best known cowboys and ranchers. After gaining his freedom he moved westward, eventually ending up in Forth Worth, Texas, where he honed his skills as a cowboy. In 1882 he was among those hired to bring 3,000 herd of cattle to the Sir Hugh Allan’s North-West Cattle Co. in Southwest, Calgary. For some years he worked on the Bar U Ranch and Quorn Ranch, where he managed the horse herd. He was also among herders who rounded up horses in the foothills of Calgary. Ware’s brand was registered as “9999” or the “working stick brand”. In 1900, he bought his own ranch near Millarville, where he lived with his wife Mildred Lewis and five children. John Ware died near Brooks, Alberta on September 13, 1905. A Canada Post stamp was issued in his name during Black History Month February 2012.
- “Cheryl Foggo. “We Were Here (John Ware Reimagined),” Scotiabank Backseat, Studio Bell (May 29, 2020)
- John Ware: Dinosaur Provincial Park
- “S2: Shout Out to John Ware,” The Secret Life of Canada, a podcast hosted by Falen Johnson and Leah Simone Bowen, CBC (February 5, 2019)
- Historica Canada. “The Canadians: John Ware,” YouTube (2015)
City of Calgary Archives
Virnetta Nelson Anderson (1920-2006)
Virnetta Anderson was born in Monticello, Arkansas on October 29, 1920. She completed high school in Hot Springs and advanced education at the A.M. and N. College and the Metropolitan School of Business in Los Angeles. Anderson migrated to Calgary in 1952 after her husband, Ezzrett “Sugarfoot” Anderson, was recruited by the Calgary Stampeders. Over the decades she was actively engaged in the church, charities, and broader community. Anderson served on many boards, including the United Way, Calgary Tourist, and the Calgary Centre for the Performing Arts. She was a co-founder of, and served as a president of Meals on Wheels. In 1974 she was elected to Calgary City Council, becoming the first Black alderwoman in the city and the province. Anderson served on the Calgary City Council from 1974-1977. After her term ended she was appointed by then Mayor Ralph Klein to serve on his Citizen Advisory Committee. In 1988 she was named the Paul Harris Fellow by Calgary’s Rotary Club. In September 2020, the Calgary City Council honoured Anderson by naming the newly renovated great hall, the “Virnetta Anderson Hall”.
- Adam Toy. “Calgary’s 1st Black city council member to be honoured in municipal building,” Global News (September 15, 2020)
- “Obituary: Virnetta Anderson, October 29, 1920 - February 11, 2006,” Calgary Herald
- Virnetta Anderson
- “Virnetta Anderson Hall: Municipal reception hall renamed in honour of former alderman's legacy,” City of Calgary Newsroom (September 15, 2020)
Lionel Locksley Jones (1938-2016)
Lionel Jones was born in Edmonton on August 21, 1938. He completed a BA in Physical Education, followed in 1968 by an LLB from the University of Alberta. In 1963 Jones became the first Black man, and second Black person, to be called to the Alberta Bar. Jones led a storied legal career. While many believed Ontario’s Justice George E. Carter was the first Canadian-born Black justice (appointed 1979), that distinction went to Alberta’s Justice Lionel Jones (appointed 1977). Over the course of his career, Jones worked as a Legislative Draftsman (1966-1969) and as a Crown Prosecutor (1969-1972) in the Office of the Attorney General of Alberta. Jones then served as Senior Crown Counsel in the Department of Justice for the Government of Canada (1972-1977). He was appointed to the provincial bench in 1977, and became a Justice of Queen’s Bench of Alberta in 1995, where he served until his retirement in 2001. Jones died on October 19, 2016.
Eleanor Ruth Collins, C.M. (1919-)
Known as Canada’s first lady of jazz, Eleanor Collins, C.M., was born in Edmonton on November 21, 1919, to Estella Cowen Proctor and Richard Proctor, parents who were Black pioneers. Her family was part of the historic migration of African Americans from Oklahoma to the Canadian prairies. The legendary singer developed her musical talents singing gospel music in church and performing for her extended family. During such reunions, they shared stories about their backgrounds, identities, and transborder experiences escaping Jim Crow and racial segregation in the United States, only to experience racism and discrimination in Canada. At age-15 she won a singing contest and was featured on CFRN radio.
