Municipal building reception hall renamed in honour of Calgary’s first Black alderman

CALGARY — With the four-year restoration of historic city hall now complete, the Calgary Power Reception Hall (CPRH) will move back to its original location in the 109-year-old building, and the space renamed the Virnetta Anderson Hall, honouring the first Black person elected to city council, and her legacy. 

“Virnetta was a champion for the city,” said Mayor Naheed Nenshi.

“It’s only fitting that a space in the Municipal Building, right near council chambers where decisions about our community are made, should be named after her.”

The CPRH was moved to the municipal building during the restoration, occupying what was formerly the city hall cafeteria.

Known for her involvement in church and community service, Anderson served in several roles within the United Church, was a member of the Mount Royal College Ladies’ Auxiliary, co-founded and became president of Meals on Wheels, and volunteered as a board member for several organizations, including the United Way, Calgary Tourist and Convention Association and the Calgary Centre for the Performing Arts.

Most notably, she was the first Black woman to serve on city council, from 1974 to 1977.

Anderson passed away in 2006, at the age of 85.

“My mother had a deep love for the city of Calgary,” said Barry Anderson, Virnetta’s youngest son.

“If she were with us today, I know she would be honoured by this. To have this room, a room that will be used for collaboration and connection in order to serve Calgarians, reflects that same spirit that lived in my mother.”

Anderson moved to Calgary from Los Angeles with her husband, Ezzrett “Sugarfoot” Anderson, in 1952. Sugarfoot was recruited to the Calgary Stampeders in 1949 and played with them as a pass catcher until 1958.

“It wasn’t easy for my parents,” said Barry. “There weren’t many Black faces in Calgary in those years, but my parents encouraged me to embrace that and stand out; ‘being unique and different is a good thing’ they’d say.”

At the age of 54, Anderson ran for a council seat in 1974.

“Although both newspapers of the day and the election ballot reported her as just a ‘housewife’ among businessmen, an agent, TV producer, geologist, investment dealer, and a construction estimator, Anderson went on to win the election and serve on city council for the next three years,” the city said in a release.

“While on Council, Anderson fought a proposed extension of Sarcee Trail across the Weaselhead natural area and planted a seed within council to bring a light rail transit system to the city, similar to the C-train we have today.

“Former Mayor Rod Sykes described Anderson as a one of the best Alderman he ever worked with, saying ‘She never played council games … she was intellectual honest and spoke common sense.'”

Following her term on council, Anderson was appointed to the Citizen Advisory Committee by former mayor Ralph Klein, “to offer an independent female point of view, not normally heard from citizens, regarding issues facing the quality of life for citizens.”

“She tackled such issues as transportation, parking, social issues, indigenous employment opportunities, downtown deterioration, affordable housing, needs of youth, prostitution, ethnic concerns,” the city said.

“In 1988, she was named a Paul Harris Fellow by the Calgary Rotary Club and was a nominee for the YWCA’s Women of Distinction Lifetime Achievement Award for community service in 1992 as well as the Canada 125 Commemorative Medal.”

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