By Jody MacPherson
Published in the Fort McMurray Express, 1986
Gilbert Williams has a dream.
He wants to write a book about his father.
Longtime resident Walter HIll planted the idea in his head about 10 years ago, but Williams only really began doing research in earnest a year ago.
It was not until Williams heard a woman named Margaret Mapp speak about the history of blacks in Alberta that he began to seriously consider the idea.
“She told me about all the things she had done, and she got me going on my own search,” he says, “She was a very inspiring woman.”
Williams had listened to his father’s stories since he was a child and never thought twice about them. then, when his father came to live with him and his wife in 1975, he started to ask more questions.
As Williams began to piece the stories together, he began to realize just how much his father was involved with the early pioneers in Fort McMurray, and what a remarkable life his father had led.
“He didn’t harp on his hardships or on the discrimination,” says Williams. “He just wanted to protect his family, to get away from all that — so he kept moving north.”
Loss of a friend
Leonard Williams was born in Mississippi in 1885 and like thousands of other blacks, he left the United States to escape the lingering hatred and racial violence that followed the American Civil War.
Blacks may have been free, but times were still tough and vigilante groups, such as the Ku Klux Klan ran rampant.
The turning point came when he watched his best friend killed by the Klan. The next day he borrowed money from his sister, who was a school teacher, and headed for Oklahoma.
He took his brother with him, but when they encountered resistance at the Canadian border, his brother got scared and turned back.
Williams followed the “underground railroad” to Canada through Winnipeg, Manitoba then he gradually made his way west.
Sixty years later, his son tried to convince him to return to the U.S. to visit his birthplace but Williams refused to return.
“He didn’t believe anything had changed,” says Williams, “this was the 1960’s when there was a lot of racial reform and violence and Dad saw this on television and refused to go back.”
Much of the movement of the blacks into Canada has been chronicled and Williams says his father always seemed to be out in the forefront. He was usually there before anyone else.
“I have a feeling that he was one of the men that went ahead and scouted things out, before the other blacks moved into the area,” he says.
Williams has records of his father homesteading first in Wildwood, which is 150 kilometres west of Edmonton, near Wabumum Lake, and then in Stocks, a small community near Amber Valley, a large black settlement close to Athabasca.
The younger Williams was so affected by the history behind this community that he and his wife named their first child, a daughter, “Amber.” At nine, Amber proudly proclaims the origin of her name to all who will listen.
Williams is not sure when his father first came to Fort McMurray but Walter Hill has confirmed that he was here when he came to McMurray in 1922.
The elder Williams was with the railroad for 35 years and his son thinks he probably followed the railroad north when it reached Waterways in the early 1920’s.
Williams was a porter on the Alberta and Great Waterways Railroad, back when the passengers had to travel on flat cars.
He says his father was greatly respected and trusted. Local settlers would often give him money and ask him to pick up things for them in Edmonton. they would even entrust their children to him for trips to and from the city.
Williams was often requested to serve on the coaches carrying dignitaries and VIP’s north to Fort McMurray.
The younger Williams says his father recalled in one of his stories the journey of the buffaloes north to Wood Buffalo Park.
“Most other people didn’t realize these were not ordinary livestock,” he says, “but Dad knew these animals were special.”
The buffaloes came north to McMurray by the railroad and then went up river by barge, says Williams.
After Williams retired from the railroad, he brought his family to live in Fort McMurray. The younger Williams was 10 years old and remembers their home well.
“It was on the corner of Main and what’s now Biggs,” he says “right where the Garden Cafe sits.”
The tree which now bears colored lights and is called “the tree of hope” stood in Williams front yard.
Later his father bought four and a half acres at the bottom of Abasand Hill, where Grayling Terrace now stands.
“We lived there and farmed the land although there was no water or sewer,” he says.
He says they had a regular harvest and had to take time off from school to harvest their crops, which were sold to the only local restaurant in the Oil Sands Motor Inn.
“We used to help the Harpe’s harvest their crops, too, although theirs was not a commercial business, it was just enough to feed their family,” says Williams.
Williams’ father was also involved in the early oil sands exploration.
“He would often refer to ‘Sid’ and ‘Ellis’ and it wasn’t until later that I realized that they were the same person, Sidney Ellis, an early explorer,” says Williams.
Williams also listened to stories of how his father hauled tar sands by horse and wagon from the sites where they were experimenting.
Williams mentioned to his son that he had seen a strange ‘agitator’ that worked like a washing machine.
Williams thinks now that it may have been an early experiment in tar sands extraction.
“He was sworn to secrecy because most other people did not really have any idea what was going on at the time,” he says.
Williams has just begun to piece together his father’s memoirs. By reading local history books and doing research in the archives in Edmonton, he is confirming most of what his father had told him, but he still has a long way to go.
He would welcome any local historical material that might further confirm his father’s stories.
He remembers something Margaret Mapp told him and tries to live by that creed.
“She said it is important to not live in the past, but to learn from it, in order to prepare for the future.”
Leonard Williams died here in in 1977 at the age of 92.