In Focus: Cheryl Foggo’s John Ware

By Maureen McNamee

At the Bar U Ranch National Historic Site south of Longview they tell a story about John Ware. The Black cowboy and rancher, a former slave in the US, was hired in 1882 to help bring 3,000 cattle across the border to the Bar U, where he would help manage the roaming herds. Shortly after his arrival a nasty blizzard blew in, pushing cattle farther and farther south. In freezing, whiteout conditions, all the men except Ware abandoned the herd. Four days later, they went searching and found Ware alive—with the cattle.

This is one of Cheryl Foggo’s favourite stories about the man she has been researching and writing about for years. “I believe the magnitude of that event was the beginning of the legend,” she says. Foggo is currently working on the second instalment of a trio of works based on Ware’s life. As a tall Black man he stood out from other cowboys, but Ware earned his reputation from his strength, courage, kindness and skill with livestock. He eventually started his own small ranch, married former slave Mildred Lewis and had a family.

But Foggo’s interest in Ware was sparked long before she heard the blizzard story. As children growing up in Calgary, Foggo and her brother were fascinated by “the Western mystique.” They read dime-store cowboy novels and watched cowboy movies every Saturday afternoon. “As we got older we began to notice there were never any Black people in the stories,” she says. The siblings felt their love of Western culture wasn’t compatible with their African heritage.

Everything changed when her brother went to the Glenbow Museum on a school trip and saw an exhibit about Ware. He came home excited to tell his sister the cowboy they had vaguely heard of was Black. “That was the beginning of a very long and gradual discovery of who he was and the legacy he left,” she says.

Foggo also started digging into her own family and community history, learning about the pioneers who came up to Alberta in the early 1900s and formed the most northerly Black communities that likely ever existed. “That just wasn’t a part of what we learned about in school or in library books,” she says.

Foggo’s career has been dedicated to telling those stories through articles, novels and plays. She also directed the 2002 National Film Board documentary The Journey of Lesra Martin.

In 2011 Foggo bumped into Tunde Dawodu of Calgary’s Afrikadey! festival, who shared her interest in Ware and asked if Foggo was planning to do anything about him for the Stampede’s centennial in 2012. Foggo says she realized it was the perfect opportunity to draw attention to Ware’s significance in Alberta’s ranching history. “I wanted his legacy and his contributions to the values and the events that led to the creation of the Stampede remembered.”

At the time, she was preparing a multimedia presentation for the University of Calgary’s Black History Month celebrations and asked her daughter, Miranda Martini, to write a song for John and Mildred. That eventually led to the first work in her trilogy, the play John Ware Reimagined, which mirrors Foggo’s childhood discovery of a Black cowboy. The play debuted with Calgary’s Ellipsis Tree Collective in 2014 and won the 2015 Writers Guild of Alberta Gwen Pharis Ringwood Award for Drama. It recently ran in Edmonton at Workshop West (Nov 8–19).

Foggo is now in the midst of the second work, a documentary for the National Film Board titled John Ware Reclaimed. The film is about her efforts to not only investigate where the man came from, but also to “illuminate the disconnect” between Canadian and Black history. “Why is John Ware not well known outside of southern Alberta?” Foggo asks. “Why is he not a figure of national significance?”

Filming took place in the foothills last summer with eight-time world champion rodeo star Fred Whitfield as Ware. Foggo hopes the film will be finished by summer and will launch at Canadian film festivals next fall. The final project in the trilogy will be a book—perhaps, she suggests, John Ware Retold.

—Maureen McNamee


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