Stamps bring to light the founding stories of two early Black communities in Canada

January 26, 2021
5 minute read

Not much is known about many of the dozens of communities and settlements that were founded by Black newcomers to Canada. But between the 1700s and early 1900s small waves of Black Americans journeyed north in search of land, opportunity and freedom.

In the 13th issue of our ongoing Black History Month stamp series, Canada Post is highlighting the stories of two of these lesser-known communities: Willow Grove in New Brunswick and Amber Valley in Alberta.

The founding of Willow Grove

During the War of 1812, the British had offered enslaved African Americans their freedom along with land in exchange for their support. Many took the offer, including almost 400 men, women and children who journeyed north aboard the HMS Regulus to New Brunswick in 1815.

Eventually 74 of the loyalists were provided with land outside of Saint John, in what became known as the community of Willow Grove. However, the size of the lots was substantially smaller than those given to white land grantees, and the land was of such poor quality it could barely be cultivated. They also could not own the land. Instead, the Black refugees were given licenses of occupation, which were essentially three-year leases.

To support themselves and their families, many had to travel into Saint John to look for work. But they met obstacles there, too. Racist restrictions prevented them from living in the city, owning businesses and voting. Despite these challenges, the people persevered.

“They got a foothold on Willow Grove and did their very best to develop a community,” says Ralph Thomas, co-founder and program coordinator for the New Brunswick Black History Society. “The people hung on and hung on until they became successful. It was one of the beginnings of diversity.”

Overcoming obstacles

The residents of Willow Grove were determined to fight for their rights and build on the freedoms they had attained after the war. Ten years after arriving, they were given 99 year leases on the land. Another decade after that, in 1836, they won the right to buy the titles to the land.

By the late 1800s, Willow Grove had become an established farming community, with 150 residents, a church, post office and general store.

“The people of Willow Grove were hard-working people. Of all the obstacles they went through, they stayed strong,” says Sylvia Seales, 77, who continues to live on the land purchased by her grandparents, Edward and Frances Roche. Back then, the homestead included cows, horses and a large vegetable garden that “had to be weeded every day.” It was also not too far from a spring, in which they caught herring and brought back water by sled.

She recalls how every Sunday after church, members of the community would gather at their house for lunch, even those who had left for the city. “Everyone looked out for one another. They just treated each other as they wanted to be treated.”

As more economic opportunities opened up elsewhere for Black Canadians, many residents of Willow Grove left the community to once again make a better life for them and their children.

The Amber Valley story

In the early 1900s, Canada had been putting out the call for people to come settle “the Last Best West”. At the same time, in the American South, racist Jim Crow laws were crushing the prospects of Black residents.

In Oklahoma, where Jim Crow was taking hold, a group of Black Americans heard about the opportunities in Canada. Parson Henry Sneed – who is featured on the stamp – travelled to Alberta to scout the land. When he returned he helped organize a group of some 30 families to journey north.

“They just wanted their freedom,” says Myrna Wisdom, of the Black Settlers of Alberta and Saskatchewan Historical Society. “They just wanted a place to call their own.”

The arrival of Black homesteaders shocked the government and sparked a backlash, which included the implementation of temporary restrictions to prevent further Black Americans from coming north.

However, the deal for land was honoured. The newcomers were provided with acreage in the isolated area of Pine Creek (later renamed Amber Valley), east of Athabasca to settle – though the land was far from ideal. It was remote and rugged, and had already been rejected by the European homesteaders in the area. But the families set to work, banding together to clear trees, bushes and the dense muskeg by hand.

To stay warm throughout the cold winters the new homesteaders built low-lying log cabins with limited windows and thick foundations. Some covered their homes in dirt or snow for extra insulation during the winter.

Building a better life

Over time, these pioneers built up a vibrant settlement, led by prominent community members, including Henry Sneed, Jordan Murphy and Willis Bowen. A post office, school and church were built. Midwife Amy Broady – who is also featured on the stamp – travelled the area on horseback. And the Amber Valley baseball team became famous in the area.

The group played other teams from the neighbouring white communities, and descendants credit the sport with helping to strengthen relations among the different communities.

At its height, Amber Valley was home to nearly 350 residents. But after the Second World War many had left to seek greater opportunities in surrounding cities.

The legacies

Overall, these communities provided a foundation for their residents and children to gain a foothold in Canada. Many of their descendants went on to make rich contributions from coast to coast, strengthening the diverse fabric of Canada that we celebrate today.

In Willow Grove, the historic black settlement is today honoured with a small replica of the Baptist Church, which burned down in 1931. Visitors will also find a sculpture featuring three large white crosses, which mark the burial ground where some 40 residents from the settlement are believed to be buried.

The area itself bears little resemblance to its early years. “We’re one of the last few Black families living here,” says Ms. Seales, adding that in recent years, she’s notice some have begun to return.

In Alberta, little remains of Amber Valley today. Its descendants have spread largely throughout Canada, yet the spirit of its history remains alive.

“Amber Valley has really caught the imagination of young Black artists in Canada,” says author and filmmaker Cheryl Foggo. “There are filmmakers, playwrights and lots of young people who are wanting to tell the story of Amber Valley because it is such an incredibly important story.”

The faces on the stamps

The Willow Grove stamp features illustrations based on photos of two lifelong residents of Willow Grove –  Alexander Diggs (c. 1900) and Eliza Taylor (1872). The stamp also shows HMS Regulus, on which Black American refugees arrived in Saint John in 1815 to found the community. In the background is the harbour of Saint John, based on an archival watercolour. A map of the area, with the location of Willow Grove marked by a star, is in the background.

The Amber Valley stamp features three key members of the community: Parson Henry Sneed (circa 1910), Jordan W. Murphy with great-granddaughter Bernice Bowen and granddaughter Vivian (Murphy) Harris (n.d.), and Amy Broady (circa 1925). Sneed and Murphy led the initial settlement of Amber Valley, while Broady was a midwife who served the growing community. The foreground shows wagons of the type likely used by the settlers against a landscape that evokes their journey from Edmonton to their new home. The background shows a map of Alberta, with the location of Amber Valley marked by a star.

Stamps bring to light the founding stories of two early Black communities in Canada

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