This February, Heritage Park celebrates Black History Month with unique stories of how the Black community helped shape the history of the prairies. From John Ware, a skilled and highly respected cowboy and rancher, to Cheryl Foggo, a local Calgarian whose work focuses on western Canadians of African descent, shared below are a few stories of Black culture in western Canada.
Tom and Lena Selectman
Tom and Lena Selectman immigrated from the United States to Alberta, working as cooks in small town hotels until 1913, including the Wainwright Hotel from late 1910 until early 1912. Tom worked as a chef, with Lena working as a sous chef. Tom was talented in the kitchen - the Mirror Journal, the local newspaper for its namesake Albertan town, wrote “the cuisine of the new hotel seems to be in capable hands” after Tom had moved on from the Wainwright to work as a chef in Mirror’s Imperial Hotel.
It wasn’t only publications praising Tom’s cooking ability – a woman who worked in the Wainwright Hotel’s kitchen in the early 1900s once told a Heritage Park employee about Tom’s tenure as the Wainwright Hotel’s chef, commenting that he had been trained to work on Canadian National Railway dining cars, and was an excellent chef.
No records of the Selectmans in Canada exist after 1916 – and they likely returned to the United States. While we can’t definitively say what happened to the Selectmans after they left Canada, we do know they left an imprint on the Wainwright Hotel through their amazing culinary work, and contributed to the shaping of the hotel’s identity as a social hub in its town, a legacy that continues on today within the Historical Village.
John Ware was a skilled and highly respected cowboy and rancher, who called Alberta home for the second half of his life. Born an enslaved Black man in the United States in 1845, Ware came to Canada after gaining his freedom towards the end of the American Civil War in 1865.
Arriving in the early 1880s with the North West Cattle Company, Ware helped to drive thousands of cattle to what is now known as Bar-U Ranch, a national historic site, in southern Alberta. While at Bar-U Ranch, he helped erect the Saddle Horse Barn – which stands on the site to this day.
Ware worked at the Bar-U until 1884 and then took on a ranch of his own, becoming successful in the face of anti-Black racism and the tough conditions that came along with ranching in the 1880’s.
Ware’s connection to Heritage Park comes from the Mackay Cabin, a pioneer log cabin, built somewhere between 1884-1885. Ware’s in-laws are believed to have rented the cabin at one point and Ware’s first child Nettie (Janet) may have been born in the cabin in 1893.
Ware passed away in 1905 and had his funeral in Calgary, which was well attended by many members of ranching community from across the southern Alberta region.
You can learn more about John Ware in the National Film Board documentary John Ware Reclaimed directed by local filmmaker, author and playwright, Cheryl Foggo.
John Ware | The Canadian Encyclopedia
John Ware - Dinosaur Provincial Park | Alberta Parks
The Lewis Family
Charlotte Campbell Lewis and Daniel Vant Lewis were part of a network of thriving Black communities in southern Ontario during the mid to late 1800s. Daniel Lewis, his brothers and their father operated several businesses and participated in a wide range of community activities in Toronto.
Despite those close ties, Daniel and Charlotte made the decision to move their family by train to Alberta in 1889, filing for a homestead at Shepard that same year. When the Lewis family received visitors from the east, Shepard Station would have been their stop. However, as was the case with many small stations on the prairies at that time, Shepard was an unmanned flagstop. This station was erected in 1910, after the Lewis family had moved on.
Being more accustomed to the city life they had led in Toronto, Daniel eventually built a large home in Calgary for his family on the site where the Westbrook Mall currently sits.
Cheryl Foggo is a local award-winning author, filmmaker and playwright. Her recent works include the documentary film, John Ware Reclaimed (2020), which can be streamed for free on the National Film Board website, and a 30th anniversary edition of her first book Pourin’ Down Rain: A Black Woman Claims Her Place in the Canadian West, first published in 1990. Her work often focuses on the lives of western Canadians of African descent.
Foggo is also the recipient of Heritage Park’s first annual Women Making History in Alberta Award, which was established to celebrate women who have changed history in Alberta by inspiring others to bring their unique vision to life.
Stories From The Park: A Heritage Park Podcast
Download our brand-new podcast, Stories from the Park, and listen to our special Black History Month episodes, available on Feb. 1, 8 and 15.
The first two episodes feature Cheryl Foggo, a well-known documentary filmmaker, screenwriter, playwright and historian. Cheryl dives into Black history in western Canada, including why and how members of the community began migrating to the area and where they settled. We’ll also explore the stories of John Ware and the Selectmans, among others, and discuss the connections of the Black community to Heritage Park’s Historical Village.
The Feb. 15 episode features Gillar Prize winning author Suzette Mayr. Mayr’s work of historical fiction, The Sleeping Car Porter, focuses on a black sleeping car porter named Baxter and his story of working in the tough conditions many porters went through from the 1870s through the 1960s. Mayr talks about the history of Sleeping Car Porters, the dismal working conditions and overt racism they faced, their eventual labour organization and their legacy.
Stories From The Park is available on Spotify, Apple Podcasts and anywhere else you listen to podcasts.
The Annual Black History Month Dinner
The Calgary Black Chambers and Heritage Park partnered to host a fundraising event in support of the Calgary Black Chambers Scholarship Fund on Feb. 10. The fund elevates Black students through scholarships, recognition and financial support. We thank everyone for attending, it was a wonderful evening with a great turnout that featured a gourmet three-course dinner, music and captivating storytelling courtesy of the event's keynote speaker Cheryl Foggo.