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"