Photo courtesy of Cheryl Foggo

Sprawlcast: Cheryl Foggo on Black life in Alberta

We swim in a world that is built upon white supremacy.’

Subscribe to Sprawlcast on iTunes, Spotify or wherever you listen to podcasts. A lightly-edited transcript of this episode is below, for those who would rather read than listen.

Cheryl Foggo has been writing about racism and Black life in Alberta for more than 30 years—as an award-winning author, playwright and filmmaker. Her first book was just republished this year in a 30th anniversary edition. It’s called Pourin’ Down Rain: A Black Woman Claims Her Place in the Canadian West. And her latest project is the upcoming John Ware Reclaimed, a myth-busting documentary about the Black Alberta cowboy.

Here is an edited version of our conversation.

JEREMY KLASZUS: You've been writing about the Black experience in Western Canada for more than 30 years now. What has the last week been like for you?

CHERYL FOGGO: I think the only thing that's been different about the last week for me has been the strong show of support in Calgary specifically. The death of George Floyd is one of many deaths of Black people and Indigenous people that I have been bearing witness to for a long time. Many, many years. And the difference with George Floyd's death and Ahmaud Arbery's death is that their actual dying moments were recorded.

So the grief that I've experienced in the last week is very familiar. I have grieved so deeply for Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Sandra Bland, Breonna Taylor. In Canada we have so many instances as well. Colten Boushie, a young Indigenous man. Dafonte Miller. Many of these horrific incidents happen on a very regular basis, and they are hyper-conscious in my world because I'm a Black person who writes about Black life.

I have attended many marches in my time. The first time I ever marched, as I talk about in Pourin' Down Rain, I was 11. And I've gone to other marches and gatherings in Calgary to protest racism, and they've been quite small. One does not feel very safe in those situations because, of course, the white supremacists are out in full force and they're running around taking pictures of people, so it's a very vulnerable thing to have to do when the numbers are small.

I haven't been able to attend any of the protests this week because I've had a back injury, but I was deeply touched to see so many people turn out.

I was maybe three, four years old when I started realizing that our Blackness set us apart and also set us up for ill treatment.

KLASZUS: In the book, you talk about learning about Jim Crow from your mom when you were growing up in Bowness, and discovering what it was like to be a Black child in a white society. Can you talk a little bit about that—when you first became conscious of racism, growing up in Calgary?

FOGGO: I would say it's probably a very young age and probably connects to the first time I was ever called the N-word. We were part of a small and very close-knit Black family and Black community in Calgary. And so I'm going to say I was maybe three, four years old when I started realizing that our Blackness set us apart and also set us up for ill treatment.

I was very young, and it was so much a part of the fabric of our lives that it was an evolving process— because no Black parent sits their two-year-old down and says, "Now, here, I'm going to tell you about the world." We swim in a world that is built upon white supremacy, and racism is all around us. When you are a child that's on the receiving end of that, it is almost a part of your consciousness before you even have full memories.

So I don't have a memory of when I first became conscious of this. I do have memories of when I started asking questions. I do have memories of when I really started paying attention to the stories that my mom and her siblings would talk about and that kind of thing. But I don't have a memory of first becoming aware of race, because it was just always there.

KLASZUS: And what was the Black community like when you grew up in Calgary?

FOGGO: There were hundreds of us—hundreds in my sphere, anyway. We tended to operate within a community that were, for the most part, descendants of the Black migration of 1910 [from the American South]. It wasn't until I was a little older that people who were from Africa and from the Caribbean started joining that circle. I close to teen years when the restrictions on migration from the Caribbean were loosened.

So in terms of what that community was like, it consisted mostly of people who had grown up in Amber Valley or near Maidstone, Saskatchewan, or Campsie, Alberta—the five Black settlements that were created by the migration of 1910. Some of the people I knew were original to that migration, so they were elderly people who had been in Canada since 1910. Some were their children who they had raised in Amber Valley, and some were their grandchildren.

But it was quite a tight-knit little community. If somebody died, the community came to your house with food. And likewise, if someone else died, I went with my mom to bring food to people. And we gathered regularly, both at church and at picnics and that kind of thing.

