Black History on the West Coast: Canada

When people think of Vancouver and its surrounding areas, Canadians from African or Caribbean backgrounds are not the first ethnic group common to these areas that come to mind.  According to Statistics Canada, 2006 Census, there are approximately 35, 000 people living in Vancouver who are originally from countries from the Caribbean or Africa.  However, the Vancouver region has its own story that has its place in Canada’s Black History.   In doing research for this article, I was hard pressed to find much current information about Vancouver’s Black community.  Many of the websites I found had not been updated in a year or two.  Where I did find current information for upcoming Black History Month events was on the British Colombia Black History Awareness Society.  This Society is found on Vancouver Island, which probably has the richest Black history on the West coast, going back to the 1850s.

In the late 1850s, Blacks from the United States made Victoria British Colombia their home.  Blacks striving to be free from the confines of slavery were travelling throughout the northern states trying to establish safe and productive lives for themselves and their families.  Blacks living in California in the 1850s were victim to laws consisting of several restricting sections directed towards them.   Some examples include Blacks being prohibited to attend state run schools, the prevention of additional Black people immigrating into the state as well as a law impeding a Black person from giving evidence in a court of law against white people.

Seeking to find a more amicable place to settle, some of these Black Californians looked to explore by moving to Victoria.  The current governor of Victoria, James Douglas, extended an invitation for them to move to Vancouver Island and promised them a favourable welcome.  This arrangement was workable to both the Blacks from California as well as the governor, who was in need of more residents living in his region to prevent the merging of Vancouver Island with the United States.  In 1858, approximately 800 Black settlers from California travelled north and made Victoria their new home.  With the presence of prosperous energy from the Caribou Gold Rush at the same time, many of these settlers were able to find work, farm land and develop their own businesses in a short period of time.  Some of these settlers went on also to establish themselves as professionals in fields such as teaching, dentistry and law.  In spite of these fortuitous conditions surrounding the settling of the former Californians, racism began to increase toward the late 1860s.

Today, to celebrate Black History Month there are several events that are taking place in Victoria.  Some examples are a Gospel Workshop which details the historical journey of African American Gospel, an Open Mike Jam, a Jazz concert, Cultural Heritage Day, a walking tour of the Ross Bay Cemetery the resting place to several Black settlers and the annual Black History Month service at Shady Creek Church, which was built by some of the original Black settlers.

In the city of Vancouver to the 1900s, there was an alley way located in the Strathcona region.  Officially called Park Lane, the unofficial name was Hogan’s Alley.  This area became Vancouver’s first and last Black “neighbourhood.”   It developed as such due to its proximity to the train stations, as several Black men worked as porters it became a place to call home, harbouring several black owned businesses, black families and the city’s only black church.  However in the 1970s this neighbourhood was destroyed due to a proposal to put in an interurban freeway.  Several community groups protested this freeway, but by the time their efforts were successful, Hogan’s alley was no longer in existence.  Today, there are no such neighbourhoods found in Vancouver.

One event taking place this month is a dinner to celebrate the printing of two stamps by Canada Post depicting the images of two historical Black figures, Abraham Doras Shadd and Rosemary Brown.   Abraham Shadd was a prominent player in the operation of the Underground Railroad and is reportedly the first Black person to serve in Canadian public office.   Rosemary Brown was the first Black woman elected to the Member of Legislative Assembly in 1972. The National Congress of Black Women Foundation is hosting this black tie event at the Vancouver Playhouse on February 1, 2009, with notables such as Jack Layton, leader of the NDP party, expected to attend.

One of the most impactful events to happen every February in North Vancouver involves a former resident of North Vancouver, Valerie Jerome.  She was a notable track and field star in her teenage years getting as far as the 1960 Olympics held in Rome.  Her story is often eclipsed by that of her brother Harry Jerome, who was also an Olympian in the track and field area and competed in several Olympic games and brought home bronze and the a gold medals from the 1966 Commonwealth games.    When their family arrived to the North Shore in the 1950s, they were awaited with violent racism.  On their first day of school, Ms. Jerome and her siblings were met with a barrage of stones that the other students threw at them because they were black.  The children stayed home for a week after this until their father, who was a porter on the trains, returned.  He took them back to school and spoke with the administrator, stating that his children had every right to attend this school.  The school agreed to put a stop to the stoning.  The children continued their education in this chilly environment and excelled.   There are several more stories of Valerie and her siblings encountering despicable demonstrations of racism as they grew and pursued their dreams.  However, Ms. Jerome does not let this hurtful history prevent her from coming back to her public school every February during Black History month and speaking to this generation’s children about her experiences and the lessons that come out of them.  Of all the activities that take place this month, it is Ms. Jerome’s visit that brings history face to face with today’s children, so that they can be inspired to create their own history and change the negative patterns of the past.

Dorla Tune

Dorla Tune is a consultant and writer at D.Scribe Writing and Consulting

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