Although it’s not something we as a community often reflect on, black pioneers played an important role in Victoria’s history.
In fact, black pioneers played a significant role in the history of Canada. To mark these important contributions, February is designated Black History Month across Canada.
Victoria has a number of events to commemorate black settlers to our region.
But first, a little backstory:
In the 1800’s over 30,000 Black slaves escaped to free States in the U.S. and to Canada, traveling through “the Underground Railroad.”
Some of these folks ended up in Victoria in the 1850’s, which at the time was booming as a stopping-off point to the Fraser River Gold Rush.
In fact, Vancouver Island and later British Columbia’s first governor, Sir James Douglas, “The Father of British Columbia” had black heritage – his mother was a Creole from Guyana.
By 1858 Governor Douglas had invited 10 black police officers from Jamaica to form Victoria’s first constabulary. Unfortunately, racist attitudes were prevalent in the colony at the time, and the unit was forced to disband.
That same year Douglas invited nearly 800 free Blacks to come to Victoria from San Francisco, where they had been enduring oppressive conditions.
Encouraging settlement on Vancouver Island was a critical goal for Douglas – the gold fields up the Fraser River were attracting a lot of Americans, and it was only a matter of time before the United States would decide to annex the land that would become British Columbia. Establishing settlements was a key strategy for holding onto Vancouver Island and the mainland for the British Crown:
In the crucial early years of British Columbia’s existence as a colony, the Black settlers provided Douglas with a “most orderly and useful and loyal section of the community,” as the widow of polar explorer Sir John Franklin observed when she met some of them in 1861. They were to provide a solid centre of political gravity in the colony, and they helped to define the terms on which it entered Confederation in 1872.
Once here, the black settlers from San Francisco still endured tremendous discrimination. However, many rose to prominent positions in Victoria society, and the group formed one of the earliest colonial militia units, the Victoria Pioneer Rifle Corps.
In 1859, when the volunteer Fire Department was being created in Victoria, several black settlers volunteered to serve but they were rejected by the Europeans organizing the committee.
The black volunteers remained undaunted and went to Governor Sir James Douglas to offer their services as a volunteer militia unit. In view of a potential war between the United States and Canada over ownership of the San Juan Island, Douglas accepted. This “war” became known as The Pig War when an American settler shot a pig belonging to a British farmer.
By the Spring of 1860, 40 to 50 Black men were enrolled in the Victoria Pioneer Rifle Company. The corps was officially sworn in on July, 1861. The Royal Navy supplied drill sergeants and the volunteers built themselves a drill house on Yates Street which soon became a gathering place and social centre for the Black community.
Selected Black History Month Events in Victoria
Saturday,February 7 – Underground Railway
Ron Nicholson discusses the Underground Railway (Brentwood Bay Community Centre)
Sunday, February 15 – BC Black History and Heritage Day
UVic professor John Lutz presents on Grafton Tyler Brown,first professional graphic artist in BC (New Horizons Centre, James Bay)
Sunday, February 22 – Ross Bay Cemetery Tour
Many black pioneers are buried in Ross Bay Cemetery in Fairfield
Monday, February 23 – An Evening of Storytelling, Gospel, Jazz and Blues (Belfry Theatre)
See spoken word, music and more at the Belfry Theatre in Fernwood.
For more information about Black History Month events see BC Black History.