Black History Month: ‘Rich history’ of black people in B.C. has roots in Victoria
February 4, 2017
By Nick Eagland, Vancouver Sun | If it wasn’t for Black History Month, Ron Nicholson worries a “rich history” that helped shape B.C. would be lost on today’s youth.
“Without history you’re nothing, you have no tradition at all,” said Nicholson, who is vice-president of the B.C. Black History Awareness Society.
All this month, Nicholson will be busy giving talks and lectures about a history he’s keen to share. His devotion stems in part from learning the story of his great grandfather, who escaped slavery in West Virgina by travelling the Underground Railroad and settling in Ontario.
Maintaining a connection to his own past is important to Nicholson, he said.
“B.C. has a very rich history of blacks, particularly the ones that came up from California in 1858 and settled in the Victoria area, Salt Spring Island and Saanich area,” he said.
“We have a lot of stories to tell. I think it’s beneficial not just for black people — it’s a very interesting history and it’s part of Canadian history. It’s the black part which is most often neglected.”
In 1858, Sir James Douglas, a mixed-race governor of B.C., heard from a ship captain who sailed between San Francisco and Victoria about racist policies in California and the disenchantment of many black Americans living there, Nicholson explained.
Douglas invited Mifflin Wistar Gibbs — a black attorney and judge — to visit Victoria, offering fair treatment to him and all those who followed. Gibbs eventually led hundreds of black Americans to a peaceful life in Victoria, where he later served on city council.
“(Douglas) wanted people to come settle here and establish roots,” Nicholson said. “The blacks were willing to do that because there were benefits for them here, the laws were on their side. They were suffering from a lot of discrimination in California, in spite of the fact that it was a free state.”
A century and a half later, Nicholson said his society teaches British Columbians — sometimes all-white audiences — about these pioneers and more recent notable black people who have made important contributions to the province.
He rattled off a long list of names: Emery Barnes, the former B.C. Lions player and politician; Rosemary Brown, the first black woman elected to a Canadian legislature; Fielding Spotts, who founded several churches on Vancouver Island; Harry Jerome, the Olympic medallist whose bronze sculpture sprints beside the sea wall in Vancouver’s Stanley Park; and Seraphim “Joe” Fortes, the beloved lifeguard at Vancouver’s English Bay whose name was borrowed by the popular Robson Street restaurant.
Nicholson said he wishes their histories played a bigger role in the B.C. curriculum but said his society speaks at schools and libraries whenever possible, educating youth about these strong role models.
“We think it’s worthwhile, it’s good for young people to know,” he said. “There’s a lot of negative images and stereotypes of blacks, in particular, that are harmful to the general black population.”
Premier Christy Clark released a statement Feb. 1 celebrating and encouraging British Columbians to participate in Black History Month, and recognizing the hundreds of settlers who left California for a better life in B.C. in 1858.
“Those pioneers saw British Columbia as a beacon of hope — a place to live, work, and raise their families free from prejudice,” Clark said. “That is still true today.”
Nicholson recommends those who wish to learn more about this history attend his society’s events and read former Province columnist Crawford Kilian’s Go Do Some Great Thing: The Black Pioneers of British Columbia.Back