Uncovering B.C.’s Black history

FEB. 20, 2021

Mifflin Gibbs was the first Black person elected to public office in B.C. and helped guide the colony into joining the Confederation of Canada. But most B.C. students likely don’t know who he is because local, Black history isn’t mandated in the school curriculum.

By Ashley Moliere
Photo: C.M. Bell Studio Collection; Design: Andrew McManus/CBC

Politician, entrepreneur, father, husband … these are just a few of the words used to describe Mifflin Wistar Gibbs.

In Victoria, one can find many things commemorating the life and legacy of this Black pioneer. There’s a plaque dedicated to Gibbs in Irving Park marking where he used to live and the City of Victoria declared Nov. 19 “Mifflin Wistar Day” in 2017 to commemorate the day he was elected to city council in 1866, making history as the first Black person elected to public office in what is now British Columbia.

But despite that, Gibbs remains somewhat of a mystery to future generations — even though he helped guide B.C. into the Confederation of Canada.

Growing up in B.C. in the 2000s, we barely learned about local, Black historical figures such as Mifflin Gibbs in public school. It’s possible to finish high school education without ever learning about Black segregated schools in Canada or anything, really, about Black history in our country. In my experience, when slavery was discussed, I remember the history was presented positively — as though Canada didn’t also have slavery, and its only involvement was as a safe haven for American slaves fleeing to Canada using the Underground Railroad.

And as someone who is part Black, it’s important to me to see my community reflected in the province’s history. Black people helped make B.C. into what it is today. That’s why I embarked on this project to learn about Mifflin Gibbs for Black History Month.

  • First Black person elected to public office in what is now B.C. in 1866.
  • His store was the first competitor for the Hudson’s Bay Company in Victoria.
  • Gibbs was elected to represent Salt Spring Island at the Yale Convention, where delegates debated whether B.C. should join the Dominion of Canada.
Writer Crawford Kilian published the first edition of his book Go Do Some Great Thing: The Black Pioneers of British Columbia in 1978. It outlines the hardships and triumphs of B.C.’s first Black citizens and how their legacy lives on in the province today. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Mifflin Gibbs’ journey

One name I came across time and time again during my research was Crawford Kilian. The retired college teacher and writer studied the life of Gibbs and other Black settlers in B.C. and wrote about his discoveries in the book Go Do Some Great Thing: The Black Pioneers of British Columbia. 

I met up with Kilian on a blustery January morning near his home in North Vancouver, B.C., where he told me everything he knew about Gibbs’s life, which included a brief but influential stint on Vancouver Island.

“I think it’s good to know that it wasn’t just a bunch of, you know, white guys with funny beards who did everything important in British Columbia, that there were all kinds of people who didn’t get any glory,” Kilian said. “They weren’t remembered in anything, but they were here and they made a very big difference to what happened to the rest of us.”

This is part of what drew the historian to learning about people like Mifflin Wistar Gibbs.

Mifflin Wistar Gibbs was born free on April 17, 1823, in Philadelphia. When Gibbs was eight, his father died, and Gibbs dropped out of school and learned carpentry so he could work to support his family. 

Even though Gibbs had left school, he said in his autobiography Shadow and Light: An Autobiography with Reminiscences of the Last and Present Century, that he continued his education by joining the Philadelphia Library Company, a literary society for men of colour. 

In the 1840s, he joined famous slavery abolitionist Frederick Douglass on a speaking tour across the United States. After the tour’s conclusion, Gibbs felt down on his luck, according to his autobiography. He expressed his depression to a friend, who replied “What! Discouraged? Go do some great thing.”

This was the inspiration for the title of Kilian’s book, which was first published in 1978.

In 1850, at the age of 27, Gibbs headed west to San Francisco and started his life there with only 10 cents in his pocket. He was able to build a successful store with his business partner Peter Lester and start the state’s first Black-owned newspaper, Alto California. But life became increasingly dangerous for Black people in California after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1857 that African Americans were not American citizens and not entitled to freedoms.

In 1858, Gibbs and Lester joined hundreds of other Black people who left California after an open invitation from governor of the colony of British Columbia, Sir James Douglas, to come and settle.

Gibbs travelled from San Francisco to Victoria in 1858 on a ship named the SS Republic, according to his autobiography Shadow and Light: An Autobiography with Reminiscences of the Last and Present Century. (John Fraser/CBC)

Once he settled in Victoria, Gibbs made money in the real estate business by investing in property. He and Lester started a store named after themselves that sold food and equipment to miners, which, according to Kilian, made them the first competitors to the Hudson’s Bay Company within the colony.

“I cannot describe with what joy we hailed the opportunity to enjoy that liberty under the ‘British lion’ denied us beneath the pinions of the American Eagle,” said Gibbs in Shadow and Light.

Gibbs briefly returned to the U.S. to marry his wife, Maria Ann Alexander. He brought her back to Victoria, where they had five children and raised them in James Bay. 

In the 1860s, Gibbs embarked on a political career. He ran for city council more than once, but was finally elected in 1866.  

“At one point, the Black community was large enough in a small town to be politically significant in the way the colony was run,” said Kilian.

A photo of sugar art made by a confectioner in the late 1800s commemorates some of the politicians at the Yale Convention, including Mifflin Gibbs on the far right. ‘Obviously people were talking about it,’ said Weber. (Mike McArthur/CBC)

Just two years later, Gibbs  was one of 26 delegates that was part of the Yale Convention, where they hashed out how B.C. could join Confederation. According to Kilian, Gibbs was a strong advocate of joining the Dominion of Canada and one of the main reasons B.C. became part of Canada in 1871.

