AFRICAN AMERICAN EXODUS TO CANADA.
Between 1897 and 1911 Clifford Sifton, Canadian minister of the interior, actively promoted immigration to western Canada, offering free land to prospective immigrants from western and northern Europe and the United States. When these efforts failed to produce the desired results, Sifton recruited in eastern and southern Europe and in the United States. African Americans from Oklahoma enthusiastically responded.
When Oklahoma became a state in 1907, William H. Murray, president of the constitutional convention that united Indian Territory and Oklahoma Territory, remarked: "[I]t is an entirely false notion that the Negro can rise to the equal of a white man in the professions or become an equal citizen to grapple with public questions." The first state legislature discussed the possibility of disenfranchising black voters. Segregation legislation was passed in 1907 and implemented in 1908. It mandated separate railroad cars, streetcars, and schools. Blacks challenged segregation laws in the courts and organized protests, some of which were violent. Blacks also fought against Jim Crow transportation laws and against a grandfather clause that prohibited them from voting. Ultimately, they voted with their feet, and many migrated to western Canada.
In 1908 Canada instituted a restrictive immigration policy to curtail black immigration. This, however, failed to stem the tide of African Americans coming to Canada from Oklahoma and other places. Between 1908 and 1911 more than one thousand African American Oklahomans sold their farms and migrated to Alberta or Saskatchewan.
Some Canadian whites vociferously opposed black immigration. Considering black immigrants to be poor farmers and bad citizens, whites petitioned the government to restrict the movement. They argued that black settlers took the place of more desirable immigrants and that property adjacent to black settlements could not be sold.
When Canadian officials decided to restrict the entry of African Americans, they used the argument that blacks were not real farmers, but in reality, most of the immigrants were accomplished farmers. The government started a campaign to instill fear among prospective black immigrants, trying to convince them that they were not industrious enough or physically strong enough to cope with Canada's various soils and inhospitable climate. Conversely, however, the Canadian government continued to advertise, in black as well as white newspapers, that the climate was splendid and hospitable and that the soils were adaptable and rich, producing bumper harvests.
In 1910 W. J. White, a Canadian immigration inspector on a fact-finding mission to Oklahoma, found that blacks were leaving the new state because they were oppressed by social conditions and because they were denied voting rights. He later changed his mind, charging that railroad officials were encouraging blacks to leave, in order to obtain their land. Reflecting the racist attitudes of the time, White stated that the better class of blacks had already emigrated and that the newer immigrants would be "half breed Indians." He advised the government "to take such action as would prevent any more of them making homes in Canada." Blacks were declared unassimilable and "better adapted to life in a warmer climate." The Canadian government then advised J. S. Crawford, their agent in Kansas City, Missouri, "as a general policy, to refuse certificates or any encouragement to migration of this class," and to "take immediate measures to check this class of immigrants."
Canadian authorities instituted rigorous medical examinations to screen and delay black entrants into the nation. Medical officers often received bribes and fees based on the number of rejections. Blacks could only enter Canada through Emerson and North Portal. Those who entered through other posts had to give detailed explanations on how they had gotten into the country. Some immigrants had to undergo further screening upon arrival in Edmonton, where local health officials were instructed to find reasons to deport them.
Soon a scheme was developed to spread negative propaganda among prospective immigrants. In the United States, blacks who were opposed to immigration were supplied with photographs unfavorably depicting the Canadian climate. G. W. Miller, a black medical doctor from Chicago, was hired to go to Oklahoma to prevent applicants from emigrating. Readily accepted because of his medical credentials, Miller was successful in his assigned duties, convincing many Oklahoma blacks that they could not prosper in Canada's cold climate. Black editors and preachers augmented his efforts.
Nevertheless, social factors continued to propel African Americans out of the state. Capitalizing on antiblack sentiments, the Democratic Party disenfranchised black voters in order to retain white control of the state government. Whites organized violence and intimidation against blacks and threatened the lives of anyone who employed or rented land to them. Furthermore, black Indians (Creek Negroes or former Creek slaves) resisted black settlers (the Watchina or "state Negroes") from the Old South. Black Indians blamed the Watchina for the loss of status and for being reclassified as blacks and not Indians.
Among the prominent African Americans who immigrated were Benjamin Singleton and Edward P. McCabe. A direct correlation exists between the development of segregation in Oklahoma after statehood and emigration of blacks to Canada in the 1908–11 period.
L. W. Bertley, Canada and Its People of African Descent (Pierrefonds, P.Q.: Bilongo Publishers, 1977).
C. D. Corbett, Canada's Immigration Policy: A Critique (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1957).
Jimmie Franklin, Journey Toward Hope: History of Blacks in Oklahoma (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1982).
D. Chongo Mundende, "The Unwanted Oklahomans: Black Immigration to Western Canada," The Chronicles of Oklahoma 76 (Fall 1998).
D. Chongo Mundende, "African Immigration to Canada Since World War II" (M.A. thesis, University of Alberta, 1982).
The following (as per The Chicago Manual of Style, 17th edition) is the preferred citation for articles:
D. Chongo Mundende, "African American Exodus to Canada," The Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture, https://www.okhistory.org/publications/enc/entry.php?entry=AF001.
© Oklahoma Historical Society.