Whenever I check the book called “Pioneering With A Piece of Chalk” that lists rural one room schoolhouses in Alberta, I look forward to a brief history of the school in question. Occasionally the book lists nothing other than the name of the school and even an incomplete legal description of the location. That’s what I found when I looked up the Empyrean School so I knew this would take some research. The first problem was to find a book or brochure on the community as they often have very valuable information on small communities in the first half of the 20th century in Alberta. I did find the book at the Edmonton Public Library. The second problem was the size of the books; yes there were two and they were as large and heavy as an old style dictionary (see the image at the end of this blog). My work was cut out for me, but I wouldn’t do this if I didn’t enjoy it.
A little known black community
Many people in the northern part of Alberta have at least heard of the “black” community of Amber Valley which is located north of Edmonton. A part of it, Obadiah Place, is even a provincial heritage site which is probably the reason it is reasonably well known. There also exists a website that attempts to catalogue these communities but it’s brief and seems dismissive of the Empyrean Cemetery as being from a black community. Local knowledge should put aside any such doubts. When we drove around the area without finding the cemetery we decided to ask the first person we saw, at a nearby farm, if they could tell us where it is. That person said, “oh you mean the black cemetery?” So a black cemetery it is.
I want to caution the reader that these are not black communities in the same sense of those that existed in South Africa or in the USA. During the early 20th century, people came by the hundreds of thousands from many parts of the world to the Canadian prairies. All of those people were leaving hard lives or repressive governments behind or they wouldn’t have left in the first place. They brought a mix of different ethnic, language or religious groups and usually banded together for a sense of community on the cold and undeveloped prairie. In fact many Americans arrived in Alberta to try their luck at homesteading. Among those Americans were black people from the American south who were motivated to escape the Jim Crow laws.
According to Wikipedia, the “Jim Crow laws were state and local laws that enforced racial segregation in the Southern United States. These laws were enacted in the late 19th and early 20th centuries by white Southern Democrat-dominated state legislatures to disenfranchise and remove political and economic gains made by black people during the Reconstruction period. The Jim Crow laws were enforced until 1965″. So these black Americans were just like the rest of our ancestors who left a bad situation to follow a dream for free land and a better life. Volume II of “Where The River Lobstick Flows”, says that more than one thousand black people arrived in Alberta between 1908 and 1911, settling in Keystone, now Breton, Campsie (near Barrhead), Amber Valley (near Athabasca) and Junkins near Wildwood. In Saskatchewan the pioneers settled in the Maidstone-Eldon areas. These communities were of predominately black residents.
The area where the black settlers referred to in this blog lived was called “Junkins”. This community was very close to Wildwood, Alberta so their history is part of both communities. Note that some references say that Junkins was the original name of Wildwood and others say it was just north of Wildwood. For this blog I have opted to treat Junkins as a separate community just north of Wildwood.
The school was situated on the property so that there would be two separate play areas. One side generally had a ball game going on it and the smaller children played tag or pom pom pull away.Where The River Lobstick Flows 1987 V1, page 114
The monochrome images below are of the Empyrean School and students. All of those images came from either the 1987 or 2005 versions of the book, “Where The River Lobstick Flows”. Most sepia images are from the 1987 version while black and white images are from the 2005 version.
The area surrounding Empyrean was mostly populated by coloured people and most of these had a strong Christian faith so the name Empyrean was chosen by Arthur Rouce because it meant, ‘pertaining to the highest and purest region of heaven’.Where The River Lobstick Flows 1987 V1, page 114
Bessie Anne Akers
The old wooden cross is hard to read but it says, “Mother, Bessie Anne Akers; Borne 1893 – Died 1919”. She was the wife of James Carl Akers. They arrived in Canada in 1915 from Galveston, Texas. They had four children, Adele, Esther, Annie, and Leonard. Bessie died only four years after arriving in Alberta. Their children, Annie and Adele moved to the Vancouver area Esther moved to Minneapolis. Leonard married Eva McColman and they and raised a family in the Junkins area. One year after Bessie died, James Carl Akers married again to Gertrude Salome Jeffries from Breton. They had three children, twin sons John and James, and daughter Louise. The twin boys of the second marriage remained in Alberta. Louise lived in Cassiar, BC before moving to the Edmonton area where she died in 1984. Source: Where The River Lobstick Flows 1987 V1, page 235.
Malond Jason Scoville 1872-1957 and Lucy Scoville 1871-1955
The only other markers in the cemetery are for Malond Jason Scoville, 1872-1957 and Lucy Scoville, 1871-1955. They appear to be quite new (within the last ten years) so somebody knows them and replaced or cared for the markers. Sadly there is nothing written about either of these two people in either of the two editions, “Where The River Lobstick Flows”. At least I couldn’t find anything written about them. However Mary Anne who commented below discovered that he was born 1873-08-19 in Jefferson, New York, USA and died 1957-01-20 in Wildwood Alberta. She also provided me with his picture which is now shown above.
There was no Empyrean Church in Junkins or Wildwood. However I did find a photo of the African Methodist Episcopal Church. It is believed to have been built in 1909 and possibly was only used until 1929 when the land was sold to the Time and Patience Masonic Club of Junkins. The little church was used as a school for a short while and then the building was moved to the land of Bill Woodley Sr who made a home out of it.
In the early twenties there was a small white church beside the school. It was known as the African Methodist Church. At that time there was a large community of black people and they attended this church. The minister delivered a profound message and one came away from the sermon spiritually stimulated.Leona Hansen McMurchy – Church Memories of 1924. Where The River Lobstick Flows 1987 V1, page 104
That’s all that I have learned about this community called Junkins, north of Wildwood. Some people took well to farming and others didn’t. Some descendants moved far away and others remain in the area to this day. In other words, it’s just like any other small rural community in Alberta. Why should it be any different?
- Blog post – The View From Here
- Empyrean Cemetery Site list – Find a Grave
- Alberta’s Black Pioneer Heritage Website
- Junkins – Wikipedia Site
- Where The River Lobstick Flows – both the 1887 and 2005 editions were used for this blog.
Where The River Lobstick Flows. These are the two books that were so helpful in the preparation of this blog. Both the 1987 and 2005 editions were necessary for the complete story. For fun we weighed them. The two books together are 5.8kgs or 12.8 pounds. Clearly there’s a lot more happening in the Wildwood area than at first appears!