“He wanted, you know, clearly like everybody else, he wanted B.C. to come in on good terms. I’m sure he was heavily promoting the Canadian railway and so on,” said Kilian.

Gibbs took charge of a coal-mining project in Haida Gwaii a year later and built the first tramway in B.C. that hauled coal to the province’s shoreline, where it was used within the colony and exported to the U.S. Shortly thereafter, he moved back to the United States.

In his autobiography, Gibbs reflects on his decade in B.C. acknowledging the “graciousness of the people” and a place where he had “received social and political recognition.”

“Then regret modified, as love of home and country asserted itself,” he wrote.

“It was quite a career for a guy who showed up originally in San Francisco with 10 cents in his pocket.”Crawford Kilian
(Ben Nelms/CBC)
Dr. Verna Gibbs is the great-great-great-grandniece of Mifflin Gibbs. She’s pictured here visiting Victoria in 2019 when the city unveiled a plaque in his honour. (John-Evan Snow)

Mifflin Gibbs’ legacy

If you look for them, acknowledgements of Mifflin Gibbs’s legacy can be found in present-day Victoria. There’s a plaque dedicated to him at Irving Park  in the James Bay neighbourhood that was unveiled in 2019. Just down the street, a study room was named after him in 2018 at the local branch of the Greater Victoria Public Library. So, with all of this evidence of his significance in B.C., why didn’t I get to learn about him, and why aren’t kids today hearing his story and that of other Black pioneers?

Kilian said the Black community was a big part of the colony’s population in the 1860s. But by the 1880s and 1890s, the community had gotten smaller because some had returned to the U.S. following the Civil War.

“They weren’t noticed that much. So we tended to forget about them and they went on living their lives, you know, having kids and grandchildren and carrying on,” he said. “But they were no longer part of the political force they had been in the [18]60s. So we forgot.”

Kilian believes if Douglas hadn’t invited California’s Black community to B.C., more American miners would have come north following the Gold Rush and the province could have been annexed to the U.S. — right up to Alaska.

Today, Gibbs does not have any family still living in B.C. But his great-great-great-grandniece Dr. Verna Gibbs came up to B.C. from San Francisco to unveil the bronze plaque in Irving Park in 2019.

“It was just cool for some reason San Francisco seemed to be a beacon that was calling both of us almost a hundred years apart.”Verna Gibbs
(John-Evan Snow)
Silvia Mangue Alene is the president of the BC Black History Awareness Society. (Mike McArthur/CBC)

Teaching Black history in schools

Silvia Mangue Alene, president of the BC Black History Awareness Society, a nonprofit that works to preserve and showcase B.C.’s Black history, is pushing for changes to B.C.’s school curriculum to include more Black historical figures.

Mangue Alene said the group had been working with the Ministry of Education to update B.C.’s school curriculum, but talks stalled because of the provincial election in October 2020.

The Ministry of Education said in a statement it continues to connect with organizations such as the BC Black History Awareness Society to identify teacher and student resources. It also said Education Minister Jennifer Whiteside looks forward to working with the Community Roundtable on Anti-Racism in education — community leaders from a wide range of groups to better understand the impact of racism on B.C. students — in the months  ahead.

“It is important to teach people about history,” Mangue Alene said. “And also, when you learn about other people’s history, it reduces discrimination. It reduces the barriers of ignorance and prejudice.”

“When a Black kid goes to school and learns that a Black person was in a position of leadership, it really warms your heart, it really makes you feel better, it makes you grow a little bit more. It gives you self-confidence, so all of those little things are important because they make you a stronger person. Self-esteem is very important.”Siliva Mangue Alene
(Mike McArthur/CBC)

When I think back to the few times when I was younger and learned about historical Black figures who helped change the world for the better, I remember being filled with pride. It reinforced the idea to keep going, to keep working hard, and to keep fighting negative stereotypes by sharing these stories with my peers. But the onus to learn about these people who contributed to our history shouldn’t be put on Black and biracial people.

But it’s been almost 11 years since I graduated from high school. I wanted to know if things had changed at all in terms of students learning about Black history.

Naomi Hudson graduated high school in Delta, B.C., last year and now attends the University of British Columbia. She wrote an op-ed for the CBC this past summer arguing Black history should be mandated in B.C.’s curriculum. 

“I talked about my experience in Grade 5 and seeing just a couple of paragraphs about Black Canadian history in the textbook, and that was about the extent of it,” she said. “It’s unfortunate to say, but not much from my experience, not much has improved in that regard.”

Black history is history, Hudson said.

“This is one of the most diverse provinces in the country and every single ethnic group has had a role in contributing to making B.C. what it is today, so I think it’s important that we learn about that not just for Black history, but for everyone’s history as well.”
Naomi Hudson
(Ben Nelms/CBC)

Who is Mifflin Gibbs?


Written by Ashley Moliere
Copy Edited by Mary Vallis

Photography by Mike McArthurBen Nelms

Designed by Andrew McManus

Videography and editing by Christian AmundsonMike McArthur & Peter Scobie
Video graphics and illustrated maps by John Fraser

Produced by Tamara Baluja

Special Thanks
Tamika Forrester
Dr. Verna Gibbs
Naomi Hudson
Franny Karlinsky
Crawford Kilian
Silvia Mangue Alene
Genevieve Weber