As migrants, not as settlers: Rachel Wolters, ‘As Migrants and as Immigrants: African Americans Search for Land and Liberty in the Great Plains, 1890–1912’, Great Plains Quarterly, 35, 4, 2015, pp. 333-355
Excerpt: In March 1913 Sally Carothers and her family made the journey from Weleetka, Oklahoma, to Edmonton, Canada, following the path that hundreds of African Americans from Oklahoma took to western Canada in the early twentieth century. Sally immediately felt the isolation of the western Great Plains in Canada: there were no churches or schools when her family settled on their homestead. But she also knew that her parents were not concerned about the absence of these institutions, because they had migrated to find freedom.
When in 1907 Oklahoma became the forty-sixth state with the merging of Oklahoma and Indian Territories, white Oklahomans, influenced by southern traditions of racial exclusion, immediately implemented Jim Crow legislation. As a result, hundreds of blacks sought freedom in Canada. “All they had in mind,” Sally recalled of her parents, “was coming to a country where we could have freedom—free to be a human being; free to be able to cope with any white person,” adding, “I never heard my dad say he regretted coming here.”
Freedom for many African Americans meant not only being “able to cope with any white person” but also having land of your own. And African Americans traveled north to Canada in search of land for their families. Walker Beaver was thirteen when his family left Oklahoma on March 21, 1910, for Athabasca, Alberta. His family traveled with a large group of people who brought all their household goods with them on a chartered freight car. Walker remembered that some people even brought their horses and wagons with them. These Oklahoma farmers were part of a larger migration of people leaving the United States for the Canadian prairies in search of cheap, productive land. As Walker recalled, “In Kansas City there was an agent telling people about Canada—the land of milk and honey—for ten dollars you could buy a hundred and sixty acres of land, a homestead. So people thought they were getting a fortune, you understand, that’s why they came.” For African Americans in Oklahoma, Canada represented an opportunity for both freedom and land.
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