Author Tags: 1900-1950, Afro-Canadian
Victoria city councillor Mifflin Wistar Gibbs was the first civic leader of black people in British Columbia and the first widely-read black writer. He arrived in 1858, shortly after a contingent of black pioneers arrived on the Commodore from California. Gibbs wrote many articles and speeches during his ten years in Canada. Had Gibbs remained on Vancouver Island and promises made to black pioneers been kept, historian Crawford Kilian has speculated, "Mifflin Gibbs might have become premier of British Columbia, or a businessman on the scale of a Dunsmuir."
Born in Philadelphia in 1823, Gibbs was the son of a Methodist minister who had died when Mifflin was eight years old. He worked as a stable boy until he served as an apprentice to a black carpenter who bought his freedom. A fervent reader participated in a literary association called the Philomathean Society, he helped slaves escaped northward on the underground railway while he was active in the Anti-Slavery Society. At age 22, he participated in a delegation that request the vote for Blacks in Pennsylvania. Having attended the National Antislavery Convention in his hometown in 1849, he travelled on a speaking tour with Frederick Douglass the following year. Discouraged, he shared his feelings with Douglass' English-born white manager, Julia Griffith, who advised him to "Go to some great thing." This phrase would later be used by the white author Crawford Kilian for his groundbreaking history of British Columbia's black pioneers.
According Kilian, Gibbs travelled steerage class to San Francisco in 1850, arriving with 50 cents to his name. The following year he was publicly advocating for blacks to have the right to vote in California. He and his business partner Peter Lester operated the Clay Street Pioneer Shoe and Boot Emporium and Gibbs became a co-publisher of The Mirror of the Times, California's first newspaper for and about blacks. At great personal risk, Gibbs hid fugitive slaves in the basement of his Emporium and helped to smuggle them to freedom on ships bound for South America.
Gibbs was an articulate, formidable presence, respected by whites and blacks. As racial discrimination increased in response to the efforts of activists to gain more rights, Gibbs and Lester protested inequality by refusing to pay a California poll tax in 1857. After their goods were seized and sympathetic whites agreed not to bid on them at auction, the goods were returned and the poll tax was not enforced against them. [See Crawford Kilian's Go Do Some Great Thing for more.]
Gibbs' memoirs were published as Shadow and Light: An Autobiography with Reminiscences of the Last and the Present Century (Washington, D.C.: 1902).
[BCBW 2009] "Afro-Canadian" "1900-1950"
Background info for entry
TO BE EDITED: Temporary posting only.
On the 12th December, 1867, the Daily British Colonist reported the meeting of the newly-elected city council. The chairman of the finance committee presented his budget for the new year. It was quite precise – expenses would amount to $8,721.00 and receipts to $8,722.00. The chairman of the finance committee, the city councillor for the silk-stocking rich James Bay ward, Mr. Mifflin Wistar Gibbs, must have managed to keep his budget balanced, for he was chosen by his peers to be acting mayor, and later was re elected by his neighbours.
A self-educated man, aged 45, Mifflin Gibbs was among the first of a long line of successful, if not wealthy, businessmen who helped shape the destiny of British Columbia. With these men he shared an optimism and belief that industry would make the world hetter, but his background gave him a sense of humanity and sensitivity that few of his fellow pioneer businessmen and industrialists ever demonstrated. Besides his business success and his activities in the politics of the colony, Mifflin Gibbs was also a law student, part-time journalist, a learned and intelligent lecturer and debater. Wherever he went, he moved among the leaders of the community. At the end of the year 1867, his career was at a turning point.
Born in Philadelphia, he was practically raised at the local "station" of the Underground Railroad. Gibbs naturally grew up to become a champion of abolition and a fighter for the betterment of mankind; closer to home was the plight of the Blacks, so that cause he served first. While still quite young, he was a familiar of Julia . Griffith and Frederick Douglass, but in 1850 he answered the call of the California gold.
Officially, there were no slaves in California, but there were no basic rights to be enjoyed by a Black person either. As one of the publishers of the "Mirror of the Times", Gibbs resumed his political activism. Through the first Black newspaper in California, his involvement increased steadily as the political situation worsened for his brothers and sisters. In Sacramento, the legislature approved one bill after another and resolutions restricting the access of any Black to the judicial institutions, and in effect protecting slavery and slaveholders. In everyday life, it amounted to an official condonation of all persecutions that could be imposed on a Black person. By 1858 the climate was such that the Black community in San Francisco was actively studying plans of settlement outside the United States. Receiving encouraging words, if not promises, from a high official of the Hudson's Bay Co. (James Douglas himself, according to many writers), Mifflin Gibbs was sent with 35 others to Victoria to explore and report on the possibilities of a collective migration to Vancouver Island.
