Before 1907, there were few people of African descent in the Canadian West. But with the election of a racist state government in Oklahoma, in 1907, approximately 1200 African American families would flee the state, and immigrate to Canada where they created black farming communities in Saskatchewan, and Alberta.
The Shiloh settlement located north of Maidstone, Saskatchewan, was established in 1909. In Alberta there were settlements at Amber Valley, Campsie, Junkins, and Wildwood which were all established between 1909, and 1910. Unfortunately racism was rife in the West, and it wasn’t long before the outcry against this Black immigration exploded. Some of the most strident calls for a ban on African American immigration came from Edmonton, Alberta. Heeding this outcry the federal government quickly took measures to halt the immigration.
Although the majority of African Americans lived in these settlements a good number resided in the cities of Edmonton, and Calgary in Alberta, and North Battleford in Saskatchewan. Edmonton being the major center of commerce drew a steady stream of settlement people doing business, visiting relatives, and attending religious services. By 1924 Edmonton was a bustling city of some 63,000.00 citizens, and had a population of about 400 hundred African Americans. The Blacks had established their own churches, societies, charitable institutions, and clubs. There were also several Black owned businesses, located in the downtown area around 96th street and 103 avenue. Given the African Americans experience with overt racism and segregation in Oklahoma, it’s not surprising they would be sensitive to any similar treatment in Canada. The following story illustrates the underlying prejudice that Black citizens faced in Edmonton, and their battle to overcome it.
Who, growing up on the north side of Edmonton hasn’t been to Borden Park, and the Borden Park swimming pool? As a young boy in the late 1960s, I loved to go visit my cousins at their home in the neighborhood of Eastglen. Although there were other parks in the area, one of our favorite places was the nearby Borden Park, and swimming pool located just south of the present day Edmonton Exhibition grounds. Me and my cousins (brothers Tunney and Calvin Mayes), would spend our day playing on the swings, slides, and merry-go-rounds, as well as exploring acres of parkland. Then on those hottest of summer days we could go swimming in the cool, sparkling blue water, of the Bordon Park swimming pool.
Like most young teens and pre-teens we had little appreciation of history. We had no idea that in early July, 1924—some four and a half decades before we were born—Black citizens of Edmonton stood firm against a small group of racists within Edmonton city council, and the Edmonton Exhibition Association, to gain the right for Black boys like us to use Edmonton’s public swimming pools.
Borden Park was named after Canada’s eighth Prime Minister, Robert R. Borden, and was first known as the “East End City Park.” The park was renamed Borden after the Prime Minister’s visit to Alberta, in 1914. The north edge of the park featured a fair ground with a roller coaster, carousel, and other attractions. It also sported the city’s first zoo. On weekends thousands of people would congregate on the grounds playing ball, picnicking, “in various stages of dishabille [Undress]” while enjoying music played by the “Edmonton Citizens Band”.
It must have been quite a sight then when the new, “East End Swimming Pool” at Borden Park opened on Saturday, June 21, with great fanfare. The pool facility was state of the art with covered bleachers, a thermostatically controlled water supply, diving board, and showers.
In addition to the East End pool there were two other recently constructed municipal pools including one on the south side, and one in the west end, (Oliver). City council was hugely pleased with the tremendous popularity of the three municipal pools. A July 12, Edmonton Bulletin editorial explained that—when the idea was first brought forward to build the pools there was a bitter debate about the wisdom of wasting tax dollars on facilities that would be nothing more than: “expensive playthings”, and that “opposition was forthcoming from several corners.” But that opposition faded away as the money started flowing in. Instead of becoming a drain on city finances the pools became, “a paying utility” ” fattening city coffers with entrance fees“, ranging about $3000.00 per month for the three pools.” The editorial also pointed out an added bonus in that death by drowning at the city’s “dangerous waterholes and rivers” had been “reduced to a minimum”.
There were already problems brewing by the time the glowing editorial was printed on Saturday, June 12. Picking up the paper that same morning Edmonton citizens would see headlines shouting out in bold type that, “Negro Citizens Appeal Order Barring Them From City Pools”.
The problems started when Mrs. Poston’s ten year old son—in the company of two white boys—was denied entrance to the “East End Swimming Pool”. An angry Mrs. Poston quickly formed a committee consisting of my uncle Ernie Walker, the Reverend. George W Slater, Jr., and Richard Croth.
Initially the committee approached city commissioner, C. J. Yorath directly—to intervene, and reverse the decision. Much to the committees surprise and dismay; however, the commissioners own personal racist views would come into play. Yorath’s reply was: “he personally thought that a white man and a black man should not enter the same pool and that the order must stand.”
The committees letter went on to say that the order banning them from the municipal pools: “smacks so true to the form of hateful Ku Kluxism that discounts worthy people simply because of race, creed and color thus working moral and legal injustice which has always and will always bring dangerous consequences to all concerned.”
Yorath was quick to defend his position further exposing his own prejudice. The following day he issued a statement through the Bulletin. He seemed surprised at the opposition Black citizens expressed toward the ban, and stated “I regret exceedingly that the colored people have decided to make an issue of the question. . .” He then went on to imply that Black people had no reason to complain about their treatment in Edmonton, and that he was firm in the belief that when it came to “the question of mixed bathing pools, however, it cannot be allowed.” He was also bold enough to say that, “The objection may be taken for sentimental reasons which may or may not justified but which unfortunately exist.”
Edmonton City council heard the Black community’s complaint loudly and clearly in a special meeting held Monday afternoon July 14, as reported in the Bulletin on Tuesday morning, July 15. Mrs. Poston, Ernie Walker and Richard Croth representing the city’s black population appeared before council to state their case. According to the Bulletin the “gist” of their argument was that they were law abiding, tax paying citizens and “felt any discrimination keenly.” The black delegation also pointed out that their children went to the same schools and that, “we are allowed all the other privileges” white taxpayers enjoyed, “Why may we not use the civic pools?”
It’s apparent that city council was split on the subject. Alderman Rice Sheppard siding with the blacks addressed the meeting with words barely disguising his contempt for the ban. He reminded council that not only was there no discrimination collecting black citizen’s taxes but also, “there was no discrimination against the colored folk fighting along our own boys in France.”
Alderman Bury concurred, “pointing out that there was undoubtedly discrimination against colored folk that should not exist.”
The dissenters seriously outnumbered, fought back, with Alderman Collison being “slightly against the trend’, while Alderman Duggan, “wanted to refer the matter back to committee to see if some amicable settlement could be arrived at.” Ignoring the dissenter’s views, the vote was held, with the edict revoked by a sizable “majority” of city council.
The Black population could now swim in the city swimming pools!
This is where the story should end; however, a small group of racists—in city council, and the Edmonton Exhibition Association—were determined to keep black citizens from patronizing the East End Swimming Pool.
Author: LEANDER K. LANE