Our gatherings made us highly visible, and people seemed to be surprised to see us all the time, because I don't think it occurred to white people who were living in Calgary at that time that there was a community that consisted of hundreds of Black people.

Most people, when I walked down the street, stared at me like I was the first Black person they had seen. So even though that number does sound small, it seems to me like it was a big enough number that people should have been used to us.

Cheryl Foggo's We Were Here (John Ware Reimagined)

KLASZUS: You mentioned the migration from the U.S. in 1910. In the book, you talk about how you found a place of belonging as a teenager by investigating your own family's history. What prompted that journey for you, and what did you find?

FOGGO: Well, I think I am a person that was born for story. The first thing that attracted me to learning more about the stories behind that migration was just that they were stories. I was a voracious reader, and I loved writing. I loved writing stories. We never went to the theater or anything, but I remember writing plays in grade five and six, so I think it was story that pulled me in initially.

I was also a very family-minded person. My mom and her eight siblings were close, and they valued family very much, and so that, again, was just part of my DNA—was being interested in the well-being of family. And so I think it was a combination of how much I bought into the family narrative of just who we were as a family, but then also the stories.

And when I started learning about my grandfather's father, that was a huge revelation, and a shocking revelation.

KLASZUS: He grew up where?

FOGGO: He grew up in Arkansas, for the most part, for the first six years of his life. That's where he was born—quite close to Little Rock. And then he and his two brothers were stolen from their home and sold into enslavement, and he remained enslaved until he was about 12 years old, when he kind of self emancipated, because the person that had enslaved him didn't tell him that the Emancipation Proclamation had been made, so he didn't know he was free. He was young and isolated.

By that time, he was in Texas. That's where he had been sold into enslavement. I was just listening to a woman on a podcast the other day talking about how it was very common that people who were isolated in their enslavement didn't know that they were free. That's what happened with my grandfather.

But when I started hearing that, I was shocked—first of all, to know that enslavement was that direct a connection to me myself. I sort of thought of it as something that had happened way, way long ago in the past. But when I realized, okay, my mom was raised by my grandpa, who was raised by a person who had been enslaved—generationally it wasn't very far away, even though in terms of years it seemed like a long time ago.

I was fascinated by those stories, although horrified at first, and devastated to hear about them. But I think I always recognized that stories were the best way to communicate with people, to create change, to create understanding.

[In 1910] my great-grandparents realized it was time to go, time to get out of the southern U.S.

KLASZUS: And then how did your family come to Canada?

FOGGO: Both of my maternal sets of great-grandparents came in that 1910 migration. They, at that time, were both living in Oklahoma—both sets. So my great-grandfather, Willie Glover; and my great-grandmother, Katie Glover; and my great-grandfather, Rufus Smith, who was the one that was enslaved; and my great-grandmother Drucilla Smith; were all living in Oklahoma at the time, but they didn't know each other before they came to Canada.

There was a lot of tension in Oklahoma. You've probably heard of the Greenwood Massacre—what used to be known as the Tulsa riots of 1921. My great-grandparents, the Smiths, were living one block over from Greenwood Avenue, so although my family had already left before that infamous massacre took place, that was their community. They were part of what was known as "Black Wall Street." It was an incredibly thriving Black community. It was considered the most affluent and successful Black community in the United States at that time, and the kind of tension that boiled up and resulted in that horrifying massacre was already present when my great-grandparents were living in Oklahoma.

That's why they left: that disenfranchisement, lynchings, burning people's homes out, bombing their businesses—well, they didn't bomb the businesses until 1921, but destroying people's ability to make a living. It was pretty horrific. They were living through some very hard times down there.

So then when the Canadian government started advertising for American farmers to come up and break—what they so horribly called "break the land"—my great-grandparents, like many of their counterparts who came up in that migration, realized it was time to go, time to get out of the southern U.S.

But they also thought that Canada was the ideal destination, because they had been hearing about Canada for decades, going way back to enslavement. So they came up by train and by oxcart, and they took their stuff to the train station—and then eventually traveled by horse and cart, ox and cart, to their various little parcels of land.

