Black sex work in early 1900s Edmonton
During recent research I came across an interesting and disturbing trend in the Edmonton Journal archives. It is the apparent prevalence of Black sex workers in early 1900s and the hostile opposition they faced from the city, police, and newspapers.
This article explores this trend and seeks to answer questions around the prevalence and legacy of this practice. A majority of the articles come from the Edmonton journal and the ‘police court’ section of the paper where they recounted the actions of the local court.
Before I continue, we don’t know if the police, courts, or johns were being honest or if the workers were truly ‘guilty.’ This is due to the well documented discrimination Black Canadians faced during the time.
Trend and Prevalence
When I first came across these articles, I assumed that they were isolated cases and not a trend. I often came across them while doing research on other topics and would simply save the source and continue as I went through the archives. Below is an excerpt from the first article I came across. It described a fine imposed on a supposed ‘night walker.’
I came across more and more articles and wondered. How much of this was a trend and how prevalence was the practice?
I sought to answer these questions by investigating the hostile institutional response to Black sex workers. One obvious example of this hostility was the common practice of referring to Black women as ‘negress’. This term - and the prevalence of these stories - showed that journalists at the time felt that Black sex work were a problem.
This can best be illustrated in this article that lays out an apparent warning to these sex workers. Furthermore, it provides an indication of the number of Black women brought before court each day.
Edmonton Journal, April 18, 1914:
Negresses who are found walking the streets and soliciting strange men after dark hereafter will get little mercy when they appear in police court if the determination of City Prosecutor Hefferman is carried out to the letter hereafter. According to evidence brought out in court this morning, when Annie Miller, a negress, appeared on a charge of street walking.
For some time past it has been difficult for the city police to convict some negresses of street walking, because the men solicited have not been produced in court to testify to being solicited. Every morning two or more colored women have been brought into court on vagrancy charges but the men whom they solicited have not appeared to give evidence against them.
The result has been that many negressed have ‘rolled’ drunks in lanes along the right of way of the CNR and GTP (rail companies) of hundred of dollars in several cases and have escaped unpunished. Street walking has therefore become a profitable means of gaining a livelihood, and there are now more negresses engaging in street walking at night and plying between the CNR railway tracks and the Norwood boulevard than probably at any time in the history of the city of Edmonton.
2-3 women being brought in court each day demonstrates - by itself - that Black sex work was a trend. One reason for the relative prominence of this practice can be explained by the large Black immigration into Alberta in the early 1900s. This, combined with racial discrimination, is perhaps what drove Black people to this trade. Remember, Edmonton practiced segregation for decades and Black women were barred from nursing training. In addition, Black people were barred from swimming pools, movie theaters, and even hospitals.
Police reaction and hostility
Black sex workers were also specifically targeted and signaled out by police, city officials, and Judges. This can be seen from the aggressive and racist language used by these officials and the harsh punishments that were given to those workers. The article below contains one such warning from a court official along with the description of a harsh 30 day sentence placed on a sex worker.
Edmonton Journal June 15, 1914:
“I want to tell you and all the rest of the colored girls in this town right now that you must keep off the streets at night in the future. Otherwise you will receive the extreme penalties when you come before me on charges of vagrancy.”
Thus did Magistrade Massie address Annie Miller, a negress, when she came before his worship for the third time in four days on charges of vagrancy. The miller woman had no more than been released on bail when she started to pick up men on the street again and was re-arrested by Detectives Fryant and Roberts on charge of vagrancy when the sleuth caught her in a lane with a man named John Rensaugh. Both were taken to the city police station.
The Miller woman was given was given a straight 30 days sentence this morning without the option of a fine while Rensaugh, who tried to protect the negress and himself, was fined $10 and costs after the cadi had reprimanded him severely for what the court considered a deliberate contravention of facts.
….. [two paragraphs omitted - refer to image to read those paragraphs]
One of the stereotyped features of every prosecution of colored women in Edmonton is the fact that nine times out of ten the accused tell his worship that their husbands are Pullman porters on railway trains running out of Edmonton. Comparing the number of negresses who enter this plea with the number of Pullman car porters who make their headquarters in Edmonton, according to police, leaves a decided balance on the ledger in favor of the former.
This article showcases the hostility and legal threat facing Black sex workers. The article also gives us another indication as to the scale of the practice by noting that the police suspected there to be more Black sex workers than porters. This is major considering how wide spread rail travel was in Canada during this time.
While the cases are disturbing, there are individual stories that are often surreal and surprising. Stories that showed the agency of these Black sex workers and how they were willing to fight legal charges.
The following is an article about Athal Sweet and India Denman. Athal was accused of using white face to lure white men into alley ways in order to rob them. Althal faced five years in jail but used a remarkable legal defense that showcased their agency and determination. They were let off their charges.
Edmonton Journal April 25, 1914
When is a woman justified in covering her face with powder so as to disguise herself, and when she is committing a criminal offence to which she is liable to a sentence of five years in the penitentiary under section 464 of the criminal code?
This was the perplexing question discussed in police court when Athal Sweet, an unbleached Canadian, and India Denman, a Mullatto, who were convicted last week of being street walkers, appeared before Magistrate Massie on charges of disguising themselves by night. It was shown in evidence that the Sweet woman, who is an extremely dark negress had powdered her face, donned a Black veil and blackened gloves, and paraded the streets in the East End. Apparently to inveigie white men into lanes for the purpose of being robbed.
Counsel for the two colored women averred that it was a very common occurrence for women to powder and paint their faces, and if white women could paint and powder so that they could disguise the features with which mother nature provided them, there was no valid reason why colored girls should not be permitted to do likewise and not be prosecuted.
“It is no joke to go about the streets with a face so discolored as to make it utterly impossible to distinguish whether a negress is black or white” said Prosecutor Hefferman. “It is time that the colored wrenches of this city were taught a lesson. The offence which these two negresses are charged come under the bulgary act and they are disguising themselves so utterly that unless a person look twice it is difficult to determine, after dark, whether they are Black and white.”
The Denman woman was dismissed and the Sweet woman was severely reprimanded and given the benefit of the doubt. Both women were told that their presence in Edmonton was neither sought nor wanted and that the sooner they and their class put several steel rails between themselves and Edmonton the better Edmonton would like it.
“colored wrenches” “Their presence in Edmonton was neither sought nor wanted” - these were the common attitudes expressed in the coverage of Black sex work in Edmonton. This attitude and the hostility demonstrated the danger they faced while they tried to make a livelihood.
This is in contrast to white sex workers who were often described as “white slaves” in the city papers at the time. They were not subject to the same hostility by the major city institutions.
What remained of the practice among the white imagery was one of aggressive and violent Black sex workers that would rob white men. The blame and warnings were often put on the workers and not the white men who sought their services.
It is difficult to know the true extent of the practice and the backlash they faced without going into the Edmonton police archives. Unfortunately, those archives are closed. If you are curious, then write to Edmonton police asking for their archive to be made accessible to the public.
In terms of the legacy of the practice, perhaps it is best to close with this advertisement for an optometrist. This ad plays on this image of Black sex workers as violent robbers and the absurdity of it showcases how the white citizens viewed and remembered these Black workers.
Remember, this is an ad for an optometrist.