Discovering Alberta’s History…One Quilt at a Time

By: Lucie Heins, Assistant Curator, Western Canadian History

Royal Alberta Museum: Blog

Matilda Bailey-Day used the Aunt Addie’s Album block pattern to make her quilt.

The Matilda Bailey-Day quilt is the only known quilt made by one of the early African-American immigrants who settled in Alberta. The quilt was donated to the Breton Museum by Matilda’s daughter Gwen and was documented by the Royal Alberta Museum. The block pattern used in this quilt is called Aunt Addie’s Album and of particular interest is that the quilt is made up of two kinds of quilt blocks – some that are believed to have been made prior to Matilda’s migration to Alberta others that she made with 1930s fabric, after settling in Keystone, AB.

Royal Alberta Museum: Blog

Aunt Addie’s Album Quilt Block Pattern

The red and white colour scheme was a predominant quilting trend between 1880 and 1920. The look of the fabric suggests the blocks were made pre-1910 and may have remained at the bottom of a trunk until the 1930s when Matilda decided to complete the quilt using more contemporary fabrics. The juxtaposition between the red and white blocks and the 1930s fabric blocks provides an element of surprise. It has the distinctive look of a Gee’s Bend quilt. Gee’s Bend is an isolated African-American community in Alabama, U.S. whose inhabitants are the descendants of slaves. The women have always made quilts for their families. The oldest existing quilt made in this community is from the 1920s although it is believed that quilts were made long before this. Their style of quilting evokes artistic improvisation and the quilts themselves are considered important visual and cultural contributions to art.

Is it possible that other African-American communities from southern United States were quilting in a similar style at the turn of the 20th century? What influenced Matilda’s quilting style? These are questions we may never be able to answer.

Matilda and the Keystone Community

As the railroads moved westward, the Canadian Government was eager to populate the nation’s Prairie provinces, promoting them as Canada’s “Last Best West.” The Canadian Pacific Railway and the Canadian Government partnered to promote homesteading and employment opportunities for anyone brave enough to make the journey west to start a new life. Between 1890 and 1920, more than 750,000 Americans migrated to Canada. Over a three year period (1908 -1911), 1,000-1,500 African-Americans from Oklahoma and the neighbouring states were among these new settlers, and although their numbers were small, they attracted enough attention that opposition began to grow.

Royal Alberta Museum: Blog

Among the groups circulating petitions to stop the migration of African-Americans was The Edmonton Board of Trade. Even the Edmonton Member of Parliament, Frank Oliver, had an Order in Council drafted and approved prohibiting “any Black from entering Canada for a period of one year.” Given this opposition, it is not surprising that the Black community sought to settle in isolated and sparsely populated areas outside of Edmonton. Ultimately, they settled themselves mainly in four rural communities located 100 – 150 kilometres from Edmonton: Amber Valley (near Athabasca), Campsie (near Barrhead), Junkins (Wildwood) and Keystone (Breton).

Royal Alberta Museum: Blog

William Allen, founder of the Keystone community.

Keystone was settled by William and Mattie Allen in 1909. They were among the first Black settlers in the Keystone area. William is credited for the formation of this African-American settlement. He went back to Oklahoma to convince other Black families to settle the area later returning with Charlie King, Sam Hooks and their families.

Royal Alberta Museum: Blog

Charlie and Emma King’s homestead c.1920.

William and Mattie were soon joined by Matilda and her husband, Will Bailey, who came to Canada from Kansas around 1910. They travelled together with Will’s two brothers, Robert and Ben, Matilda’s mother, Mrs. Bartlett, their son “Big Eddy” and the Harding brothers, Tom and Jim. They first came to Edmonton before settling in Keystone (Breton) in 1911. Mrs. Bartlett eventually returned to Kansas, finding the Alberta winters too cold.

Royal Alberta Museum: Blog

George Ramsay was the postmaster for Keystone from 1910-1919.

George Ramsey and his family were also among the original settlers. He was the postmaster from 1910, when he and his family first arrived, until 1919. Every week George would ride to Yeoford store to pick up the mail. In 1911, each of the Bailey brothers along with Tom Harding filed for homesteads in Keystone adding to the already growing African-American community. The Good Hope Baptist Church and the Funnell School were quickly built by the community.

Royal Alberta Museum: Blog

Funnell School teacher, Jesse Jones, stands with his class c.1920

In 1918, tragedy hit the small community of Keystone. The flu epidemic took the lives of Will Bailey, Matilda’s husband, and Tom Harding. Sometime later Matilda married Willis Day and gave birth to their daughter, Gwen. In 1946, Gwen began teaching at the Funnell School until 1954 when the school was closed.

Royal Alberta Museum: Blog

Matilda and Willis Day early 1940s

Over time the members of the original Black community diminished as the White settlers began to move in. However, Gwen (Day) Hooks continued to live and teach in the area until 1994.

Join me next month as we discover Alberta’s history…one quilt at a time.

The information about the history of Matilda Bailey-Day and the settlement of the Black community of Keystone was provided by the Breton Museum. This includes the Ramsey Family Reunion 100th Anniversary Commemorative Booklet (1910) and the Breton history book The Ladder of Time (1980). All photos except the quilt photos were provided by the Breton Museum or reproduced from the sources above.

The Royal Alberta Museum has two quilt documentation events scheduled for Friday, April 1 and April 29, 2016. Do you have a family quilt made in Alberta or brought as part of the migration to Alberta? If so, please contact Lucie Heins to book your appointment. Phone 780-453-9176 or email to have your quilt documented.