Mifflin Wistar Gibbs Honoured in James Bay Ceremony
By Robert Hawkes
Dr. Verna Gibbs, the great-great-grandniece of Mifflin Wistar Gibbs, was in James Bay on Saturday, May 4 to join Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps and other representatives in officially unveiling a plaque honouring Gibbs contributions and leadership.
The Canadian Encyclopedia summarizes Gibbs contributions this way “In just over a decade in colonial British Columbia, he prospered in business, advocated for the Black community, served as an elected official, and helped guide British Columbia into Confederation. Gibbs was the first Black person elected to public office in what is now British Columbia.”
Mifflin Gibbs, who was born in Philadelphia, grew up in an impoverished family led by a widowed mother. He started work at age eight to help support his family, and was active from an early age in the anti-slavery movement, including support of the underground railroad.
At age 27, looking for new opportunities, Gibbs sailed to San Francisco where he started as a carpenter and later became a merchant. Strong anti-black sentiment and bias eventually caused a group of almost eight hundred led by Mifflin Wistar Gibbs to depart San Francisco and to come to this area. Governor James Douglas had extended an invitation to the group to relocate here.
Mifflin Wistar Gibbs is quoted in the Canadian Encyclopedia article reflecting on the move this way: “…the disheartening consciousness that while our existence was tolerated [in San Francisco], we were powerless to appeal to law for the protection of life or property when assailed. British Columbia offered and gave protection to both, and equality of political privileges.”
In 1866, Mifflin Gibbs was elected to the Victoria City Council, thereby becoming the first Black person elected to public office in what is now British Columbi, the second in Canada and the third anywhere in North America. Although Gibbs returned to the United States for the latter part of his life, he left a profound and positive impact on Victoria and British Columbia.
The master of ceremonies for the commemorative plaque unveiling was Mavis DeGirolamo who is from James Bay, and is a director of BC Black History Awareness Society. Silvia Mangue, president of the society, and Ron Nicholson, a director, both spoke at the event. Over a decade earlier, at an event in Nanaimo, Ron had said “Without question Mifflin Gibbs is a person of historical significance to all of Canada.” He spoke with satisfaction that today this now formally being recognized.
While the plaque had been approved by the Canadian Historic Sites and Monuments Board a few years ago, and had been mounted in the park in January of 2019, this was the official unveiling. After a ceremony near the plaque in the park, participants went to the sxʷeŋxʷəŋ təŋəxʷ James Bay Library for formal presentations and discussions.
Parks Canada, represented by Laura Judson, outlined that Canadian historic plaques are approved to recognize “places, events and people of profound importance to Canadians.” She stressed that Gibbs “stood for social integration, and brought this region one step closer to joining Canada.”
In her remarks Mayor Lisa Helps mentioned the Welcoming City strategy that Council is committed to for 2020. She said this will “carry on the legacy that started with Gibbs.” Carole James, our MLA and Deputy Premier, was also present and spoke on behalf of the government.
Maureen Sawa, CEO of the Greater Victoria Public Library, spoke at the event and stressed that the Mifflin Wistar Gibbs Study Room had been dedicated in an earlier ceremony at the sxʷeŋxʷəŋ təŋəxʷ James Bay Library.
Dr. Verna Gibbs spoke passionately about the accomplishments of Mifflin Gibbs, and thanked all of those involved for the roles they played in seeing his work and life recognized today. She urged Victoria to continue to be “an inclusive place that celebrates diversity.”
The plaque is placed in Irving Park near the location where the Gibbs home and business had been located on Michigan Street. Next time you are in the park give it a read, and reflect on the impact of this amazing man.