The first Black settlers arrived in British Columbia in April 1858, 24 years after the Abolition of Slavery Act, according to history; however, Black Canadian history dates back to the 1600s. Many immigrants would come from all over the world to prosper in British Columbia, Canada.
One of them was Mifflin Wistar Gibbs. After aiding in the fight against slavery in America, he went on to become a politician, businessman, and human rights defender, and then a well-known figure in British Columbia’s Black community, helping to shape it into what it is today.
Gibbs was born on April 17, 1823, in Philadelphia, into a free Black family. When his father died when he was eight years old, he had to drop out of school to learn carpentry in order to help his family. Gibbs was able to finish school thanks to the Philadelphia Library Company, a literary society for men of color, and by the 1840s, he had joined abolitionist Frederick Douglass in the campaign to end slavery in the United States. He joined Douglass on speaking tours.
Gibbs, who was 27 at the time, moved to San Francisco, California, to start a new life. He only had ten cents with him when he arrived, but he made good use of it. He began as a bootblack before establishing a successful business with business partner Peter Lester. Gibbs also founded Alto California, the state’s first Black-owned newspaper.
In 1858, Gibbs was forced to relocate to Victoria, British Columbia, as Black people faced increasingly dangerous situations in the United States following the 1857 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that African Americans were not American citizens and were not entitled to freedoms, according to the CBC. In 1858, Gibbs and Lester arrived in British Columbia with hundreds of other Black people. They left California after the governor of the British Columbia colony, Sir James Douglas, invited them to come and settle.
Gibbs describes his arrival in Victoria in 1858 in his autobiography, published in 1902. “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.”
Gibbs began a real estate business after becoming the de facto leader of the Vancouver Island Black Community. He also opened a store with his business partner, Lester, where he sold food and mining equipment to miners. They named the store after themselves and became the colony’s rival to the Hudson’s Bay Company. Gibbs returned to the United States for a short time to marry Maria Ann Alexander. They returned to Victoria, where they had five children and raised them in James Bay.
Gibbs had entered politics at the time. As a Victoria City Councillor in 1866, he became the first Black person elected to public office in British Columbia. He represented the James Bay District and was one of 26 delegates who attended the Yale Convention, where they drafted terms for British Columbia’s admission to Confederation. According to writer Crawford Kilian, Gibbs was all for joining the Dominion of Canada and was a major reason British Columbia became a 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 re-elected to City Council in 1869, but according to Community Stories, he left 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 United States.
During this time, his wife and children returned to the United States after the couple divorced. “I have had a model wife in every sense of the term, and she has had a migratory and uncertain husband,” Gibbs writes in his autobiography.
Gibbs returned to the United States in 1870, where he began a legal career and later became the country’s first elected Black municipal judge. In 1897, Republican President William McKinley appointed Gibbs as the United States consul in Madagascar, but he resigned after four years due to health concerns and returned to the United States in 1902 to publish his autobiography. He also did some real estate business, started a savings bank, and did some philanthropic work before dying on this day (July 11, 1915) in Little Rock 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.
Gibbs was named a “Person of National Historic Significance” by the Government of Canada in 2009. The plaque is located in Irving Park, Victoria, British Columbia, where Gibbs lived and owned property. In 2018, a study room at the local branch of the Greater Victoria Public Library was named after him.