Ken and Joyce Edwards: Growing up in one of Alberta’s first black communities

Ken and Joyce Edwards: Growing up in one of Alberta’s first black communities

By Terry Jorden

Jefferson Edwards was only 21 when he left Oklahoma for Canada in 1910, seeking an escape from segregation and prejudice. That summer, he arrived in Edmonton by train and then walked 140 kilometers north and staked a homestead near Athabasca. The following year more Oklahoma families settled in the district. At its height, the resulting community of Amber Valley had a school, a church, and more than 300 black settlers. Jeff Edwards soon married Martha and together they had seven boys and three girls. One of those children was Ken Edwards, who is now 95 and living in Edmonton with his wife Joyce. These are some of their memories of more than six decades of life in Amber Valley.

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What Ken Edwards likes to remember most about Amber Valley was baseball.

In the 1920s and 1930s most towns in the area had baseball teams, but Amber Valley’s team was different. They had style, flair, and wherever they played people gathered to watch.

Ken’s father JD Edwards coached and managed the team. Ken was the pitcher and some of his brothers played in other positions. He remembers traveling to Boyle, Athabasca, Peace River and other towns to play, sometimes even riding in the back of cattle truck beside a keg of beer.

Looking back, Ken realizes that his teammates did more than just play baseball. They broke down racial barriers among the predominantly European farmers in the area. It wasn’t easy. He remembers the time a local black boxer went to Calgary for a fight but was not allowed to stay in the hotel.

The government of the day wasn’t helping either. The federal government was doing all it could to block or discourage American black settlers from settling in Canada. Immigration agents were opposed to the new settlers and attempted to convince blacks that the climate was too cold. The Edmonton Board of Trade even went on record opposing black immigration.

“When we first came here, you couldn’t go to certain places,” said Ken. “We were called names. There were harsh words but we took it. A lot of the people now say how crazy it was back then.”

“We changed a lot of people,” said Ken. “We changed the relationship between whites and blacks.”

Joyce married Ken when she was 18. She had known him all her life. Her family had come to Amber Valley around the same time as the Edwards. Together Joyce and Ken had six boys.

Joyce admits she was not as enthusiastic about baseball, although she did play softball in school. Her family, like the Edwards, were farmers, raising cattle and pigs and growing grain.

“Our parents never complained,” she said. “They had things to do and they just did it.”

She remembers fondly how women would get together to sew quilts, butcher chickens and do the canning. “We helped each other,” said Joyce, recalling the mission work of the ladies at the Baptist church. She enjoyed attending community dances with music provided by local bands.

In the years following WWII, Amber Valley, like many other towns, began to decline. Post-war prosperity brought modern conveniences like water and electricity. People began to move to larger communities where there was employment and other opportunities.

In Amber Valley, the school closed and the post office was gone. A recreation centre was built in the 1970s but by then the decline was unstoppable. “Many left,” remembered Joyce. “Many just died and there was no one to take over the farm so it was sold.”

“There’s no community now,” said Ken. “That’s the system now. They had electricity in Boyle and Athabasca and we had nothing. What was the little farmer to do?”

Both Ken and Joyce drove school busses in the area in the following years. Joyce also took a job in the cafeteria at the Union Hotel in Athabasca. Ken and Joyce held on until 2001. Finally, after 53 years, they sold the farm and moved into a modern bungalow in north Edmonton. They were the last of the original families to leave.

Although Ken reminisces about the old life, Joyce enjoys her new home close to the seniors’ centre where she takes exercise classes and learns to use the computer. Unlike in the past when there was not much for older persons to do while living on the farm, she sees plenty of social and recreational opportunities available for seniors today.

Joyce recently had knee surgery and was very happy with the level of care she received. She said the hospital staff were surprised to see her up and moving around the next day. She has only praise for the home care she received while recovering from surgery.

Ken, who has traded baseball for a weekly game of bowling, reflects: “We have a good life. I enjoy life.”

“Seniors these days are treated very well,” says Joyce. “Everyday I get up and look around and I realize that this day is a blessing.


This article was previously published in ACA News Winter 2013-2014.