Wilfrid Laurier signed an order in council essentially saying Blacks aren’t welcome.

KLASZUS: Let's talk about that history a little bit, of these Black homesteaders coming to Canada. Because it's easy to hear that story and have a romantic view of that. But as the Canadian government figured out what was going on they decided to do something about it. What happened?

FOGGO: Yes. The Canadian government was caught off guard by the arrival of Black people. They were not looking for Black people to come. They were advertising for white people to come. So within a very short period of time—it was actually 1911 that Wilfrid Laurier signed an order in council essentially saying Blacks aren't welcome and will be prohibited from coming.

The response, especially in the cities, was very unfriendly, very hostile. Boards of trade, newspapers—pretty well every organization that was in existence and established in the cities—rose up in outcry against this migration. If you spent time searching through the newspapers of 1910 through 1912 looking for stories about this migration, you would simply—you would run out of time, if you didn't first run out of the energy to actually try to absorb the hate and the hostility that the community faced.

So yes, it was not a welcome migration, and I think it would have been a much bigger and more sustainable migration if that hadn't happened, because the Canadian government tried all kinds of things to prevent people from coming. And ultimately, when they hired some people – mostly a couple of preachers – to go down and talk to the people down there and tell them, "You're not welcome, number one. You'll face the same kind of racism. And number two, you should see how cold it is" – people stopped coming.

KLASZUS: So it was really a full-on campaign to deter this.

FOGGO: It was. Yeah, it really was.

KLASZUS: That played out on a large scale with that wave of migration, but then that kind of played out again and again—even looking at Calgary, in certain neighborhoods, right?

FOGGO: Oh yeah. Calgary and Edmonton were really bad for virulent racism, and you can go right through the decades. I don't know if you've seen my short film called "Kicking Up a Fuss"—the Charles Daniels story—but in 1914 Charles Daniels, who was part of a Black community that was here before my ancestors came, tried to go see a play at the Grand Theatre and was refused admittance. They tried to get him to agree to sit up in the balcony where they segregated Black people, and he refused because he had a ticket for the orchestra. There was quite a famous law—civil rights case—that came out of that. That was 1914.

Secret Calgary: Kicking Up A Fuss

In 1920, there was a petition in Victoria Park too—they first of all wanted to take people's homes away from them and send them away. They wanted them removed. They also wanted to prevent any further infiltration, as they thought of it, of Blacks into the community. So about 75 per cent of people who were living in Victoria Park at that time signed a petition. It's a very long petition. You can go down to city hall and see all the signatures, including R. B. Bennett, who was a future prime minister. So that happened in 1920.

If you go through the decades, there are many incidents that demonstrate how deeply embedded in society anti-Black racism was. There was a famous riot in 1945, I think—or 1944, toward the end of the war—of white soldiers who attacked a home of a Black musician, and...

KLASZUS: Was this in Calgary?

FOGGO: It was indeed. It was huge. You know, the newspaper accounts of it have the numbers of white soldiers who marched on this home anywhere between 200 and 300. Yeah, it was really ugly. And when you add in all the discrimination Black people faced because they weren't welcome in hotels, they weren't welcome in restaurants—trying to find housing was really difficult—you see that there was a menu of the many different tentacles of racism that operate. Discrimination in jobs… It was tough going.

And that just traveled up and bubbled up everywhere and all around, throughout the decades.

Reclaiming the Black story of John Ware

KLASZUS: I want to shift gears a bit, and this intersects with everything we've been talking about, but I want to talk about your work on the Black cowboy John Ware. Some people don’t know who he is; can you give the broad strokes of who was John Ware?

FOGGO: John Ware was a Black cowboy who came up to Canada in the fall of 1882 on the first very large cattle drive into the area. And he established himself quite early on because he was very skilled with all animals. He loved animals, and he was great with horses. He was good with the cattle. Dogs—they all loved him. And he actually was so skilled and talented that even by the time they got to Canada, he had already been given a level of responsibility for that cattle drive and was recommended to be hired by the boss of that cattle drive. Tom Lynch recommended him to the people who were operating the Bar U Ranch, or what was known as the North West Cattle Company at that time.

