One hundred and fifty years ago, Victoria was a rough-and-ready frontier town, filled with Americans who had streamed north in 1858, looking for gold. The population ebbed and flowed as people travelled to and from the gold fields. It was a sometimes rowdy and unstable place.
One large group of Americans, though, stood out. A party of 600 blacks had fled north from California, escaping persecution. Governor Douglas had welcomed them, and assured them they would be treated with fairness and equality. The unofficial leader of this group was a prosperous San Francisco merchant. Originally from Philadelphia, his name was Mifflin Wistar Gibbs.
For a British colony, Gibbs was an unlikely pioneer. He had done well in his home country, and only racist persecution could have forced him to leave. Born into a "free" black family in 1823, he was largely self-educated. His family was poor, but he had managed to become a carpenter.
His mother had insisted that he have a trade to fall back on.
Gibbs was intelligent and industrious, and prospered in his work. He also became politically active. He was involved with the Philadelphia "station" of the underground railway, which helped slaves escape to Canada. He met and became friends with social reformer and abolitionist Frederick Douglass. Together, they toured western New York state, giving anti-slavery lectures.
Discouraged by a lack of opportunities at home, he headed west. It was 1850, the time of the California gold rush. He quickly found work as a carpenter, and started saving, earning enough to eventually go into business for himself.
He formed a partnership with a man named Peter Lester, and they opened a shop selling boots and shoes. Their business flourished.
While blacks could financially prosper in California, they faced severe restrictions. California was admitted to the Union as a "free" state in 1850. But blacks were not allowed to vote or testify against whites in court. Fugitive slaves were not safe in California; they could be arrested and returned to their masters. By the late 1850s, the situation was becoming very difficult. Laws were proposed that would, in effect, reinstitute slavery.
Many blacks realized they must leave. In 1858, a "Pioneer Committee" of 65 sailed north to Vancouver Island and three paid a visit to Governor Douglas, who assured them they would have full civic rights.
For Douglas, their immigration was a blessing - he was afraid Vancouver Island would be overwhelmed by white Americans and Britain would lose the colony, as it had the Oregon Territory. Such an industrious, reliable group as these blacks would not only provide a good work force, they would be a strong force against annexation.
In the spring and summer of 1858, the rest of the emigrating blacks moved north. It was a diverse group, ranging from the well-educated to the illiterate. Vancouver Island, though, needed workers at all levels, and soon, most were fully employed. Gibbs did well - he had had the sense to bring a large supply of goods for miners. He sold them quickly and with the proceeds, bought a building that he converted to a shoe store, where he was soon back in business with Peter Lester. Over the next few years, he acquired more investments and real estate. A year after he arrived, he met Maria Alexander, another American, from Oberlin, Ohio. The two married and had five children, all born in Victoria.
A year after the group arrived, a dispute between Britain and the United States over the San Juan Islands, known as the Pig War, erupted. Victoria was also vulnerable to raids from northern natives. In response, with the governor's blessing, the all-black Victoria Pioneer Rifle Company was formed. Rifle Company volunteers built a drill hall that also became a black community centre. Uniforms were ordered from England. It was mostly a self-supporting militia, with a bit of government money. One thing they did not have was adequate weapons. They had to make do with flintlocks.
Despite the blacks' obvious value to the community, prejudice began to show. While schools were integrated and only one church insisted on segregation, politics was a different story. One incident, in particular, fuelled the flames. An unscrupulous attorney general, George Hunter Cary, wanted to secure political advantage in the colony's elections of 1860. He was a member of Douglas's party, which was seeking to defeat Amor De Cosmos in the Victoria riding. De Cosmos was editor of the British Colonist, and a bitter opponent of Douglas and his "family compact."
Cary told the black community they were eligible to vote, despite having been on Vancouver Island little more than a year. Citing the Dred Scott decision in the United States Supreme Court, which found that no person of African ancestry could claim citizenship in the United States, he told them they could vote because they were not citizens of another country. He knew they would vote for Douglas's party.
The black people did vote, and as predicted, went for Douglas's party. They were the decisive vote in defeating De Cosmos. De Cosmos erupted in fury. In his paper, he attacked the validity of the black vote.
That was fair comment. But in his anger, he did far more. He initiated a nasty, anti-black campaign that went on for years. Not only were his comments vicious, but he purposely published anti-black stories. Gibbs, as the black community's unofficial spokesman, wrote to the paper complaining of this treatment. He emphasized that the black citizens were strong supporters of the British Constitution. But his voice of reason went nowhere.
