A new exhibit for Black History Month by the Coquitlam Heritage Society drew so much local interest before it launched that organizers split the show in two parts.
The first section of the online display We’ve Been Here All Along went live this month to highlight the first Black settlers in British Columbia, and why and where they went.
The second edition, focusing on Black settlers in Coquitlam, is scheduled to go up in this fall, said heritage manager Tannis Koskela, who curated the exhibit.
And, she said, if residents want to contribute artifacts or offer information pertaining to Black history in Coquitlam for the next showing, they’re welcome to add.
Supported by the African Descent Society of B.C., We’ve Been Here All Along gives a general overview of the first large influx of Black people to the province.
They came in 1858 as part of a settlement drive by Sir James Douglas, the governor of the colony of B.C., who was eager to populate Vancouver Island.
In B.C., the Black immigrants could buy land and, after seven months, become British citizens. After nine months, property owners could vote and sit on juries.
Racism also forced them to flee the United States and, once in Canada, many Blacks continued their travels north to pan for gold in the Cariboo.
Still, the discrimination continued. Black men in Canada had restrictions to serve the country in both world wars, and many European pioneers believed the Blacks couldn’t handle the colder climes of B.C. As well, the Black settlers were banned from holding certain positions or union memberships such as with the Canadian Brotherhood of Railway Employees.
In her online exhibit, Koskela singles out some successful Black leaders who made a difference in B.C. — among them:
• Mifflin Wistar Gibbs: A member of the Victoria city council in 1866 who founded the first Black newspaper in San Francisco called The Mirror of the Times
• Peter Lester: A business partner of Gibbs, Peter Lester was a boot maker who became the first Black juror in Victoria, in 1860, and owned 10 properties
• John Craven Jones: A pioneer on Salt Spring Island, where many Blacks settled in the mid-19th century, Jones was a teacher at schools and homes
Koskela, who researched through the Salt Spring Island Archives, Barkerville Archives and the Royal BC Museum, said there’s not much material to go on.
In Coquitlam Heritage Society’s own collection, there are only a few artifacts previously owned by the Black settlers: a tin toy, a uniform, a tablecloth and books.
Vancouver fashion historian Ivan Sayers also contributed some pieces for the exhibit, which will be a permanent virtual display for the Coquitlam Heritage Society.