Over the course of her trailblazing career, Collins achieved many “firsts”: In 1954 she sang “III Winds” in CBC’s “Bamboula: A Day in the West Indies,” which was both the first live music television show and the first that had a mixed-race cast. A year later, Collins became the first Canadian woman to have her own national television show, including CBC’s “The Eleanor Show” (1955) and CBC’s “Eleanor” (1964). Although the Nat King Cole Show on NBC is often credited as the first TV show with a Black host, it debuted in 1956, one year after Collins’ show on CBC. In 1980, Collins performed “Looked to the Rainbow” with the Tommy Banks Orchestra on CBC television’s “Jazz Canada”. In 2014, Collins was awarded the Order of Canada. The citation stated that the Alberta trailblazer was “often compared to Lena Horne and Ella Fitzgerald”, was “the first artist of colour in North America to host her own national weekly television series”, and she was a “supremely talented vocalist who changed the face of race relations in mid-20th Century Vancouver – and consequently became a civic leader and pioneer in the development of British Columbia’s music industry.” In January 2022, Canada Poste issued a stamp in Eleanor Collins’ honour.
- “Canada Post honours jazz legend, Eleanor Collins, with stamp,” Canada Poste Magazine (January 21, 2022), https://www.canadapost-postescanada.ca/blogs/personal/perspectives/stamp-celebrates-eleanor-collins/
- CBC Podcast, “S2: Shout out to Eleanor Collins,” The Secret Life of Canada (December 18, 2018), https://radiopublic.com/the-secret-life-of-canada-Ww0QnZ/s1!dc709
- Betty Nygaard King, “Eleanor Collins,” The Canadian Encyclopedia (June 26, 2007. Updated January 24, 2022), https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/eleanor-collins-emc
Born and raised in Calgary, the internationally renowned novelist, Esi Edugyan is one of only three writers in history – with Alice Munro and M.G. Vassanji – to have won two Scotiabank Giller Prizes. Her parents emigrated from Ghana, and both were professionals – her mom a nurse, and her father an economist. The family’s experience of racism and discrimination left an indelible mark on Edugyan and her writing. She described her experiences of being “an apparition so dark and odd people in the street sometimes paused to watch me pass.” Edugyan completed a BA in creative writing from the University of Victoria in 1999, and a Master’s in creative writing from John Hopkins University in 2001. As well, she completed numerous artistic residencies in Canada and worldwide, including in France, Germany, Iceland and Hungary.
At the age of 24, Edugyan published her first novel, The Second Life of Samuel Tyne, with the University of Alberta Press in 2004. It was short-listed for the Hurston-Wright Legacy Award in Cleveland, Ohio. In 2011, she published Half-Blood Blues, which was awarded the Scotiabank Giller Prize on November 8, 2011, and the Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize and the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award in 2012. The book was also shortlisted for numerous other awards, including the Man Booker Prize and the Governor General’s Award for English-language fiction. In 2014, Half-Blood Blues was defended on Canada Reads by Donovan Bailey. In 2013 Edugyan delivered the annual Henry Kreisel Memorial Lecture at the University of Alberta. It was published in March 2014 as Dreaming of Elsewhere: Observation on Home. She described her first non-fiction as “an effort to find out if one can belong to more than one place, if a home is just a place or if it. Can be an idea, a person, a memory, or a dream.”
A third novel, Washington Black, garnered Edugyan her second Scotiabank Giller Prize in November 2018. The novel was also a finalist for the 2018 Man Booker Prize. “My desire,” said Edugyan, “was to show how the institution of slavery was so disfiguring and damaging to all human relationships.” In 2021 Edugyan delivered a six-part CBC Massey Lectures series, which was adapted as Out of the Sun: On Art, Race and Storytelling and published by the House of Anansi Press in September 2021. In 2022, Washington Black was announced as one of the books in Canada Reads 2022, which will run from March 28 to 31 on CBC TV, CBC Gem, and CBC Radio One. Edugyan and her family reside in Victoria.
- Sam Briger. “Novelist Esi Edugyan On Depicting The 'Forgotten Figures' Of Scientific History”, NPR (October 15, 2018), https://www.npr.org/2018/10/15/657459749/novelist-esi-edugyan-on-depicting-the-forgotten-figures-of-scientific-history
- Moira Dann. “In Conversation with Giller-Winning Novelist Esi Edugyan,” Yam
- Magazine https://www.yammagazine.com/in-conversation-with-giller-winning-novelist-esi-edugyan/
- Shazia Hafiz. “Esi Edugyan makes history with Washington Black” Quill & Quire (October 2018), https://quillandquire.com/authors/esi-edugyan-makes-history-with-washington-black/
- Ian Williams. “The Esi Edugyan story according to Google: She's a two-time Giller winner for 'Half-Blood Blues' and 'Washington Black.' She's a public intellectual. She's not a nutritionist. What else do you want to know?,” MacLean’s (September 22, 2021), https://www.macleans.ca/culture/books/esi-edugyan-massey-lectures-ian-williams/