Most British Columbians don’t think of Salt Spring Island as a centre for Black culture in this province. But back in the late 1850s, some Black settlers asked the first governor of colonial British Columbia, James Douglas, for permission to form a colony there, according to the memoirs of long-time Salt Spring Island resident Sylvia Stark.
North Vancouver author Crawford Kilian mentions this in his book, Go Do Some Great Thing: The Black Pioneers of British Columbia. According to Stark, Douglas preferred that the island remain multiracial. “It’s an intriguing story,” Kilian writes, “but we have no confirmation of it.”
Stark, who was born into slavery in Missouri, also wrote in her memoir that six other Black families were living on Salt Spring Island when her family moved there around the start of the U.S. Civil War. She lived to the age of 106, and her daughter, Emma, became the first Black teacher on Vancouver Island.
“I kind of fell in love with Emma Stark, who was just a baby, a toddler, when they first arrived on Salt Spring around 1861,” Kilian tells the Straight by phone. “Judging from her photograph, she was a beautiful young woman, and she died at 33 of tuberculosis.”
The Starks are one of many pioneering Black B.C. families featured in the third edition of Kilian’s 1978 book, which was published last year by Harbour Publishing. Another key figure in the book is Mifflin Gibbs, a politically active businessman who became the first Black person elected to public office in B.C. as a Victoria city councillor in 1866.
“He was such a live wire and he always had three projects on the go at any given time,” Kilian says.
His wife, Maria Gibbs, attended Oberlin College before they moved to B.C. Eventually, she decided to return to Oberlin, Ohio, with their five children, leaving Gibbs alone in Victoria.
“His wife must have found she was very lonely, because there was almost no socializing between the white and black women in Victoria,” Kilian notes. “As far as I can tell, she was the only woman in the colony who had any postsecondary education at all.”
Kilian feels that the new edition is far stronger not only in the research but also in the way he’s written about others who have been marginalized in Canadian history.
“Since the Chinese and Indigenous people are major figures in the story of the Black pioneers, they needed to be treated with a little more respect as well,” Kilian says.
In fact, the self-effacing author says he was "mortified" that his first edition became a standard, placed in virtually every public library in the country, when he felt it was an "amateur effort".
"I had gone to some pretty available sources," Kilian says. "I had done some digging and I had done some interviewing. But I really only scratched the surface.
"And I thought, surely some Canadian historian is going to read this, roll their eyes, and say I’ll show this kid how it’s done and come out with something really effective. And it didn’t happen.”
Douglas encouraged Black migration
One section of the book that Kilian didn't need to amend in any serious way was the beginning. It explained how approximately 800 free Blacks from California moved to this province between 1858 and 1860.
In Go Do Some Great Thing, Kilian makes a persuasive case that the colonial governor, Douglas, invited them because he wanted to bolster the population with non-Americans. That was to prevent British Columbia from falling under U.S. control.
Kilian never located any letter from Douglas confirming this. But the author makes it abundantly clear that something of this magnitude could have only occurred with the governor's consent.
Douglas, whose mother was half-Black, was clever enough to recognize that the 1857 Dred Scott decision in the U.S. Supreme Court was sufficient to encourage the Blacks to migrate to Vancouver Island. That’s because this pre–Civil War ruling denied Blacks U.S. citizenship, whereas in B.C. they would be allowed to vote.
“This was a huge inducement," Kilian says. "Especially to people like Mifflin Gibbs and the others who had been very politically active all their lives and were so disappointed when [the] Dred Scott [decision] said, in effect, ‘You’ll never be citizens.’ No matter if you were the third generation of born-free black Americans, you will never be citizens.”
Once they arrived in B.C., they still faced discrimination. Kilian's book goes into great detail over a heated dispute in 1860 over whether Blacks should be permitted in premium seating areas or whether they should have to observe performances from the gallery.
There was also an extensive section dealing with differences within the Congregationalist Unions of Canada over whether its church services should be fully integrated.
Gibbs wasn't the only 19th-century Black to serve in public office in B.C. In 1873, two of the seven councillors on Salt Spring Island, John C. Jones and Henry W. Robinson, were from the Black community. And from 1902 to 1908, John Freemont Smith was an elected member of Kamloops council.
In 1972, Black politicians Rosemary Brown, Emery Barnes, and John Braithwaite were all elected in B.C., marking the first time that this had occurred in more than 60 years.
Brown and Barnes were provincial legislators from Vancouver; Braithwaite was a councillor in the City of North Vancouver.
Kilian feels that it's "extremely encouraging" that the Vancouver school board plans to launch an elective Grade 12 course this September called African Descent History in British Columbia.
That's because he thinks it's important that students recognize that the province was not founded by just a bunch of white guys with funny beards.
In fact, this spring he'll be teaching a course with North Shore ElderCollege focusing on the roles that Blacks, Hawaiians, Sikhs, and people from Nordic countries played in the 19th- and early 20th-century history of the province.
"The more we know about all of these people, the better off we'll be," he says.