In 1889, 60 Black miners arrived in Cumberland, B.C. from Pennsylvania and Ohio, hoping for work and a greater life. At the moment, the coal business was booming and staff got here from all over the world in quest of alternative. However miners confronted harsh working situations, racism and segregation.

A lot of the historical past of the small Black settlement north of Comox Lake Street between Chinatown and No. 1 Japanese city is unknown, and most of the miners moved away the summer season after their arrival, in response to Cumberland Heritage, a guide by Jennifer Nell Barr on the realm’s historical past from 1888 to 1950.

“It’s a extremely obscure historical past,” mentioned Silvia Mangue Alene, president of the BC Black Historical past Consciousness Society, in an interview with The Discourse.

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This textual content explains the empty show case representing native Black Historical past on the Cumberland Museum. Photograph courtesy of Cumberland Museum and Archives

On the Cumberland museum, an empty case acknowledges the absence of those tales. The historical past of oppressed and marginalized teams has been ignored, disparaged and erased by establishments of colonial historical past, explains the textual content beside the case.

“The absence of Black expertise from British Columbia’s official historic reminiscence was not merely the results of absent-mindedness,” writes Adam Rudder within the foreword to Go Do Some Nice Factor: The Black Pioneers of British Columbia by Crawford Killian.

As a substitute, “the time period ‘absenting’ right here is used to attract consideration to the very lively course of that has rendered Black expertise invisible within the official historic report.”

However not all of the tales have been misplaced, and a few individuals and organizations are making an effort to inform a extra full historical past of this place.

“Folks ought to study Canadian historical past in its fullest,” Alene mentioned. Newcomers to Vancouver Island, and particularly Black newcomers, ought to have the chance to study the Black historical past of this place, she added.

“A real dedication to confronting racism in our communities should go nicely past the celebratory proclivities of multicultural politics,” Rudder writes. “Change requires accepting duty for the impacts of historical past on the current, and to do that we want correct and typically daring histories which can be unafraid to inform the tales that not everybody needs to listen to.”

The Black pioneers of B.C.

In 1858, Sir James Douglas needed a large group of onerous working individuals, loyal to the British crown, to choose Vancouver Island. His intention was to bolster the colony in opposition to potential U.S. annexation. That is how a number of hundred Black pioneers got here to Canada from the US.

Douglas despatched a letter by the use of Jeremiah Nagle, captain of the steamship Commodore, which regularly sailed between Victoria and San Francisco, to ask Black Californians to British Columbia. He promised British citizenship and the suitable to personal land. At the moment within the U.S., Black individuals had no rights to citizenship, and slavery was not but abolished.

Douglas noticed potential on this group of Black Californians, Alene mentioned. “He knew that they had been organized, he knew that they had been well-to-do and that they had been hardworking individuals.”

The irony of this invitation will not be misplaced on Alene. Douglas’s pursuits had been within the colonial pursuit of Vancouver Island and British Columbia.

“There have been already individuals right here, proper?” she mentioned, referring to the Nuu-chah-nulth, Coast Salish and Kwakwaka’wakw individuals.

Although a lot of the Black pioneers that got here right here left to return to the U.S. after the civil conflict, some stayed to go away their legacy.

“This group of individuals had been actually very concerned with the group,” mentioned Alene.

Emma Stark was the primary Black trainer on Vancouver Island, and she or he is acknowledged on a plaque  at 331 Wesley St. in Nanaimo, the place she owned a house.

Mifflin Wistar Gibbs, a human rights activist, politician and businessman, was elected to Victoria Metropolis Council in 1866.

John Craven Jones was the primary trainer on Salt Spring Island and taught there for greater than a decade.

In accordance with BC Black Historical past Consciousness Society, Jones “taught with out pay till the creation of the Salt Spring Island College District in1869.” After that, he earned a wage of about $40 a month.

The society helps to share these tales, and lots of extra, by way of free educational materials on its website.

“We’re glad to show [people] concerning the historical past,” mentioned Alene.

The society additionally often hosts occasions that spotlight the historical past, which will also be discovered on their web site.

Cumberland’s Black group

The Village of Cumberland is wealthy in historical past, together with a vibrant labour rights motion from its coal mining days. Its road names pay homage to those tales. Dunsmuir Avenue is called after the notoriously exploitative coal baron Robert Dunsmuir. In contrast, Ginger Goodwin Method memorializes a labour rights protester, shot by police in 1918.

Throughout Cumberland’s mining days, staff of assorted backgrounds flocked to the village for a stake within the coal prospects and peripheral financial alternatives. Cumberland had one among Canada’s largest Chinatown’s on the time, with the inhabitants estimated at round 1,500 in its peak, in response to the village’s web site.

The Cumberland Museum’s present exhibit, “A seat on the desk,” showcases the contributions that Chinese language migrants made for British Columbia. The exhibit runs till Could 12, 2024. The museum additionally has everlasting reveals on Cumberland’s coal city, historic communities within the village, Indigenous resistance and land.

Immigrants and miners from racialized communities had been handled worse than white miners. Asian miners had been paid lower than whites, and a few weren’t provided housing by the mining firms.

It’s on this context that tales from the small Black group have been principally absented from official histories.

The racism that has obscured these tales additionally contributed to the shrinking of the group itself. Of the small group that stayed, many misplaced their jobs to white staff throughout the Nice Despair, wrote Barr in Cumberland Heritage.

However Cumberland’s Black historical past will not be solely misplaced, and the Cumberland Museum is among the many teams working to revive it. The museum supplied The Discourse with a abstract of current analysis and documentation.

That documentation contains details about John Henry Brown, probably the most well-known member of Cumberland’s Black group, who got here in 1909. His birthplace is unclear; some sources say he was born within the Caribbean, some say he was born in Maryland.

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John Henry Brown and a canine within the Fifties. Photograph courtesy of Cumberland Museum and Archives

In accordance with Isenor et al, Brown would take off to the mountains prospecting. He was on the lookout for iron ore or uranium, typically exploring Forbidden Plateau, and for a bag he used a giant potato sack slung over his shoulder.

Reportedly, he was the primary non-Indigenous particular person to climb Forbidden Plateau. His days had been spent working within the mines within the winter and prospecting in the summertime. Barr’s guide states that he additionally had a cabin on Circle Lake and staked a declare in Oyster River.

In accordance with a 1957 Instances Colonist article by Ben Hughes, Brown was “a tall man with a deep, booming voice and a wealthy vocabulary.” Barr described him as an important storyteller.

Brown was one of many few members of Cumberland’s Black miners to remain. He died in 1960 on the age of 93 on the former Cumberland Basic Hospital.

Extra photographs of Cumberland’s historic Black group may be discovered on the Cumberland Museum’s Flickr Page. Details about Cumberland’s group heritage may be discovered on the village website, and extra details about Vancouver Island’s Black pioneer group may be discovered on BC Black Historical past Consciousness Society’s website.

Madeline Dunnett, Native Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Discourse


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