An understated sign directs visitors down a quiet, gravel road. Within moments you arrive at an historic site; land that 110 years ago held the fortunes of newcomers to our province and now holds important stories of race and immigration in Saskatchewan.
In 1910, African American families from Oklahoma were looking to escape the discriminatory Jim Crow laws that had been enacted after Oklahoma gained statehood. The promise of free land sent them north, including 12 families who came to Saskatchewan and settled in the Eldon District near Maidstone, making it the first Black settlement in the province.
In addition to establishing homesteads, they also began building a church which they named Shiloh Baptist Church and which quickly became the focal point for the community. That old log church and the nearby cemetery are all that remain of that settlement, but the stories of those who called it home need to be told.
Among the people who came to Saskatchewan was Mattie Mayes and her husband Joseph. Mattie was a remarkable woman who went from young slave in Georgia to freed slave and sharecropper in Texas, to resident of Oklahoma to matriarch of a community on the Saskatchewan prairie. After the American civil war, large numbers of former slaves headed to Oklahoma Territory where they could pursue education, vote and live in freedom. That changed when Oklahoma became a state and elected a government that enacted segregationist laws. According to Canadian border entry records, the Mayes family and 11others representing about 75 people in total were drawn to Saskatchewan by the promise of land and the hope they would live free from racist policies. But part of what they experienced reflected the very laws and attitudes they were trying to leave behind.
The Government of Canada attempted to put a stop to Black immigration with a 1911 Order in Council declaring that “any immigrants belonging to the Negro race…is deemed unsuitable to the climate and requirements of Canada.” The Order never became law, but it was clear Black immigrants were not wanted. Nonetheless, the Shiloh community persevered and thrived, growing to as many as 50 families in the 1920’s and ‘30’s. But during the following decade, descendants of the original families began seeking different opportunities and moving to other places, and most of the settlement disappeared. Fortunately, efforts to preserve the history of the Shiloh people (named in honor of the log church) led to the creation of the Shiloh Baptist Church and Cemetery Restoration Society and this has allowed us to learn more about this chapter of Saskatchewan’s past.
Upon arriving at the site that has now been declared a Provincial Heritage Property, a large cairn documents a bit of history, beyond which sits the log church. This one-room building was constructed of hand-hewn poplar logs hauled from the North Saskatchewan River by ox cart. Original handmade benches beckon visitors to sit and take a moment to wonder at the conversation and singing that would have taken place inside those walls, along with all the history it would have witnessed.
Out the back door and nestled amongst a grove of mature trees and shrubs is the first African American cemetery in Saskatchewan, distinguished by the custom of large stones at the head and foot of each grave. White wooden crosses mark the final resting places of 37 members of the Shiloh community whose names are engraved on a nearby cairn thanks to careful research on the part of the restoration society.
The day I visited this historic site in August, the stillness of the morning added to the powerful moments of the experience. As I walked through the church and cemetery I was struck by the peaceful atmosphere we were experiencing. What a contrast that likely was to the days when the church served as the bustling community centre, filled with the voices of children and adults sharing their experiences and building a new community in a region so far from where they once lived. I knew I was standing in a place unlike any other and that left me bewildered by the fact that until about two years ago I had no idea of this piece of the province’s history. With the exception of two years as an elementary student, I studied in Saskatchewan schools until graduation, yet on this morning I was learning about remarkable history that had never been part of any curriculum or conversation. But it is part of what I now know. As I paged through the guest book in the church and saw the number of people who had sought out this location in just the previous day, I couldn’t help but feel encouraged that so many of us were wanting the same thing--the chance to explore history we need to know.
When Mattie Mayes first set eyes on the prairie in this new land, she couldn’t have known how the decades would unfold or how highly regarded she would become. Nor could she have predicted the impact her descendants would have in their new country as they carved game changing paths in veterinary medicine, health care, sports, finance and so much more. Their names and contributions are felt within the province, and extend far beyond as well.
In what could rightfully be described as a watershed moment in race relations that we are experiencing today, we will better understand where we currently are when we more fully understand where we’ve been.