From fighting slavery in U.S. to becoming 1st Black person to hold public office in 19th-century British Columbia, Canada

Mildred Europa Taylor July 11, 2022
Mifflin W. Gibbs. Photo: AAREG

History says that the first Black settlers arrived in British Columbia in April 1858, 24 years after the Abolition of Slavery Act, however, Black Canadian history dates back to the 1600s. Many immigrants would come from around the world to British Columbia, Canada, and prosper.

Mifflin Wistar Gibbs was one of them. Having helped fight against slavery in America, he became a politician, businessman and defender of human rights, then a well-known person in the Black community in British Columbia, helping make it what it is today. 

Born into a free Black family in Philadelphia on April 17, 1823, in Philadelphia, Gibbs was eight when his father passed away so he had to drop out of school to learn carpentry to enable him to make some money to help his family. Thanks to the Philadelphia Library Company, a literary society for men of color, Gibbs was able to complete school and by the 1840s, he had joined abolitionist Frederick Douglass in the campaign to end slavery in the U.S. He went on speaking tours with Douglass.  

In 1850, Gibbs, who was then 27, migrated to San Francisco, California to build his life. He had only 10 cents with him at the time he got there but he made good use of it. He started work there as a bootblack before being able to build a thriving store with Peter Lester, a business partner. Gibbs also started the state’s first Black-owned newspaper, Alto California.

In 1858, Gibbs had to move to Victoria in what is now known as British Columbia as Black people found themselves in more dangerous situations in the United States following the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in 1857 that African Americans were not American citizens and not entitled to freedoms, CBC reported. Gibbs and Lester moved to British Columbia with hundreds of other Black people in 1858. They left California after the governor of the colony of British Columbia, Sir James Douglas, asked them to come and settle in an open invitation.

In his autobiography published in 1902, Gibbs describes his arrival in Victoria in 1858. “We received a warm welcome from the Governor. We had no complaint as to business patronage in the State of California, but there was ever present the disheartening consciousness that while our existence was tolerated, we were powerless to appeal to law for the protection of life or property. British Columbia offered and gave protection to both, and equality of political privileges. I cannot describe with what joy we hailed the opportunity to enjoy that liberty under the “British Lion” denied us beneath the pinions of the American eagle.”

Becoming the de facto leader of the Vancouver Island Black Community, Gibbs started a real estate business by investing in property. He also started a store with his business partner, Lester, selling food and equipment to miners. They named the store after themselves and became a rival of the Hudson’s Bay Company within the colony. Gibbs went back to the U.S. for some time to marry Maria Ann Alexander. They returned to Victoria, where they gave birth to five children, raising them in James Bay.

At the time, Gibbs had entered into politics. In 1866, he became the first Black person elected to public office in British Columbia as a Victoria City Councillor. He represented the James Bay District and in just two years, he was one of 26 delegates that were part of the Yale Convention, where they came out with terms on how British Columbia could join Confederation. Writer Crawford Kilian told CBC that Gibbs was all for joining the Dominion of Canada and a key reason British Columbia became part of Canada in 1871.

“He wanted, you know, clearly like everybody else, he wanted B.C. to come in on good terms. I’m sure he was heavily promoting the Canadian railway and so on,” Kilian explained.

Gibbs was reelected to City Council in 1869 but Community Stories reports that he took a leave of absence to lead a  coal-mining project in Haida Gwaii, where he built the first tramway in British Columbia to deliver coal to the province’s shoreline, exporting it to the U.S.

It was during this period that his wife and children went back to the U.S. after the two separated. “I have had a model wife in all that the term implies, and she has had a husband migratory and uncertain,” Gibbs writes in his autobiography.

In 1870, Gibbs returned to the U.S., where he started a career in law and later became the first elected Black municipal judge in the United States. In 1897, Republican President William McKinley appointed Gibbs as U.S. consul to Madagascar but he resigned after four years due to health reasons and came back to the U.S. to publish his autobiography in 1902. He also did some real estate business, launched a savings bank, and did some philanthropic work before he passed away in Little Rock on this day (July 11) in 1915 at the age of 92.

“His standing for years as a leader among his people and as their representative in political, financial and social affairs, brought him the confidence of both races,” the Arkansas Gazette wrote after his death.

In 2009, Gibbs was recognized by the Government of Canada as “A Person of National Historic Significance”. The plaque is in Irving Park, Victoria B.C. where Gibbs had his home and owned property. A study room was also named after him in 2018 at the local branch of the Greater Victoria Public Library.

Last Edited by:Mildred Europa Taylor Updated: July 11, 2022


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