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A century of local racism

While the eyes of the world are currently focused on the explosion of racial violence in the United States at the hands of militarized police, there are many people who believe that such racism does not exist in Canada.
guest editorial

While the eyes of the world are currently focused on the explosion of racial violence in the United States at the hands of militarized police, there are many people who believe that such racism does not exist in Canada. However, to find historical examples of such racial vitriol in our country, we do not need to look any further than our own city.

To find an early and poignant example of such racism, one can turn to the spring of 1921, when Prince George was a bustling new community of 2053 residents. While most residents of the city at this time were white anglophones, the new city of Prince George was home to small and vibrant ethnic communities, seeking opportunities and a new life in the vast forests of the Canadian North. 

In April of 1921, a fight broke out on Quebec Street between two groups of Chinese residents. The brawl was quickly broken up by the Prince George Municipal Police, but the implications of this fight moved far beyond the Chinese community. City Council, led by Acting Mayor Barney Keegan, developed a strategy to clean up the city of those they deemed undesirable. Their plans were published in The Citizenon April 22, 1921. However, it was curiously not the Chinese community who faced the blame or the consequences for the strife. Rather, Acting Mayor Keegan called for the round up and expulsion of the city’s 25-30 Black residents, most of whom lived in a small ethnic community centred around Third Avenue and Quebec Street. This part of town was referred to by the white residents using a name that will not be found boasted on signs and plaques around our downtown. Because Third and Quebec in 1921 was known as N*****town.

In the article, entitled “Shake-up Threatened in the City Government” it was noted that “[a]t that meeting Alderman Patterson made a motion, seconded by Alderman Wimbles, which instructed the city clerk to forward to the police commissioners a strong expression of the council’s desire to have the city cleared of undesirables… asking that all undesirables be ordered out of town, especially referring to ‘n*****town’.” The article goes on to state that “this city has become the ‘dumping ground’ for members of the underworld, and is putting up to the small police force of the city a heavy task to keep these undesirables in their place and protect the respectable citizens from annoyance.” It does not take an historian to find similarities to the attitudes of many in the city today.

At the end of April 1921, 99 years ago, the City of Prince George was set to use the force of the Municipal Police to drive out the local Black population on the basis of race rather than merit. A response came on May 6, 1921, from the desk of one Charles Sager, local barber and member of our fledgling black community.

Sager, like all non-Indigenous citizens of Prince George, came here seeking opportunity. Sager worked as a playwright across the States, staging shows across the American Midwest through the late 1800s. In Chicago, he was a founding member of the Pekin Theatre, the first Black owned and operated theatre in the United States in 1905. At some point between 1905 and 1921, Sager found his way north. Here, in this little community of Prince George, a storied member of the Black community found in history books was cutting hair for a living. 

Sager’s response to the proposed expulsion of our Black community was written with a fire and passion that the century has not dulled. Entitled “An Open Letter To the Honorable the Mayor and Members of the Council, City of Prince George,” Sager’s letter moved far beyond a simple retort against the City’s plans for N*****town, but was a deconstruction of racism at a time when such views were commonplace. Sager opens his letter with a stand against race-based discrimination: “At no previous period in the history of the Negro has he been confronted with a more critical situation than today. On the one hand, the forces of prejudice fighting to keep him in that bondage of prejudice because of race; and on the other the Negro, as never before, to achieve the status of citizenship – full and unlimited by caste or color. Race prejudice is not so much a matter of startling deeds as of petty insinuations.

This is the negro’s point of view, and it is a direct challenge to every self-respecting Negro in Prince George – in Canada. It is a vulgar appeal to insult and violence; it demoralizes, debases and promotes hate and envy – the very ground root of race prejudice.”

Sager then goes on to deride the basis of language used to describe the black community.

“To call a Negro “n*****” is to belittle and destroy the last vestige of hope, manhood and self-respect left in him, after two hundred years of the most cruel slavery on earth. We feel reasonably sure that under normal conditions thinking men would not close the door of ambition and opportunity in the face of any man on account of his color; and yet it is the very thing done, and the principle cause of race antagonism today.”

After further discussion of race and relations in Prince George and beyond, Sager ends his letter with a plea:

“We ask a square deal; the equality of opportunity and of privilege from the powers that be, and the honest endeavor to cultivate interracial respect. Believing that we all will find more to praise and less to complain of in one of the best little cities in Canada.”

After this letter was published in The Leader, no expulsion of the Black community in Prince George occurred. Times changed, and N*****town disappeared from the history books, and with it Charles Sager. We know that Sager’s wife Willa died in Prince George and is still buried in our cemetery. And we know that Sager himself ended up in New York in 1930. The rest of his time here in Prince George is lost to the past.

The story of racism in Prince George does not end with Charles Sager, even to this day. The vitriol against Indigenous peoples in Prince George remains a stark reminder of this fact. We as a community must ask ourselves some hard questions. Do we stay rooted in our past and continue to make the same mistakes as those who came before us? Or do we break the cycle of racial prejudice to forge a new future, full of understanding and opportunity. Charles Sager closed his piece of our history with a request and a message for those who live in Prince George in 1921 and today. The request for interracial respect in “one of the best little cities in Canada.”

Patterns can be broken, reconciliation can still live if we use our hearts and listen to those who have struggled and suffered like Black and Indigenous communities in 1921 and now. We have a choice. Do we continue to let hate and racial prejudice flow through this city? Or do we stand up to it, confront our demons, and build a stronger community where we try to understand one another for the betterment of our world? Reflect on these thoughts, reflect on Charles Sager, and reflect on how you can make this world a kinder place.

Look to the past and we will find our way in the future.

- Aaron Larsen is a historian at UNBC and a teacher in School District 57.