Black History Month in Victoria is far more than a celebration of the Black Canadian history of the region, according to Silvia Mangue, president of the BC Black History Awareness Society.
“Of course it’s important for people to be aware of the contributions of Black Canadians in the past, but it’s just as important to use that knowledge and build an awareness of their contributions in the present and the future,” she said.
The month-long celebration begins Wednesday (Jan. 31 from 5 to 8 p.m.) at Victoria City Hall, where attendees will be introduced to local Black Canadians – True Role Models – who are making a difference, particularly for young people in their communities.
The official kick-off happens Saturday (Feb. 3, noon to 2 p.m.) at the Central Branch of the Greater Victoria Public Library from noon to 3 p.m. Other activities and events this month range from special church services and performing arts events to tours of heritage sites with special relevance to Black history.
Victoria’s Black history can be traced in part back to Fort Victoria founder Sir James Douglas, whose mother, Martha Ann Telfer, was a Barbados native who married a white Scottish merchant. Aware of increasing discrimination against Black Californians in the years leading up to the U.S. Civil War, Douglas sent word to that state that Blacks would be welcome and be recognized as free British citizens in British Columbia. More than 400 people took him up on his offer.
Since then, the number of Black Canadians who have contributed to the community is stunning and includes men like Mifflin Wistar Gibbs, who was honoured last year with a plaque in James Bay and whose name will grace one of the meeting rooms at the new library there.
“If it wasn’t for Black History Month, a rich history of Black people that helped shape B.C. would be lost on today’s youth,” said society vice-president Ron Nicholson. “We have a lot of stories to tell and they’re beneficial, not just for Black Canadians. These men and women lend confidence to every generation, particularly young people who are visible minorities, and whose own sense of identity may still be forming.”
Another aspect of Black History Month that organizers hope to promote is the understanding that skin colour does not mean a uniformity of culture, belief or heritage and that communication is critical to developing understanding.
“I have people come up to me and say, ‘Oh, you’re from Africa’ with no understanding that Africa is a continent with 54 countries and a multitude of cultures,” said Pulchérie Mboussi, the founder and program manager of the Victoria African Cultural Society. “African is not a nationality. Those same people wouldn’t assume that all Europeans are the same, regardless of if they came from Italy or Norway. I’m from Cameroon, but that culture is very different from South Africa, for example.”
One thing Mboussi hopes is achieved through Black History Month is that it motivates people to take time to talk to others without fear of political correctness. Only through learning more about the person in front of them will true understanding and acceptance be possible, she added.
More information on outstanding members of the Black community in B.C. can be found at bcblackhistory.ca/index.php/learning-centre/stories.