Friday, February 26, 2016

Peace River's African Canadian Heritage

In today's multicultural society, we sometimes forget that our community, and Canada, has not always been as diverse or welcoming as it is now. February in Canada is Black History Month, and gives us a chance to reflect on the contributions African Canadians have made to Canadian culture, society, economics, and politics just to name a few. Alberta's Black heritage began in the mid-19th century with the migration of escaping Black slaves from the southern United States, and those that were free, but looking to escape the segregated life of the U.S. In moving to Canada they were able to be there own person, but many still faced discrimination and racism.

Dan Kelly and his family moved to the Peace Country in the 1920s, although it is possible they came to the Prairies between 1907 and 1911 with the wave of Black American settlers fleeing segregation. Nevertheless, he and his family, at one time, lived in a house one can see standing amongst the trees adjacent to what is now the Belle Petroleum Centre.

Kelly hauled the honey wagon around Peace River – an essential service in those days. He, too, was called “Nigger Dan” or “Nigger Kelly”. Many children of early Peace River will remember careening wildly down a steep incline, which takes off from 98 Street and 94 Ave., known locally as “Nigger Hill”, near the current Peace Country Co-op.

The Kelly daughters were well- known in town for their singing talents. It was in pursuit of honing these talents that led him and his family to live in Toronto. Dave and Johanna Steedsman bought the Kelly's house in 1937.

PRMA1979.1015.002 - Peace River School photograph. The Black girls in the photograph are thought to be the daughters of Mr. & Mrs. Dan Kelly. They were: Elizabeth, Emma & Stella.

Kelly, eventually returned to Peace River, alone. He lived for a time with Mrs. Magrum who was raising her family on her own at the time. As Lois Stranaghan recalls "At that time, everyone was poor - some more, some less - one cannot be critical of how people made their way." It is believed that a child was born from this relationship. Some sources say that Dan died of a heart attack but there are no confirmations of this.

The Museum would appreciate receiving more information and recollections about the Dan Kelly family and contemporary Black Canadian stories and experiences in Peace River.

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