Mifflin Gibbs poses in this undated handout photo. The first Black person elected in British Columbia was an American abolitionist and entrepreneur who won a Victoria city council seat in 1866 and played a role in Canada’s Confederation. (Library of Congress photo)

Mifflin Gibbs poses in this undated handout photo. The first Black person elected in British Columbia was an American abolitionist and entrepreneur who won a Victoria city council seat in 1866 and played a role in Canada’s Confederation. (Library of Congress photo)

Mifflin Gibbs: First Black man elected in B.C. won a Victoria council seat in 1866

Mifflin Gibbs was among the early arrivals to Victoria and nearby Salt Spring Island

The first Black person elected in British Columbia was an American abolitionist and entrepreneur who won a Victoria city council seat in 1866 and played a role in Confederation.

In 1858, about 800 Black people left San Francisco for the promise of better lives on the colony of Vancouver Island.

Mifflin Gibbs was among the early arrivals to Victoria and nearby Salt Spring Island.

“He represents a hero,” said Silvia Mangue, president of the B.C. Black History Awareness Society. “For us he represents a role model of the person we all want to be. He left this legacy. He opened this path. That is powerful.”

Gibbs grabbed hold of the opportunity he didn’t have in the United States because he was Black and turned it to success in Victoria, she said.

He opened a downtown business selling tools, supplies and provisions to the thousands of people arriving in Victoria on their way to strike it rich at the Cariboo Gold Rush and he immersed himself in local politics, said Mangue.

“At the time the Victoria city budget was financially really bad and he fixed the budget of the community,” she said, describing him as a pioneer.

“The guy left a huge legacy.”

Gibbs was among the hundreds of Black people who arrived on Vancouver Island at the invitation of Gov. James Douglas who promised them the freedom they had never known, said Prof. John Lutz, a University of Victoria historian.

“They found themselves officially welcomed in B.C.,” he said. “They had rights to testify in court and they weren’t going to be hauled off and accused as runaway slaves. They could own property, and if they naturalized as British citizens they had the franchise, the vote, which they didn’t have in California.”

But the invitation to the Black pioneers to settle on Vancouver Island contained an ulterior motive on the part of the colonial government, which looked to the new arrivals to help thwart local factions who supported joining the U.S., Lutz said

The new arrivals were subjected to paternalism by the British establishment, but they faced outright racism from many of the American gold seekers, he said.

“There was racism here but people like Mifflin Gibbs managed to rise above it and the racism was nothing like in California,” he said. “In many ways it was a better situation, but it certainly wasn’t perfect.”

Gibbs stayed near downtown Victoria, becoming politically active, running his business ventures and living in the James Bay neighbourhood with his wife and five children, while others left the city to establish communities north of Victoria on the Saanich Peninsula and on Salt Spring Island, Lutz said.

Gibbs also played a role in historic talks that ultimately saw the colonies of Vancouver Island and B.C. join Confederation in 1871, said Lutz.

Gibbs was one of the 26 delegates who attended the pro-Confederation gathering in Yale, B.C., in 1868, he said.

B.C. was in a deep recession following the Gold Rush and making debt relief one of the conditions to join Canada was a topic of debate at the convention, Lutz said.

“The convention did much to stimulate popular support for the union with Canada as a solution to the colony’s problems,” says a B.C. government plaque erected at Yale.

Mayor Lisa Helps said Gibbs was a symbol of Victoria’s history as an open city, but one with flaws that still exist today.

“He was a mover and a shaker at the time,” she said. “Even though, obviously, racism existed, just like it still does today, there was a certain sense of being a bit of a global city open to having people from around the world.”

The B.C. Black History Awareness Society website includes a letter Gibbs mailed to a San Francisco newspaper shortly after his arrival in B.C., highlighting his impressions.

“The country is certainly a beautiful one — a country good enough for me — and I am sorry to be so far behind. If either of us had arrived here two months ago, worth $1,000, we could have been worth $10,000 today.”

The city proclaimed Mifflin Wistar Gibbs Day on Nov. 16, 2016, in recognition of his election to city council on the same day in 1866.

A plaque honouring Gibbs, who returned to the United States in 1870 where he was elected a judge in Little Rock, Ark., and later appointed U.S. consul to Madagascar, was erected in 2019 in Victoria’s Irving Park near his former James Bay home.

Verna Gibbs, a great-great-grandniece of Gibbs, travelled from San Francisco in May 2019 to attend the ceremony unveiling the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada plaque.

