Black History Month in Alberta—Trailblazers

familyincarIn our second of a three part series showcasing the black Albertans who helped shape our province’s history, we look at some of the trailblazers in our legal and political history.

Did you know that…

Violet King Henry became Canada’s first black female lawyer in 1954, after becoming the first black person in Alberta to graduate from law?

  • violetkingBorn in Calgary in 1929, she was the daughter of John and Stella King. John King and his extended family came to Alberta in 1911. They were ‘Exodusters’ from Oklahoma who settled in Keystone (now called Breton).
  • Being extraordinary started early for Violet, who became president of the Girls Association in Grade 12 at Crescent Heights High School. A caption under her Grade 12 photograph reportedly read “Violet wants to be a criminal lawyer.”
  • In a time when being black and a woman meant limited career choices, Violet studied at the Faculty of Law at the University of Alberta, one of three women to enter the program and the only one to graduate.
  • After practising criminal law in Calgary for a year, Violet got an opportunity to work for the Department of Citizenship and Immigration and moved to Ottawa.
  • In 1963, she moved to the United States where she earned another first, taking on several executive positions at the YW-YMCA in Newark and Chicago, becoming the first woman named to a senior management position with the American national YMCA.

Did you know that…

Virnetta Nelson Anderson was the first black person elected to Calgary City Council?

  • virnetta2Born in Arkansas in 1920, Virnetta came north in 1952 to be with her husband and Calgary Stampeder, Ezzrett “Sugarfoot” Anderson. Together, they were incredible ambassadors for Calgary.
  • Virnetta worked as a legal secretary and was a leader in her community before entering politics. She was President of the Calgary Presbytery United Church Women, a member of the executive of the Alberta United Church Women, and a Lay Commissioner to the United Church of Canada’s General Council from 1968 to 1970. She was also a member of the Mount Royal College Ladies Auxiliary and served as President of Meals on Wheels from 1971 to 1974.
  • From 1974 to 1977, Virnetta was Calgary’s ward 3 alderman.
  • Virnetta continued to contribute to the Calgary community, during and after her time on council. She sat on several boards and committees, including the United Way, the Calgary Metropolitan Foundation, Calgary Tourist and Convention Association, and the Calgary Centre for the Performing Arts, to name a few.
  • Following her career in politics, Virnetta became involved in real estate, serving as President of the Calgary Seniors Showcase Society.
  • Service to the community was a way of life for Virnetta, and she was recognized for it. The Calgary Rotary club honored her twice, naming her a Paul Harris Fellow in 1988 and presenting her with an Integrity Award in 1995.

Bonus Fun Fact:

washingtonWhen the efforts of many black men to enlist in the First World War were rebuked, Archbishop G. W. Washington offered to raise an all-black battalion from the Edmonton area. He was an important voice for the black community in its time, though he falsely claimed to then lieutenant-governor R.G. Brett that there were tens of thousands of able-bodied black men within a 100 mile radius. In reality, there were closer to hundreds. While he had no authority to do so, Brett endorsed the proposal to the military commander. The commander saw through the falsehood about numbers, but replied that they could be taken into a construction battalion because of “their great capacity” for manual work.1 In July 1916, military officials authorized the all-black No.2 Construction Battalion, which was established in Pictou, Nova Scotia. Washington founded St. Mark’s Church of the First Born in Butte, Montana, and came to Edmonton in 1913 on a mission to feed the hungry.

 

Keep an eye out for our third and final post honouring Black History Month in Alberta. It’s all about Canada’s favourite pastime—hockey! Bet you can guess one or two Albertans we’ll be featuring!

1Source: Blacks in Canada: A History by Robin W. Winks, pp 317-318.

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