MAIDSTONE, Sask. — For a small group of American black families escaping racist Jim Crow laws a century ago, building a church in their new home in Saskatchewan was a priority.
Completed in 1912, Shiloh Baptist Church, about 30 kilometres northwest of Maidstone, provided a place of worship and communal space for the homesteaders who had arrived only two years before.
The little building is made from poplar logs on a foundation of field stones. The pews are just benches, many also hewn from logs.
"The first time I walked in there it's almost like I got hit in the gut with a fist. And I'm not a spiritual or a religious person by any means," says Leander Lane, whose great-grandfather Julius Caesar Lane was among the community's original families.
The church and its cemetery have just been awarded heritage property designation by the Saskatchewan's Culture Ministry who say it is the only remaining building from the first African-American farming community in the province.
Lane said Oklahoma, where the families originated, had been a destination for slaves from the U.S. South who were freed after the Civil War. But that changed when Oklahoma was granted statehood in 1907 and elected a segregationist government.
Looking to move again, Lane says he believes his great-grandfather, who was born a slave in Virginia, visited Saskatchewan in 1909 with another man and scouted locations. They applied for homesteads in the Maidstone area and, in the spring of 1910, a dozen families packed up and left Oklahoma. Others went to Alberta to homestead at places like Amber Valley.
Canada was looking for immigrants to settle the West at the time, but the welcome wasn't particularly warm for those who were black.
The Canadian Encyclopedia website says an order-in-council that was approved in August 1911 by Prime Minister Sir Wilfrid Laurier's cabinet was intended to ban black persons from entering Canada for a period of one year. It never became law, but stated, "the Negro race … is deemed unsuitable to the climate and requirements of Canada."
"It was tough. A lot of them were very poor. They had a hard time making it," says Lane, who lives in Edmonton.
Julius Caesar Lane was among the first to be buried in the church's cemetery, dying in 1913. The graves are marked with stones at both the head and foot of each plot, which the province says is the only known place in Saskatchewan that illustrates the African-American burial custom of the late 19th century.
"In the early 20th century, African-American families seeking freedom from discrimination made this small farming community in Saskatchewan their home," Parks, Culture and Sport Minister Gene Makowsky said in a news release that proclaimed the heritage status.
"Our government recognizes the importance of this site and the significant impact it has had in shaping the identity and culture of our province."
Lane says some of the community's settlers prospered. But the Great Depression hit them hard. He says jobs were scarce and marriage prospects were limited. American blacks sought new homes in places like Oregon and California instead of Canada, so the community petered out.
Over the years, the church's foundation of field stones sunk, the log walls started to rot and the structure began leaning.
Twenty years ago, Lane mobilized an effort to preserve the site and he now heads the Shiloh Baptist Church and Cemetery Restoration Society.
The new designation from the province makes Shiloh the province's 53rd heritage property and prevents anyone from changing the crucial aspects of the building.
"We did everything to make sure it's going to last for 100 years or more," Lane says.
—By Rob Drinkwater in Edmonton
The Canadian Press