A group of 30 potential immigrants to Canada in the early years of the 20th century – Black men, women and children from Kansas City – must have found a grim irony in the name of the first B.C. community they arrived in.
As we mark Black History Month, it’s worth remembering that their reception in White Rock embodied broader problems of institutionalized racism.
The group arrived by train on April 14, 1911 at the Great Northern Station – also the local Customs and Immigration office – with the intention of settling on farmland in B.C.
They weren’t exactly welcomed with open arms, as an item in Lorraine Ellenwood’s comprehensive history of the early years of the community, Years of Promise: White Rock
It quotes an article in the Blaine Journal of April 21, 1911, which stated “the entire colony was held up at White Rock until the immigration department at Ottawa could be notified, and the Great Northern brought the car back and through to Bellingham the next day to await information from Ottawa.
It was Monday, April 17, the article noted, before the group learned that only 19 of the 30 would be allowed entry into Canada.
“They passed through that day,” the article goes on, “the other 11 deciding to locate in this state.”
The names and fates of the immigrants who were admitted that day – and those who stayed in Washington State – have been lost to time.
The incident remains a sad footnote to the history of pioneer settlement in White Rock and South Surrey, but it was far from isolated, information compiled by the Canadian Museum of Immigration (at Pier 21, Halifax, Nova Scotia) suggests.
According to the museum website, the kind of reception the Kansas City group received was typical of national immigration policy during the 15-year tenure of Liberal prime minister Sir Wilfrid Laurier.
What the 1911 article leaves out is that Black immigration to Canada at the time was not simply about a dream of farming north of the 49th Parallel.
African-American residents of Southern and midwest states were actively seeking to escape renewed racial discrimination that, by the early 1900s, had reached a horrifying zenith.
In many documented incidents, Black people judged guilty of crimes — or even simply believed to be guilty –on often flimsy and circumstantial evidence – were being dragged from jails and executed by white lynch mobs.
Little wonder that Black residents – many of them rural farmers – cast their eyes northward.
One group that arrived in Canada from Oklahoma in 1911 had numerous complaints of “disenfranchisement, theft of property, and refusal of admission to public places.”
“One remarked that he had ‘… heard about the free lands here and also that everyone had the right to vote and was a free man’.”
But as the museum notes, Canadian immigration agents, responding to widespread domestic pressure – and racist attitudes about Black settlement in the Canadian West – “carried on a concerted campaign to block Black settlement in Canada.”
“Canadian officials claimed no colour bar existed in their policies, but they created numerous obstacles for Black immigrants,” the website adds.
“Railway representatives ensured that African-Americans bound for Canada were charged a full fare for train travel, rather than the reduced settler rate.”
It also notes that, in one instance, the Commissioner of Immigration for Western Canada bribed a medical examiner to refuse Black immigrants.
And the requirement, recorded in Years of Promise, that each immigrant arriving in White Rock have $50 in his or her possession – the equivalent of some $1,233 Canadian today – was also far less about the self-sufficiency of potential new Canadians and more about raising barriers to non-white immigrants, often categorized as ‘labourers’.
Any requests for assistance and information from potential Black settlers were also rebuffed or ignored.
Canadian authorities went as far as to conduct a campaign in the midwest states to discourage immigration, hiring, among others, an African-Amercian, Dr. G.W. Miller of Chicago, to lecture potential immigrants on the poor conditions and unfair regulations they could expect in Canada.
The government’s racist policies culminated on 12 August 1911 with the passage in Parliament of an order-in-council banning any Black immigrants because it was ”deemed unsuitable to the climate and requirements of Canada.”
Due to a procedural error, this order was never formally invoked or written into the Immigration Act.
But the active discouragement and propaganda worked. According to the museum a total of only about 1000 African-Americans came to Canada between 1905 and 1912.
Not all of the story of Black immigration to this area is negative, however.
In 2019, the City of Surrey named a park in Cloverdale for Henry Houston Scott, a Texas-born Black immigrant who arrived shortly after the Kansas City group.
Formerly a homesteader in Oklahoma, he moved to Surrey in 1912 with his wife Amy Florence Aldridge and their three youngest children.
According to Surrey’s Parks and Recreation website, Henry purchased a seven acre property where the park is located, along today’s 64 Avenue at 181A Street, where they grew hay and kept dairy cattle and also established an orchard, vestiges of which survive in the park today.
And the family apparently thrived in their new home.
The Scotts’ son Roy, who died in 1970, became a worker at a lumber mill; another son, Jesse, who died in 1967, worked at the family farm and was also a baseball player with the IOCO senior baseball team; while daughter Benola Myrtle, who died in 1971, became a noted singer.
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