Black Canadian Profile: William Sylvester Alpheus Beal 1874 to 1968
I recently just got back from Winnipeg, Manitoba. It was my first time visiting this province so in honour of my trip, I decided to write a profile of one of the province’s first Black settlers. The Black population of the Canadian West grew quite slowly in the 19th and 20th Century, with most migrants coming from the United States. One of the first and best documented Blacks to migrate and settle in Manitoba was William S. A. Beal aka Billy Beal.
Billy Beal was born in Chelsea, Massachusetts on January 16th 1874, the son of Loretta H. Freeman and Charles R. Beal. Billy Beal grew up in Minneapolis, Minnesota where he graduated from high school. Minnesota was a region where the Manitoba government was focusing its immigration advertising at the time. Beal immigrated to Canada in 1906 where he worked in the Swan River area of Manitoba as a steam engineer at a saw mill. The area was mainly settled by Icelandic, Scandinavian and German immigrants. Beal describes life on a pioneer homestead in the region as follows (I have made spelling corrections to the original):
The idea of taking a homestead did not occur to me at that time. It was in the fall of 1906 that one of my acquaintances asked me to spend the winter on his homestead. That was in the district that is called Lancaster now. We went out there to fix up the house and things because he had a wife to share his good fortune with him. The scrub was so dense out there that we had to climb a tree to see much of his possessions. I had originally come from the city and I thought a man must have an awful grudge against a woman to take her out in the woods like that.
Unlike many other Black immigrants to the Canadian West, Beal was not initially interested in building a homestead, but he soon changed his mind under the influence of men at the sawmill and a book he read. He decided to settle in the Big Woody region. He writes:
Two years after at the sawmill where I worked most of the men were homesteaders and there was nothing but homestead talk every evening in camp. They would set around the table talked and joked each other about their braking and clearing. […] This and a book that I read that summer inspired me to try homesteading myself. So in the fall when the summer season at the mill was over, I applied at the land office in Swan River for a permit to file on a homestead. The only land then available near Swan River was ten miles North West of town some new land just opened for settlement. It was not then even included in the municipality and I was the first one to locate there. This was in 1908. It was very discouraging looking then, all heavy bush or rather dense trees like a forest and I had to clear and break fifteen acres in three years. There were no roads of course of any kind. Then too, there was the Woody River between it and town and no bridge. I had to cut a road in to haul material in to build my first shack.
But instead of focusing on clearing his land and farming, he started building a library. He collected catalogues from publishing houses and sent away for hundreds of books including the works of William Shakespeare, the Bible, Scientific Literature, Astronomy, and Philosophy. Unfortunately, Beal’s library was lost in 1911, burned to the ground in a spring fire which swept through the Swan River Valley. After this disaster, Beal focused on farming but gave it up in 1916 and returned to working for local lumber companies, just returning to his homestead on off seasons.
Beal was something of a renaissance man. Beal even built a homemade telescope out of lengths of stove pipe and rolled metal from tin cans. Some even believed he had medical training and he even assisted in giving inoculations in the diphtheria scare of 1915, the influenza epidemic of 1918 and the smallpox outbreak of 1920.
In 1912, he was involved in the formation of the Big Woody School District and was elected its first Secretary Treasurer, a position that he held for 37 years. Beal helped to establish a circulating library within the school system. He was the first secretary of the Big Woody Sunday School. He also formed a literary society and debating teams, directed plays, and organized poetry readings and musical concerts.
On top of all this he was also an amateur photographer. Most of his photographs are of people from the Swan River Valley, pictured in their homes of outside in natural settings so that the photographs do not look staged. A selection of his photographs were featured in the self-published 1988 amateur biography entitled Billy: The Life and Photography of William S. A. Beal Beal by Robert Barrow and Leigh Hambly.
Beal was a life-long bachelor. After he retired, he moved to the volunteer run Eventide home in the Pas in 1955. He died penniless on January 25th 1968 at 94 years of age. He was buried in an unmarked grave in The Pas Cemetery.
Very little is known about Beal’s life before he immigrated to Manitoba. Beal wrote an 8 page memoir in the 1950s but it begins, unlike most memoirs, with his immigration to Manitoba, not his birth. The memoir begins:
I came up to this country during Laurier’s land boom and effort was being made to settle the west by giving every man a “homestead” for $10.00, three years residence and fifteen acres cleared and broke. I did not come to this part of the country to homestead then but to follow my trade of engineer as there [were] many saw mills being operated.
Barrow and Hambly, who wrote Beal’s biography, interviewed neighbours, friends, and aquaintances of Beal’s in order to learn more about his early life. Much that they uncovered was only rumour and speculation as Beal didn’t tell many people about his past. According to Tom and Mary Barrow, two acquaintances of Beal’s, Beal immigrated because he was the dark-skinned child of a family that could pass as white, in an interview they state: “Well, he was a—he had Negro blood in him and it really came out in him, and his family, I guess, persuaded him to come up to this country so they wouldn’t be embarrassed having this fella who showed so much Negro in the family.”
Filmmakers Ernesto Griffiths and Winston Washington Moxam have written and produced a feature film about Beal’s life, entitled Billy. Griffiths stars in the film, playing Billy Beal, and Moxam directs. The film’s webpage on Telefilm Canada provides the following description for the film:
In 1967, a young journalist arrives at a retirement home to interview Billy, a 94-year-old black man. Billy tells him the story of his eventful life dating back to his early recollections of when he left the United States to move to northern Manitoba. He recalls his struggle as a homesteader, the racism he endured, his love of a woman, and his gift of photography.
Billy is the story of one man’s constant search for acceptance.
The filmmakers received the 2010 Human Rights Commitment Award of Manitoba for their film.
The Black Prairies: History, Subjectivity, Writing by Karina Joan Vernon (thesis available online)
Billy Beal: One of the First Black Pioneers in Manitoba by G. Siamandas (article available online)
Profile of Beal by The Manitoba Historical Society available online
Webpage for the film Billy on the Telefilm Canada website
Interview with Ernesto Griffith about the film Billy Beal available online
Trailer for the film Billy Beal available online