Whenever February comes and I reflect on Black History Month and the profession of teaching in Alberta, I think of Gwendolyn Hooks, a Black teacher and one-time ATA local president.
Hooks began her teaching career near Breton, Alberta in 1942, which is where I began my teaching career nearly 60 years later.
Breton, I was surprised to learn after I began teaching there, was settled by Black settlers in the early 20th century, one of four communities in Alberta settled by Black people fleeing racism and violence in the United States in the decades following the abolition of slavery.
Through the passage of segregationist measures, which became known as Jim Crow laws, state institutionalized racism disenfranchised Black people and made it difficult for them to own property and to live free, safe lives. Public services were segregated and Black schools and libraries were often woefully underfunded.
Thousands of Jim Crow refugees fled north looking for a better life, freedom and opportunity in Canada. Like other settlers at the time, they were drawn to Alberta by the incentive of inexpensive land in exchange for a promise to clear, plant, build and live on that land.
They didn’t automatically find acceptance and tolerance in Alberta. Hostility from local politicians, including Frank Oliver, and a 1911 order in council attempted to shut the door on these immigrants, deeming them “unsuitable” as future Canadians.
Facing hostility in urban centres, they settled in four communities in rural Alberta: Amber Valley (near Athabasca), Campsie (near Barrhead), Junkins (now Wildwood) and Keystone, which would later be renamed Breton. The isolated nature of the rural areas allowed the Black settlers to live more peacefully under local government, institutions and norms that they established for themselves.
Hooks’s parents — her father from Oklahoma and her mother from Kansas — married and settled in Keystone. Hooks moved around Alberta a little growing up, but ultimately ended up back in Keystone to begin her teaching career.
Racism followed her as well. In a 2003 interview with the Alberta Labour History Institute, Hooks recalled racist incidents and intolerance from her own schooling, her experiences at normal school and then as a teacher in the Breton area.
Hooks was forced to leave Breton after some members of the community opposed her transfer to Breton School from the nearby predominantly Black Funnell School. An incident in the community involving blackface minstrel shows had heightened racial tensions. Hooks went to teach in nearby Warburg. She said the Breton community wanted her back the next year, but she had already settled in Warburg, where she would teach for the next 25 years of her career, returning to Breton just for the final four years.
By the time I started teaching in Breton, none of the Black families that settled Keystone remained, but much of the history would be preserved thanks to Gwen Hooks, who was instrumental in founding the Breton and District Historical Museum in Breton’s old two-room schoolhouse. She also wrote and published two books chronicling this important part of Alberta’s history, including The Keystone Legacy: Recollections of a Black Settler.
But Hooks is also remembered fondly by her former pupils, some of whom I taught with in Breton, which is how I first learned of her.
Gwen Hooks died in March 2018, but her online tribute wall speaks to the lasting impact she had on the community, through her teaching, through her preservation of Black history and through her community leadership.
“We were very fortunate to have her influence,” says one comment. “She made learning so much fun,” and “she was a very special lady, role model, that inspired the lives of many, young and old.”
And then there is this: “She was my first teacher. I knew only about six words in English when I started school. She made me feel safe and I loved, admired and respected her all her life.”
I am grateful to have had the chance to learn about Gwen Hooks and, through her work, to learn about Alberta’s Black history and some of the history of Black teachers in Alberta. ❚
I welcome your comments. Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.