Descendents of one of Saskatchewan’s first families of colour have made their home in Elrose, and they are as much a part of the fabric of the province as any residents.
The Mayes family has a rich and long history in Saskatchewan dating back to 1910 when family members first came to the province. They first settled in the Eldon district about 13 kilometres north of Maidstone, according to a Saskatoon StarPhoenixreport from February in Black History Month.
Joseph and Mattie Mayes were two of the original settlers of Eldon, along with 11 other families that made the lengthy trip north from Oklahoma in 1910. Joseph and Mattie are the ancestors of Elrose residents Murray Mayes and his daughter Charlotte Williams.
The StarPhoenixspoke with Murray’s daughter Crystal Mayes, a nurse in Saskatoon who was asked to speak at an event at the city’s Cliff Wright Library as part of celebrations for Black History Month. Joseph and Mattie are Murray’s grandparents.
As told by the news report, thousands of former slaves moved to Oklahoma after the American Civil War, because they could vote and study there, but it changed in 1907 when Oklahoma became a state and introduced a period of segregation. Several families made the long trip north to Canada’s prairies where the federal government had promised free land to people who were willing to break ground.
Joseph and Mattie became part of a group of people in Eldon known as the Shiloh People. While other settlers of colour left to go elsewhere, Joseph and Mattie stayed in Eldon and along with the other members of the community built the Shiloh Baptist Church out of poplar logs in 1912. It was used until the 1940s.
Murray’s father, George Harvey Mayes, was buried in a cemetery at the church site and he was the last Shiloh descendent to live there. The cemetery was reopened for his burial in 1975 and again in 1987 for the burial of his wife Lucille – the last person buried at the heritage site.
Murray, who was born in Maidstone, eventually moved to North Battleford with his wife Marie where they raised their seven children. They were known to be the only family of colour in the community. Murray ran an auto body repair shop.
It is indicated by the news report that members of the Mayes family might be the most famous descendents of the original Shiloh settlement. Murray’s oldest son, Rueben, played parts of six seasons in the National Football League with the New Orleans Saints and Seattle Seahawks.
The StarPhoenix report says that Williams, the third oldest of seven children, is the first veterinarian of colour in Saskatchewan’s history. Crystal is a nurse in Saskatoon; her sister Lucille is a nurse in North Battleford; her sister Marion is a nurse in Toronto; her sister Lisa is a teacher in France and her brother Christopher, a resident of Boise, Idaho, works in the financial industry. Lisa is also a bobsledder who went to France to help with the country’s bobsleigh program.
Williams, who was born in North Battleford, said she recalls the people there to be very accepting of the family, so “they never made us feel like we were different” and later in college is when she became more aware of being a visible minority.
She graduated from high school in North Battleford, and then she went to study marine biology at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia. When she discovered that most of her time would be spent working in a lab as a marine biologist, she decided to make the switch to the veterinary field because she wanted to be more hands on with animals. She attended the University of Saskatchewan.
Williams moved to Elrose in 1996 with her husband Earl and they have raised three children, Spencer, Jocelyn and Reese, in the community. She said she first came to Elrose because her husband, a horticulturist, came to the area to start a tissue culture business with a local farmer. Elrose has been good for her family.
“It’s been a great community to raise children in,” she said, noting that she started her veterinary practice in 1997 and the community has been very supportive of her family and her business. “It was a good move for us. It’s been great.”
It was explained by Williams that her sister Crystal told her she was asked to speak to an audience in Saskatoon, but Crystal reached out to other groups to help. She said she and Murray drove to the city to watch Crystal speak and it was an excellent turnout with standing room only. It was a great evening for Crystal, her and Murray, she noted.
Her great-grandmother Mattie was born into slavery, but she was freed as a slave before moving to Canada. Crystal told the StarPhoenixshe did not hear much about slavery growing up. Williams said she was more aware of her ancestors’ struggles from living in Oklahoma to farming in Saskatchewan because “I was one of the older kids in the family, so I knew (more) about the history.”
It was explained by Williams that the history of her family’s hardships had an impact on her, but it was not her main sense of motivation in life. She, along with her father, gave credit to their faith as motivation, but the family’s success could also be attributed to being in Canada.
“I don’t think we would have had the same opportunities if we’d stayed in the States as we have here in Canada,” she said, noting she and her siblings were always encouraged to do their best at all times and anything was possible.
“You could have the opportunity to do what ever you want here. I think down there, there are still racial problems where you are limited in what you can do.”
Members of Williams’ family living in Canada are often asked where they are from, so they tell people the family immigrated to the country along with several immigrants from other countries. The history of black settlers in Saskatchewan is not as well known as other settlers, so it is nice to share the history, she said.
Murray showed a lot of pride in the accomplishments of his children. He said Rueben was excited to get into Washington State University where he played his college football before being drafted by the Saints. Rueben was the Associated Press offensive rookie of the year in 1986 and he was selected to the Pro Bowl twice in 1986 and 1987. He said his children have made the most of the opportunities they had growing up in Canada.
“They were all top of the line,” the proud father said of his children, recognizing that his children were all excellent athletes and they have worked hard to carve out their own professional careers and paths in life.
Murray, who has lived in Elrose since 2002, said he also spent four and a half years serving in the military. He said his grandfather Joseph, a father to 10 boys and three girls, served as a minister at the church in Eldon, so the family’s strong sense of faith should not come as a surprise.
According to Murray, his grandfather realized his children would not have a chance to succeed if the family stayed in Oklahoma. He said there was no chance for people of colour to rebel, so they had to leave. Elrose has been a good community to call home, he added.
— Reprinted, with permission, from The Eston-Elrose Press Review