So he was a very skilled horseman. He was very, very smart. He was very savvy in terms of business. He knew how to do stuff and make stuff happen, and he had a very winning personality. He also was very good at sussing out who he could sort of get on his side. He faced a lot of racism, and he knew that he would need allies in the ranching community, among the white ranchers. So he was just a very savvy, smart, big, strong, funny, friendly, helpful, skilled with a rope, skilled with everything, ran faster than anybody—he was just one of those people that had it all.

And so he became well-liked in the area and was on his way to being quite a successful rancher at the time of his accidental death in 1905.

If you just go back and peel back the layers, you see that a Black presence in Western Canada and southern Alberta is very underreported.

KLASZUS: And how did you first come across John Ware?

FOGGO: Well, my brother and I have tried to figure out and pinpoint, many times, the first time we heard his name, because we had heard of him when we were fairly young. We didn't know he was Black. But we—many people in my community knew his children, so we would hear the name Ware. John Ware's oldest son, Bob, worked as a porter, and almost all the Black men in the community worked for the railroad in one form or another. So we're not sure of the first time we heard the name John Ware, but it was in the context of him having been a cowboy and a very respected figure, but we didn't necessarily put it together with this Ware family that people in the community knew, so it's quite murky to try to parse out when did we first hear of him.

When we first became conscious of him as a Black cowboy and rancher was when my brother went to the Glenbow at around about age 12, we think, and saw the John Ware display that was there and came home and told me, "He's Black." And that's when I first became interested in his story, and it's probably one of the reasons why he was a file that I established when I was trying to become a writer and thinking about things that I could write about.

John Ware, Mildred Lewis and their two children. Photo courtesy of Cheryl Foggo

But I, like many people, thought John Ware was a singular Black figure in his day, and it was very surprising to me, when I began to do research and start writing about John Ware—it was very surprising to find out that he came into an already existing group—I don't even know if you could call it a community, but there were Black people here when he came. There were Black people who came while he was here, in his early years, and many Black people before the migration that involved my great-grandparents in 1910. There were many Southern Alberta Black residents.

So that was one of the things that was surprising to me, and kind of delightful. Someday I would like to try to do more research about his relationships in the small Black community that was here.

KLASZUS: That's interesting, because certainly in the popular imagination John Ware is singular figure, this Black cowboy, this legend, right?

FOGGO: Yeah. And I absorbed that narrative just like everybody else. I always assumed that my community, that apart from John Ware, that we were the first Black people to come here. But it was really fascinating to find out that wasn't the case. Charles Daniels and his friends, who tried to strike down segregation laws in Calgary, were an established community that was here before my folks came up.

So if you just go back and peel back the layers, you see that a Black presence in Western Canada and southern Alberta is very underreported and under-known. It doesn't really fit within the narrative of Canada that we have. Therefore, this notion of this one singular Black person who was able to succeed is kind of held up as an example of how Canada was not racist.

But the whole story just needs retelling and to be contextualized, and that is what I'm trying to do in my film John Ware Reclaimed.

I also wanted to do something that was a nonfiction look at John Ware’s life.

KLASZUS: You've said that you want to be the one that finds John Ware—that you want to take a giant eraser, swipe it across everything that's been said about him, and get closer to what is true.

FOGGO: Yeah.

KLASZUS: What do you mean by that?

FOGGO: Well, there's a lot of different things I mean by that, and I'll start with the second part, which is history has not been accurately told, and the missing parts of his story are very important and necessary for people to know. So that's one thing. That's about the giant eraser and just wanting to start again. Begin at the beginning and reclaim and revise that story to include all the missing elements.

The first part, about wanting to be the one to find him, is I guess maybe in some ways related to having had his existence and his legacy have a very real impact on how I feel about myself as a Western Canadian and fully claiming my place here. He had an impact on my life, and I think in some ways it's appropriate that I am the one searching for him and seeking for him. Although I would be very happy with any—I'd be very happy for anybody to find John Ware. It's just that I want to be the one.

KLASZUS: It's almost a spiritual calling.

