British Columbia

Hidden history of African American settlers in Wellington, B.C. uncovered

New research has discovered the previously unknown history of African American settlers in Wellington, B.C. in the 19th century.

Archivist Christine Meutzner found at least 70 black settlers were living in the old mining town in 1890s

Henrietta Barnswell was born in Victoria in 1881, and her father James Barnswell came to Vancouver Island in 1860.
These archive images show an African American settler to Canada and his daughter, born in B.C., in the 1880s. (BC Archives)

Jimmy Claxton, the first black man to play organized baseball in the 20th century, is one of the most well-known black Canadians in history.

But Nanaimo Community Archives manager Christine Meutzner has always believed Claxton's couldn't have been the only black family living in Wellington, B.C., where he was born in 1892.

And when asked by the City of Nanaimo and other local community groups to explore the history of Wellington, a former mining town and now a neighbourhood of Nanaimo, Meutzner discovered she was right.

"One black person had already been identified and I thought, well, he ... wasn't deposited there by a stork — there must have been a family," she told On The Island.

"There must have, perhaps, been other families, and that's how I discovered them."

Meutzner, who recently presented preliminary findings at the Nanaimo Art Gallery, found at least 70 black settlers — or six per cent of the population —  lived in Wellington in 1891.

Remarkably, that fact wasn't well-known until now.

Many of the settlers came from Virginia and Tennessee in the U.S. to seek their fortune in Wellington, Meutzner said.

A lot of them ended up working for industrialist and politician Robert Dunsmuir, who Meutzner said hired African-Americans as miners because he believed them to be more docile people.

Most of the black men that came to Wellington remained single, lived in boarding houses, were either Methodist or Baptist, and left Canada within 20 years, Meutzner said.

Mystery of mixed-race marriage

Since Claxton was so well-known, Meutzner said, she started by tracking down his parents, William Edgar Claxton and Emma Richards.

Their marriage certificate indicated that the two were a mixed-race couple, but Meutzner says it's unclear how that union was received in the community at the time because there are no records.

"I would love to know what does that actually mean," Meutzner said.

"Did anybody really care? How was that received in the community? How were they treated? Were they extraordinarily brave or were did they extraordinarily not care? I have no real way of finding that out."

Though she may not have answers to those questions — being an archivist, not a historian — Meutzner hopes her work will further highlight the fact that Canada has historically been, and will continue to be, a diverse nation.

Meutzner also hopes her findings can better inform local celebrations of Black History Month in Nanaimo.

"Surely we can do more with that, and now we can really legitimately celebrate that history with the confidence of knowing there really was a community of 60, 70 people here, not just one guy."