British Columbia

Salt Spring Island's black settlers set stage for today's community

“I think people who know anything about Salt Spring and the Southern Gulf Islands know that the people there have a reputation for going their own way.”

Former Salt Spring resident Evelyn C. White explores the island's black history in a photography book

This 1929 class photo from salt Spring Island's Central School shows an impressive degree of diversity. (Salt Spring Archives)

This piece is part of On The Coast's Black History Month series, "Race, Roots and Relocation: Delving into B.C.'s Black History." Check back at every day this week for more stories from B.C.'s black community.

It may be caricatured as a top destination for hippies and retirees in B.C., but author Evelyn C. White says Salt Spring Island was home to one of B.C.'s most important black communities in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

White explores Salt Spring's black roots in her book Every Goodbye Ain't Gone: A Photo Narrative of Black Heritage on Salt Spring Island.

"These were free blacks fleeing oppression in the United States at the time," she told On The Coast guest host Gloria Macarenko. "They had [left], either through their own will, or they had been given freedom after their master died, or they had run away from the slave states to Northern California."

However, while California was a state without slavery, White said various legislators passed laws to curtail the freedoms of blacks in serious ways.

At the same time, gold had been discovered in the Fraser River, and governor of the colony of British Columbia James Douglas invited these black Americans to the colony to provide skilled labour for the coming gold rush.

Black Salt Spring Islander John Craven Jones was the first teacher on Salt Spring Island. He was 25 years old when he first joined the other black settlers on Salt Spring in 1859. (Salt Spring Archives)

"They had a meeting in a church in San Francisco, got on a steamship called the Commodore, went to Victoria, and then later a group of them moved to Salt Spring," White said.

White was born in Indiana, but lived on salt Spring for a decade. She lives in Halifax now.

She said that during her time on Salt Spring, she felt the origins of the black settlers — who were essentially refugees striving for freedom — has helped make the island what it is today.

"That sense of freedom and desire to chart your own course was what I experienced among the contemporary black residents on Salt Spring and the general population," she said.

"I think people who know anything about Salt Spring and the Southern Gulf Islands know that the people there have a reputation for going their own way."

To hear the full story, click the audio labelled: Salt Spring Island's black history explored in photography book


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