Ron Nicholson, a long-time member of the BC Black History Awareness Society, recounts several instances of discrimination these pioneers encountered. The interview takes place in Irving Park which is on property that was once owned by Mifflin Gibbs and where his home was situated.
The plaque, commissioned by the Historic Sites and Monument Board of Canada, to commemorate the arrival of these Black settlers in 1858 includes the words “ Though still faced with intense discrimination.”
This discrimination is demonstrated in the following excerpts from letters written by citizens to the Daily Colonist Newspaper, a key local newspaper of the day. The articles span a period of 40 years.
October 21, 1859 Daily Colonist Editorial: Religious Feud. “We have received a circular addressed to all Impartial Men and Lovers of Right. It is issued by the Rev. W.F. Clarke. It appears a serious difference of opinion exists between him and his religious colleague the Rev. M. MacFie, respecting the propriety of mixing, promiscuously, colored with white Christians in church during Divine service. Both gentlemen were sent here as missionaries by the English Congregational Missionary Society. Mr. Clark holds that Christianity knows no difference between the white and colored man; and therefore he will not suit the prejudices of anyone by creating a “negro’s corner” in his church. As a matter of “taste” Mr. MacFie prefers separating them.”
In the fall of 1859 a “Select School” was opened by the Sisters of St Ann. Parents of African-American children were turned down due to a “fear of integration and the students of the Select School being uncomfortable” Source: The Sisters of St Ann: The First Ten Years.
January 14, 1860 The Dark Problem “What would be the daily receipts of the hundred and fifty colored labourers, restaurant store and shopkeepers of Victoria, were the patronage of the whites all withdrawn from them.” The letter is not signed.
September 27, 1861 Letter to the Editor from Emil Sutro, the performer who refused to go on stage because coloureds were seated in the front row. “let one part of the house be reserved for their particular use. They are not desired, and are furthermore offensive to a majority of the residents of Victoria.”
November 23, 1865 Victoria Theatre Management. John Dunlop writes a letter to the Editor stating that even though he had been asked to buy a ticket; he writes “I went to the door, presented my ticket, and was refused admission on the ground of my colour.”
January 7, 1899 Exclusion of Negroes “Sir: The writer begs the privilege of calling, through your columns, the attention of certain barbers who refuse to shave men who have negro blood in their veins. God knew what he was about in producing black men, and that if he had wanted all men to be white he would have made them so.” Signed Archibald Johnson.
Yes, there was widespread discrimination, but there were also instances when the legal systems and individual citizens defended the Blacks and expressed their disdain of the discrimination that was directed towards the Black population. The following video and newspaper articles demonstrate support for this Black community.
In this video “On British Soil He Was Free” John Adams, an author, historian, and owner/operator of an historical walking tour company in Victoria recounts the story of Charles Mitchell, a slave who in September 1860 was a stowaway aboard the SS Eliza Anderson sailing from Olympia Washington to Victoria. When the steamer arrived in Victoria word soon spread that a slave was being detained on board. “As many as 700 people gathered dockside on September 25th, 1860 calling for his release.” Royal BC Museum and Archives. The case was taken immediately to the BC Supreme Court; who declared Charles Mitchell a free man because he was on British soil.
July 5, 1862. Shall a Colored Man Drink at a White Man’s Bar. The newspaper is reporting the proceedings of the court case of Jacob Francis vs. Mr. Lovett, Proprietor of the Bank Exchange. A month earlier, Jacob Francis had gone to the saloon with 3 white men, only Francis was refused service. The Magistrate ruled that any barkeeper refusing service to Black men would not be given a license or would be fined five pounds sterling and their license would not be renewed.
March 10, 1864. Exclusion At The Banquet “I have been surprised to find that my respectable neighbours Messrs. Lester and Gibbs have been refused tickets for the approaching banquet for the retirement of Governor James Douglas because they are men of color. It ought to be remembered that what is wrong in principle must ultimately prove mischievous in practice. I cannot take a ticket, without compromising the principle of doing as I would be done by.” The letter is signed by J.C. Davie. M.R.C.S. Eng. L.S.A. (Member of the Royal College of Surgeons, Licentiate for the Society of Apothecaries)
April 11, 1864 The Education Meeting. “About 500 persons attended to discuss the resolution for ‘free Common Schools open to all’ The article is detailed and extensive. When one person suggested the segregation of Blacks, he was opposed “hisses and laughter” from those in the audience and by the meeting chairman, Mayor Harris.
Jury Duty: James Douglas told these Black settlers they would have the right to sit as jurors. Peter Lester served on a jury in 1860; but it was twelve years later in March 1872, a resolution was presented in the House requesting that the names of Blacks be placed on the jury lists. On November 27, 1872 there is a brief note in the Colonist “The first colored jurors who have sat in the Province since 1860, were empanelled yesterday. Another blow at prejudice.”
“As our stories have demonstrated, it is a responsibility of each one of us to work together to break down barriers, which prevent all citizens from participating and to speak out against discrimination in all forms. As you follow the history of these impressive pioneers we invite you to reflect upon what you can do to counter discrimination; to build upon what has been achieved and to further develop values of equality and respect.”
Mavis has served as Vice President, several terms as President of the BC Black History Awareness Society and in multiple leadership roles in the Society for more than 2 decades.