Finally embarking for Victoria, they realized with fear and excitement that gold had been found in the colony; so many of those they wanted to leave behind were taking the same ship. The "Commodore" arrived in Victoria on Sunday, the 25th April, 1858, at noon, just as the locals were coming out of church. The sight of 35 Blacks created a certain curiosity, but the arrival of almost 500 goldseekers of all sorts was a shock. Aside from Douglas and his close collaborators, no one had expected a rush to the gold of the Fraser River.
Eventually, almost 800 Blacks moved to Vancouver Island. Mifflin Gibbs and his partner, Peter Lest', used to own a store in San Francisco. They knew at once the opportunities the Fraser River excitement would create and they opened the first general store in Victoria to compete with the Hudson's Bay Company.
Life in British Columbia was more enjoyable and prosperous than in California. It carried its own share of problems and racial prejudice, but the judicial process was clear and accessible; moreover, Black participation in the political affairs of the colony soon became a matter of course.
Mifflin Wistar Gibbs spent a little more than ten years in British Columbia.
The general store was successful and he moved on to real estate. construction and investment. He even pioneered and managed for a time a coal mining operation in the Queen Charlotte Islands. As a politician, he was among those who worked hard to make a capital city out of a shanty town growing around a fur-trading post, and he belonged to the small group that paved the way for the colony's entry into the Dominion of Canada. However, he still found he had to fight every day against racial prejudices; a never-ending fight that eventually cost him his marriage. From what we know of Victoria society at that rime, and from the credentials his wife received from Oberlin College, Ohio, it is clear that Mrs. Maria Alexander Gibbs was perhaps the most learned lady in Victoria, yet whatever her husband's accomplishments, no one ever invited her to tea.
After Victoria, Gibbs graduated in law and practised in Little Rock, Arkansas, where he was elected a judge. He learned French and served as American Consul in Madagascar. At 77, when he returned to the United States, he took over the presidency of the Capital City Savings Bank of Little Rock, which is no surprise to those who remember his virtuosity with the balance sheet of Victoria's city hall.
Victoria Gazette news item, 1858
APPLICATION FOR CITIZENSHIP
We have copied the names and occupations of the persons who have made application to be admitted to the rights of British subjects within the past few days, and give them below. They foot up fifty-four in number---fifty-three are colored and one white.
George Henry Anderson, farmer.
William Isaacs, farmer.
Fielding Spotts, cooper.
James Samson, teamster.
Richard Stokes, carrier.
John Thomas Dunlop, carman.
Nathan Pointer, merchant.
Augustus Christopher, porter.
Isaac Gohiggin, teamster.
William Alex. Scott, barber.
Mifflin Wister Gibbs, merchant.
William Miller, saloon-keeper.
George H. Matthews, merchant.
Robert Abernathy, baker.
Henry Perpero, gardener.
Thomas Palmer Freeman, storekeeper.
Stephen Anderson, miner.
Edward A. Booth, water carrier.
William Grant, teamster.
Henry Holly Brenen, cook.
Samuel John Booth, caulker.
Joshua B. Handy, restaurant-keeper.
William Brown, merchant.
Timothy Roberts, teamster.
*William Copperman, Indian trader
Matthew Fred. Monet, fruiterer.
John Baldwin, greengrocer.
Stephen Whitley, laundryman.
Charles H. Thorp, ship carpenter.
George Washington Hobbs, teamster.
Willis Carroll Bond, contractor.
Elison Dowdy, painter.
Archer Fox, barber.
Robert H. Williamson, blacksmith.
Randel Caesar, barber.
Fortune Richard, ship carpenter.
T. Devine Mathews, carrier.
Robert Tilghman, barber.
Charles Humphrey Scott, grocer.
Thomas H. Jackson, drayman.
Ashbury Buhler, tailor.
Archer Lee, porter.
John Lewis, porter.
Thorenton Washington, carpenter.
Lewis Scott, carpenter.
William Glasco, teamster.
John Dandridge, no occupation.
Adolphus C.Richards, plasterer.
Fielding Smithers, messenger.
John E. Edwards, hair dresser.
Paris Carter, grocer.
Augustus Travers, porter.
Richard Jackson, gardener.
Patrick Jerome Addison, farmer.