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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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 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.
Written by Ashley Moliere
Copy Edited by Mary Vallis
Photography by Mike McArthur & Ben Nelms
Designed by Andrew McManus
Videography and editing by Christian Amundson, Mike McArthur & Peter Scobie
Video graphics and illustrated maps by John Fraser
Produced by Tamara Baluja
Dr. Verna Gibbs
Silvia Mangue Alene
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