Online exhibit showcases Black pioneers who helped shape Vancouver Island

In 1858, nearly 800 free Blacks from the United States were invited by B.C.’s first governor, Sir James Douglas, whose mother was Black, to settle on the newly colonized Vancouver Island.

They ranged from Mifflin Wistar Gibbs, the first Black man elected to public office in Victoria, to Charles and Nancy Alexander, heads of one of Victoria’s oldest and most successful pioneer families.

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Gibbs and the Alexanders are among several key members of the Island’s Black community in the mid-1800s featured in a new online exhibit, B.C.’s Black Pioneers: Their Industry and Character Influenced the Vision of Canada, which opened Dec. 17.

The exhibit was created by the B.C. Black History Awareness Society with a Digital Museums Canada investment grant and features stories and videos, as well as historical images.

Gibbs arrived in Victoria in 1858 and by 1866 was representing the James Bay District as a city councillor. He oversaw a coal-mining project in Haida Gwaii before returning to the United States, where he became the first elected Black municipal judge in the United States and a U.S. consul to Madagascar.

“We want people to know about this history,” said society president Silvia Mangue. “If they don’t know, it is going to be erased. That’s unfair, because these people have contributed so much to this province.”

The exhibit includes a video on Black-owned businesses by Victoria historian John Adams and a modern-day video from Karen Hoshal, a direct descendant of the Alexander family. The Alexanders are interesting, Mangue said, in that their family tree has over 400 people in it, descendents of the first members, who lived on the family farm in Saanich.

The B.C. Black History Awareness Society, which formed in 1995, will continue raising awareness about the achievements of Black pioneers in B.C. in a new partnership with the Royal B.C. Museum that comes to fruition next year, Mangue said.

The co-production between the society, museum and Black community stakeholders will include the documentation and photographs in B.C.’s Black Pioneers as well as new content. The exhibit will open June 3, 2021, and is intended to become a permanent addition to the Royal B.C. Museum collection.

“It’s an awesome, awesome, awesome project,” Mangue said. “I’m so proud. I don’t have enough words to stay about the approach the museum has taken. They are letting us tell this important story.”

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