February — Black History Month

By Rita Button

When I was young, I knew about Rosemary Brown and Rosa Parks. I had read about both of these women in magazines. Rosa Parks’ refusal to give her seat to a white man on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama, occurred in 1955; Rosemary Brown was elected to the BC legislature in 1972, the first black woman to serve in a legislative assembly in Canada.

Of course, I also knew about Samuel de Champlain who arrived in what became Canada in 1604. I learned about him at school. But I didn’t know that, with Champlain, was the first man of African heritage, Mathieu Da Costa, to enter what became our country.

   Governorames Douglas - Was Governor of the colony of Vancouver Island in 1851: Photo credit BC Archives

 Governorames Douglas - Was Governor of the colony of Vancouver Island in 1851: Photo credit BC Archives

As well, I didn’t know that Upper Canada (currently known as Ontario) freed all slaves living there in 1793, or that Governor James Douglas invited black people living in San Francisco to come to Vancouver Island, and the group known as the Black Pioneers—about 800 of them—came in the hope of improving their lives.

But I know about the Gold Rush of 1858, and Clifford Sifton’s plan to settle the prairies with the offer of cheap land to Europeans, and many other facts printed in history books so that we students could appreciate our past and understand why current conditions exist.

Most of the heroes were White in those long ago history books recommended by provincial governments.

I did not question these facts when I was twelve.

I do now—not what they said, but what they didn’t say. How did they decide which facts were important to tell and which could be left aside?

And so, we need Black History Month, a recognition that began in 1926 as a week, largely as a result of the efforts spearheaded by a Harvard African American graduate Carter G. Woodson. In 1976, Black History Week was expanded to a month. 

Canada followed the American example, officially recognizing February as Black History Month in 1995 as a result of a motion introduced by the honourable Jean Augustine, the first Black woman elected to Canadian Parliament.

Black History Month draws attention to the facts, and invites people to talk about their meaning and to welcome the diversity they offer to Canadian culture. To appreciate, to understand, and to accept the recently uncovered stories of people whose contributions have made a positive difference in our lives is a worthwhile project.

 Mifflin Wistar Gibbs - elected to Victoria City council in 1866. Gibbs became the first black elected official in Canada. Photo credit Library of Congress Washington

Mifflin Wistar Gibbs - elected to Victoria City council in 1866. Gibbs became the first black elected official in Canada. Photo credit Library of Congress Washington

One such person who lived in James Bay was Mifflin Wister Gibbs, the first Black person to be elected in BC; he served on Victoria’s City Council, representing James Bay where he lived. Last year, his work was recognized by a plaque unveiled on February 19, 2017, at Irving Park as a part of British Columbia’s  Black History Awareness Society.

More stories revealing contributions made by Black people to our world can be found at http://bcblackhistory.ca/, a website I used to find the facts in this article. The Society, established in 1994 to bring awareness of contributions of people with an African heritage in Canada but has developed into a society that “promotes diversity and inclusion.” (http://bcblackhistory.ca/)

This goal is demonstrated by the Society’s hosting a speaker, Michael Regis, at the Church of Truth, 111 Superior Street on February 18, 2:00 pm. The website announcement says it all:

Michael Regis will share his graduate work on local police and local ethno-cultures of African-Caribbean, Indigenous, Muslim and Chinese communities. Michael holds a Masters in Dispute Resolution, University of Victoria. His research with the Greater Victoria police, the Diversity Advisory Committee and Victoria ethno-cultural communities is engaging and thought-provoking.  The presentation includes key points of the negative and positive experiences and perceptions with the police and community concerns, vulnerabilities, and recommendations for the Greater Victoria police in trust-building best practices.

Venue:  Church of Truth, 111 Superior Street, Victoria. There is lots of parking in the church lot and some parking on Superior Street.” (http://bcblackhistory.ca/index.php/2-content/67-spotlight-on-hpicon)

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