Black History Month: Saskatchewan’s Mattie Mayes leaves impact decades after her life

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Black History Month: Saskatchewan’s Mattie Mayes leaves impact centuries after her life
WATCH: Mattie Mayes was born enslaved and eventually migrated to Saskatchewan. – Feb 1, 2021

Mattie Mayes lived a long and meaningful life, and her story is one that has inspired many.

Like many people coming to Canada, the Mayes family moved from Oklahoma in hopes of finding better opportunities for their family. Mattie was a trained midwife and her husband, Joseph, was a Baptist minister.

They made the move to the Maidstone, Sask., area in 1910 and were some of the first Black settlers in the province.

“They packed up their family, encouraged 12 other members of their congregation to move with them and they made that trek across the country and across the nation to Canada,” said Mattie’s great-great-granddaughter, Cynthia Pottinger.

The Shiloh Church is now a historical monument in Saskatchewan. SACHM

The Shiloh Baptist Church was established but there wasn’t a shortage of challenges. Farming in the area was tough, as the land was hard to clear and winters were treacherous.

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They also weren’t able to escape the racism they were trying to get away from in America.

“Although it may have not been as drastic and violent as it was down south, they definitely did experience that as early settlers in Saskatchewan,” Pottinger said.

However, the Mayes family was still able to leave their mark. Mattie would walk for kilometres at a time to help deliver babies. She did this many times, including when doctors weren’t around.

Mattie’s skills as a midwife were valuable to her community. SACHM

“She didn’t care what colour skin the person was that was having the baby,” said Anna Mayes-Cato, Mattie’s great-granddaughter.

“She supported the community and she was well-loved and liked for that.”

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“She’s known as the matriarch — the mother of that part of Saskatchewan,” said Lesa Mayes-Stringer, another great-granddaughter.

Before Saskatchewan

Mattie’s ancestors and even some historians have taken a great interest in her life.

Retired University of Saskatchewan professor Lesley Biggs has spent about six years researching Mattie’s life and has been extremely inspired by her story. She has even visited areas where Mattie lived in America.

“She started out as a slave and was a very humble woman. She had not only survived but thrived,” Biggs said about Mattie.

Mattie was born enslaved in Georgia and Biggs believes she would’ve been born in about 1846. She said Mattie was separated from her mother when she was only about four years old, confirming this through archival and census records.

Mattie was a ‘shoo fly girl’ and it was her responsibility to keep flies off the table while the family was eating. She considered herself a ‘free slave’, as her owners weren’t ‘terrible’.

“She was against it, but she wasn’t bitter,” Mayes-Stringer said about Mattie’s feelings towards slavery.

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According to census records from after the American Civil War, Mattie was working for an optician and eventually made her way to Tennessee. During this time she was trained as a midwife and met her husband Joseph.

The couple moved to Texas and eventually made their way to Oklahoma. Biggs assumes they were trying to get away from the racism that was prevalent in Texas. She said it was common for Black people to move west as there weren’t segregation laws there at the time.

“There were quite a few all-Black towns established there. The town that they went to doesn’t seem to have been an all-Black town, though” Biggs said.

There were a couple of motivating factors that brought the Mayes to Saskatchewan.

When Oklahoma became a state in 1905, Jim Crow laws were implemented to segregate Black people. At the time, Saskatchewan was also offering free farmland.

Mattie’s impact

Mattie had 10 boys and three girls during her life. Even after her death in 1953, Mattie continues to inspire her ancestors and many others.

“It was my ancestors who gave me strength. They were amazing,” Mayes-Cato said.

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While Mattie set a strong example, her ancestors have also had to channel her kind of strength in the face of discrimination.

As Mayes family members made their way to cities in Saskatchewan and beyond, racism was, unfortunately, a common challenge.

“There was a lot of trauma inflicted in terms of violence and it happened in regular cities and communities. Being minorities, there was that degree of racism they just couldn’t escape,” Pottinger said.

Aspects of Mattie’s life have come full circle for one of her great-granddaughters.

Like Mattie and her husband Joseph, Mayes-Stringer and her husband lead a church in Edmonton.

Her family has had a lot of success over the years. She’s a retired Olympic level bobsledder and was also a teacher. Her other siblings have a variety of careers, and Mayes-Stringer has siblings who are nurses, one’s a veterinarian, and another is an investor. Her oldest brother Rueben Mayes had a successful career in the NFL.

“He had some great years playing football really is a star, in our eyes as well,” Mayes-Stringer said about her brother.

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“He is now the head of the foundation for the university hospital for Washington State University.”

Mattie’s ancestors are grateful for her sacrifices but believe there are still steps that need to be taken to battle racism in Canada. They say movements like Black Lives Matter are a good start.

“Being of this generation, it’s very interesting to see that there are still barriers to being 100 per cent successful,” Pottinger said.

“We still have some work to do and I’m happy to share about our family’s history so these stories are told and we can see that Black people are part of the makeup of this country. Our stories belong in history books just like everybody else’s.”

“Now with all the research, trying to get back a piece of us and understand what our culture is, is very important,” Mayes-Stringer said.

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