De Cosmos's behaviour undoubtedly contributed to a worsening of race relations. As well, people were affected by the prolonged civil war to the south. Whatever the cause, blacks began to encounter more barriers. Some saloons, for example, would not allow them to enter. In theatres, they were often relegated to undesirable seats. A nasty incident occurred in 1861, when Gibbs and one of his black business partners went to the theatre for a benefit, and someone threw a bag of flour at them. A melee ensued, and the perpetrators were identified. Several white men were arrested and went on trial, but were acquitted, because witnesses would not testify against them. De Cosmos's British Colonist refused to condemn the attack.
By 1864, anti-black prejudice had become widespread. That year, Douglas retired and Gibbs and Lester were denied tickets to the banquet in his honour. To his lasting shame, Douglas did nothing. Later, all blacks were barred from attending a banquet for the Queen's birthday.
Then there was a final insult. A parade was being organized to honour the new governor, Arthur Kennedy, and the Victoria Pioneer Rifle Company wanted to participate. As the first citizen militia in the city, it was an obvious choice. But the organizing committee rejected the company, saying it was afraid of how some members of the community would react.
The following year, though, the Civil War ended, and things began to change. Many Americans left the city, and much of the anti-black sentiment went with them. Life became easier for the remaining black community.
In November 1866, Gibbs ran for city council. He had tried before, in 1862, and lost. Now, however, he was elected. A measure of his acceptance, perhaps, is that he won in James Bay, the wealthiest ward in the city. He was named finance chair on council and even served for a time as acting mayor.
A final political honour came in 1868, when Gibbs was elected as Saltspring Island's representative to the Yale Convention. Established by Amor De Cosmos, the convention set British Columbia's terms for Confederation. As a measure of how far things had come, these two were now able to join and work together. It was a remarkable change.
Gibbs was a restless man, and in early 1869, he took on a new challenge. He invested in a coal mine in the Queen Charlotte Islands, and agreed to supervise the operations, relinquishing his seat on city council. He supervised the mine for a year, but was restless. He returned to Victoria and relinquished his investments - the pull of his native country was too strong and he wanted to study law in Oberlin. In 1870, he left Victoria for good.
The departure of Gibbs was a decisive change for the black community. For more than a decade, he had been their leader. The numbers of black people declined, as other groups grew. The Chinese community, in particular, was acquiring much more importance. But for blacks then, life was improving south of the border. The great need for a safe haven disappeared, and there had been no other comparable flood of black immigration north.
After leaving Victoria, Gibbs went on to an outstanding career. In 1873, he was elected a municipal judge in Little Rock, Arkansas, the first American black to be so elected. After his judicial career, he served in important government posts, including as U.S. Consul to Madagascar in 1897. He retired in 1901, at the age of 78, and died in 1915.
Eight years before that, however, Gibbs paid a visit to Victoria. He returned to a vastly different city. Most people he knew from the past were dead, including his old foe turned friend, Amor De Cosmos. But De Cosmos's brother, C. McK. Smith, was still alive. Gibbs looked him up, and they discussed old times.
Gibbs's relations with De Cosmos, and perhaps his brother, show why he was such an effective leader. He preferred to work with people rather than against them and win opponents over by reason. But if people did attack him, he bore no grudges.
Gibbs had been a great leader of an important community. In his day, up to one fifth of the population had been black. When the blacks had arrived, Victoria was a fast-changing society with an unpredictable future. They provided stability, and helped the community thrive. Without their presence, British Columbia might well have become an American possession. For this alone, they played a major role.
But their importance goes beyond that. They were the first large non-white group to arrive on our doorstep and blend in with the community. They provided a successful example for others to follow.
For further reading:
Go Do Some Great Thing: The Black Pioneers of British Columbia by Crawford Kilian
Call number: 971.100496 KIL
The chapter "A Miniature Race War" in The Passing of a Race and More Tales of Western Life by D. W. Higgins
Call number: 971.1 HIG
The University of Victoria Library has a copy of Gibbs' autobiography:
Shadow and Light: An Autobiography by Mifflin Wistar Gibbs
Call number: E185.97 G44 1968
In our Local History Room we have two relevant clipping files: "Gibbs, Mifflin W." and "Blacks in B.C."