“After helping lead the exodus of 800 Black residents from San Francisco in 1858, Gibbs became the recognized leader of their community on Vancouver Island,” the plaque states.

“He strove to make these newcomers a force in colonial politics and, as a member of Victoria city council, he became the first Black person to hold elected office in B.C. This innovative entrepreneur, who invested in mining and trade, also encouraged the integration of Black settlers and advocated for their rights.”

Dirk Meissner, The Canadian Press

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Want to support local journalism? Make a donation here.

Black History Month

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

B.C. Centre for Disease Control maps showing new COVID-19 cases by local health area for the week of April 4-10. (BCCDC image)
Parksville-Qualicum passes Nanaimo in new COVID-19 cases

Greater Victoria had more new cases than any other Island area: B.C. Centre for Disease Control

Sooke plans to begin construction of the $4.9-million Church Road corridor project this summer. (Kevin Laird - Sooke News Mirror)
Sooke hopes to start Church Road Corridor project this summer

Road upgrade includes a roundabout, sidewalks, bike lanes and boulevards

Pacific Institution in Abbotsford. (Black Press Media file photo)
Inmate with ties to Victoria dies in Abbotsford institution

Brodie Bingley, who was sentenced for aggravated assault in Maple Ridge died April 13

An online panel discussion on April 16 is set to discuss the benefits of advance care planning. (Black Press Media file photo)
Online panel to discuss planning for death with Greater Victoria residents

Advance care planning allows people’s wishes to be respected even if they can’t speak for themselves

The site of the proposed rental housing development at 2197 Otter Point Rd. (District of Sooke)
District of Sooke approves development with 77 rental units

New parking lot for John Phillips Memorial Park included in project

A woman wears a protective face covering to help prevent the spread of COVID-19 as he walks past the emergency entrance of Vancouver General Hospital in Vancouver, B.C., Friday, April 9, 2021. COVID-19 cases have been on a steady increase in the province of British Columbia over the past week. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
Top doctor warns B.C.’s daily cases could reach 3,000 as COVID hospitalizations surge

There are more than 400 people in hospital, with 125 of them in ICU

(Black Press Media file photo)
POLL: Do you have a plan in place in the event of a tsunami?

Tsunamis have claimed the lives of more than 250,000 people between 1998… Continue reading

Anyone with information on any of these individuals is asked to call 1-800-222-TIPS (8477) or visit the website victoriacrimestoppers.ca for more information.
Greater Victoria Crime Stoppers wanted list for the week of April 13

Greater Victoria Crime Stoppers is seeking the public’s help in locating the… Continue reading

The District of Sooke will continue to flower with Communities in Bloom. (Pixabay)
Sooke will bud but not bloom in provincial competition

Council scales back participation in Communities in Bloom

An armed officer walks outside Cerwydden Care on Cowichan Lake Road near Skinner Road Wednesday, April 14 around 5:30 p.m. (Kevin Rothbauer/Citizen)
Police standoff at Duncan apartment ends peacefully

Officers surround building as homeowner held in apartment for nearly four hours by adult son

A crossing guard stops traffic as students wearing face masks to curb the spread of COVID-19 arrive at Ecole Woodward Hill Elementary School, in Surrey, B.C., on Tuesday, February 23, 2021. A number of schools in the Fraser Health region, including Woodward Hill, have reported cases of the B.1.7.7 COVID-19 variant first detected in the U.K. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
COVID-infected students in Lower Mainland schools transmitting to 1 to 2 others: data

Eight to 13 per cent of COVID cases among students in the Lower Mainland were acquired in schools, B.C. says

Latest modelling by public health shows cases generated by COVID-19 infections into places where it can spread quickly. (B.C. Centre for Disease Control)
Industrial sites, pubs, restaurants driving COVID-19 spread in B.C.

Infection risk higher in offices, retail, warehouses, farms

Hwy. 4 was shut down in both directions for 10 hours on March 23 as a rock bluff was blasted as part of Kennedy Hill’s ongoing construction. Commuters can expect five more 10 hour closures on five consecutive Wednesdays beginning April 28. (Photo courtesy of Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure)
Five 10-hour Pacific Rim highway closures planned in the next 6 weeks

Closures needed for rock blasting as part of the Kennedy Hill Safety Improvement project.

Bulldogs forward Stephen Castagna flips the puck into the Clippers zone during a game on Oct. 24. (ELENA RARDON / ALBERNI VALLEY NEWS)
Island BCHL game postponed due to ‘potential positive’ COVID-19 test

Nanaimo Clippers team suspends activities, players isolating pending further test results

Most Read