Parks Canada has officially recognized a largely forgotten chapter in Alberta's immigration history.
On Saturday, federal officials commemorated black pioneer immigration to the prairies with a historic plaque at Amber Valley, once the largest of seven majority black communities founded by African Americans fleeing persecution in the United States.
More than 1,000 African Americans fled across the border between 1908 and 1911 in response to Jim Crow laws in Oklahoma and other southern states, establishing new communities in Saskatchewan and Alberta.
"This event marked the country’s first experience with black immigration en masse and commemorates the establishment of these courageous black pioneers into the broader mosaic of Canada," minister responsible for Parks Canada Catherine McKenna said in a news release.
While the settlers hoped to escape prejudice, they encountered a backlash from white society that led to an unofficial policy of exclusion in Canada's immigration system.
Many black pioneers began fleeing Oklahoma in 1907 response to racial discrimination laws, lynchings and a resurgent Ku Klux Klan. They brought with them livestock and furniture, and established themselves in isolated communities in hopes of avoiding conflict with white settlers, according to a Parks Canada history of the period.
The event was the subject of a documentary released this February, Secret Alberta: The Former Life of Amber Valley.
Many of the settlers became successful farmers but they did not escape the discrimination that made them refugees. White residents of cities and small towns, aided by factions of the press and business community, began petitioning for a halt to black immigration. An order-in-council in place until the 1960s effectively ended the flow of black immigration to Canada.
The black settlements lasted through the 1930s, after which their populations began to decline as younger generations began moving to the cities.
Donna Zwicker, who sits on the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada, unveiled a plaque at the Amber Valley Cultural Centre May 13. Black pioneer immigration to Alberta and Saskatchewan is also being commemorated as an official National Historic Event.