In youth, Mifflin Gibbs had actively fought racism in Philadelphia. In California, he led civil rights protests and founded the state’s first Black newspaper. He had already looked racial hatred in the face. But when he and his wife were showered with flour as they attempted to take their seats in the Victoria Theatre, it was one insult too many.

The San Francisco immigrants had come to British Columbia believing it the “land of freedom and humanity.” In some ways, it was. Black residents were allowed to vote, sit on juries and testify in court. Mifflin Gibbs was elected to Victoria’s town council. At least some churches and businesses welcomed them. But others did not, and the white community generally disliked them. The Roman Catholic nuns (admittedly, under protest) were forced to segregate “Coloured” girls. Governor James Douglas tried unsuccessfully to appoint Blacks to the city police force. When Blacks volunteered for the fire department, whites refused to serve. Segregated seating was introduced to the Victoria Theatre in 1860.

Perhaps the proudest achievement of the Black community in Victoria was also its most disappointing. In 1861, the Blacks formed the very first militia unit in the colony – the Pioneer Rifle Corps. Three years later, after being barred from marching in welcoming ceremonies for the new governor, they disbanded. In the end, Mifflin Gibbs and a handful of others gave up and left. British Columbia was the poorer for their departure.

Janet Uren (WordImage Inc.)
Maggie Fawcett, Claire Brodie, Parks Canada Agency, Multiculturalism Branch / Department of Canadian Heritage

British Columbia, CANADA
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