BILLY BEAL

One of the first Blacks in Manitoba

By George Siamandas

The first Blacks are thought to have come up from the United States after the American Revolution. The Canadian census of 1881 for Winnipeg showed 4 Negroes, 4 Jews, 26 Italians, 186 Germans, 409 Icelandics, 450 French and 6,679 British people. But the population grew very slowly. In 1901 there were 61 blacks and in 1911, 209.

One of the best documented black people to come to early Manitoba is a man called Billy Beal. He was born in Chelsea, Massachussets in 1874. Beal came up to work in a saw mill in the Swan River Valley in 1907, liked the people and stayed in the Big Woody region. He applied for and received his homestead of 30 acres by clearing 30 acres over an 8 year period. But Beal was never a farmer and he hated even gardening and had trouble remembering to care for his animals. He preferred to use his mind and gave up farming in 1916. He resumed working for lumber companies in Manitoba, returning in the fall to his shack at Big Woody. He remained single his entire life. He visited his neighbours frequently and enjoyed the company of his dog named Cerberus.

Beal never did reveal much about his background. He claimed his parents were white and that he was the seventh son of a seventh generation. Some say he was the son of a white slave owner and a slave mother. Beal's father had worked as a book agent and lecturer and moved the family to what was an all white neighbourhood in Minneapolis.

Beal was a multi-talented guy. He worked as a steam engineer on saw mill operations. But he was also an electrician, a furniture maker and a photographer. He read Spinoza and could converse on philosophy, politics, medicine and law. He knew astronomy and built his own telescope. Some thought he had a medical degree. He assisted Doctor Edwin Bruce to give inoculations in the diphtheria scare of 1915. And later the influenza epidemic of 1918-1919 and the smallpox of 1920.

As the only black around Beal had a couple of episodes of racism. But by and large he was a popular citizen in his community. But there was prejudice at the time. In the 1890s the Canadian Government aggressively pursued American Immigration to the Prairies. Our famous immigration minister Clifford Sifton was careful to avoid attracting too many blacks. Immigration agents began to discourage blacks from coming up by telling them of the harsh cold, talking of prejudice, and the need for rigorous medical exams.

Beal enriched his community. He served as the treasurer of the Board of School Trustees for 37 years. He helped set up the area's first circulating library. He established a literary society. Beal was also a photographer and spent several decades photographing the people and times in the Swan River area. The school, his neighbours and their children, the log camps, the local suffragettes were some of his subjects. Most people are pictured in the bush or in their homes.

Beal retired to the volunteer-run Eventide home in the Pas in 1955. He died penniless in 1968 at 94 years of age.

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