FOGGO: Yeah, in a way it is. I feel a very deep connection, not just to him, but to his wife, Mildred; to Mildred's family, the Lewises; and perhaps even especially to John Ware's children—in particular Janet, the oldest, who they called "Nettie," and Bob, the one I mentioned, because they were people who existed in my community when I was a little kid. They were elders in the community, and lots of people knew them.

So I feel a very strong connection to the Wares, for sure. And I can't even describe it. I don't have words to describe it. Sometimes it does feel almost like a spiritual calling.

KLASZUS: Your project has been kind of this delightfully iterative project. You mentioned how, early in your career, you researched John Ware, and then you wrote about other things. And then you came back to John Ware, did a play about him, now are working on this documentary about him—and there's a book coming too?

FOGGO: Yeah. I would like to reach as many people as possible, and you don't have the same audience for a film as you do for a book, necessarily. Some people will have seen the play and will also see the film and, I'm assuming, would read the book eventually; but reach a lot of people through different types of media. It has been a real journey, and I had been gathering information about John Ware everywhere that I came across it, and also doing some actual, you know, deep dives for information, for quite a while.

But in 2012, when the Stampede was celebrating its 100th, I wanted to put that material to work at that point. I thought it was appropriate after a conversation with Tunde Dawodu, who was the artistic director of Afrikadey! at that time. So that's when I started working on the presentation that eventually became the play, and somewhere along the way, I realized that people were hungry for John Ware's story, and my play was a fiction. It was an imaginative piece that contained some truth, but I didn't want to just leave it at that. Because I took lots of liberties. Obviously I wasn't there when he and his wife were interacting in their cabin. So I made up situations and put words into their mouth. But I also wanted to do something that was a nonfiction look at John Ware's life, which is what my film is.

Young people give me incredible hope.

KLASZUS: And you've also made it a family project, which is kind of cool to see, working on it with your daughter, Miranda Martini. How did that come about? It's thematically consistent with the whole thing, and with your career, really.

FOGGO: Yes. And I guess that sort of sums up my career. I live a highly integrated life. So much of my work is about a community and a people, but it's also about my family, because that is my family's story. So it really was quite a natural fit.

Miranda was in Vancouver at the time that I started working, in 2012. I wanted to get a presentation ready for Black History Month, and she was a songwriter. She had been songwriting for years, and she's a terrific singer, so I called her and told her what I was doing and asked her if she could write a song that was about the flood of 1902 in southern Alberta. A song that was a country song with soul.

And Miranda, because she also grew up within this history and was a big fan of John Ware —in part because I was—she got what I wanted. She knew sort of instinctively. I guess it was kind of within her wheelhouse to write that song, because she also was writing part of her own story.

KLASZUS: Going back to the first question I asked you, about what's happening today. As somebody who's researched this and lived this for so long, what would you say to the young Black Calgarians who are marching in the streets today for Black Lives Matter?

FOGGO: First of all, I would say that young people give me incredible hope and, I think, are going to take a giant step forward in terms of claiming their absolute, indisputable right to live in safety and peace and with the same access to opportunity and resources that white people have, and that everybody should have.

I think my generation lived in a world where racism operated differently, and we sort of did our best to try to navigate within that system. Young people are much less patient with that—with that kind of slow, one-step-forward, a-half-step-back type of progress, if you can call it that. And here we are living in a world where the same horrors that I faced as a child, the exact same horrors, which is witnessing lynching and the murders of people who look like me, and us—like those young Black people you're talking about—they're still happening, but now they're being carried out by the state, by the police.

Long story short, I just would offer my encouragement, my love, my support, and my full understanding of their pain and their anger and their wish to be allowed to get on with their lives and breathe and just live and not have to wake up to those horrors day after day after day.

Jeremy Klaszus is editor-in-chief of The Sprawl.

Now more than ever, we need strong independent journalism in Alberta. That's what The Sprawl is here for! When you become a Sprawl member, it means our writers, cartoonists and photographers can do more of the journalism we need right now. Become a Sprawl member today!

Support in-depth Calgary journalism.

Sign Me Up!

We connect Calgarians with their city through in-depth, curiosity-driven journalism—but can't do this alone! We rely on our readers and listeners to fund our work. Join us by becoming a Sprawl member today!