Susanna McLeod

Susanna McLeod

Glimpses of Canadian History : Email: Scribbles@cogeco.ca

Black History Month: Mifflin Gibbs, Canada’s First Black Politician

Tossing aside the chains of racism in the United States, Mifflin Gibbs came north to Canada. While discrimination was still evident in Canada, the black man could control is own life.  He could vote.  He could raise an unencumbered family.  He could run a business.  And he could participate in local government.  In Victoria, British Columbia, Gibbs proudly become Canada’s first black politician.

The oppression of discrimination flourished in the United States in the mid-1800s. Black people had few rights and as time passed, those rights were questioned. Persecution and condoning of slavery were everyday fears for the black population. A community in San Francisco decided that enough was enough. There had been rumour of better living up north, in Canada, said the Black Historical and Cultural Society in their “Who We Are – Historical Snapshot” segment on Mifflin Wistar Gibbs. A Hudson’s Bay Company official had sent encouraging words to come to British Columbia. A small exploration troop went ahead to check out the colony on Vancouver Island. It was good.

Mifflin W. Gibbs came to Canada for a free and better life

In June 1858, Mifflin Gibbs and his business partner Peter Lester arrived in the city of Victoria on Vancouver Island. Approximately 400 black Americans immigrated to Canada over two years, looking for equality and better lives. Experienced storekeepers, they had brought a supply of goods to sell. At that time, a gold rush was booming in the Fraser Valley and the miners’ kits of food, clothing and equipment sold out quickly. Gibbs purchased a home on the second day after arrival in which the two men opened a general store. The business was the first challenger for the Hudson’s Bay Company in Victoria.

Gibbs worked with Underground Railroad

Mifflin Wistar Gibbs was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on April 17, 1823, the son of a Wesleyan Methodist minister. According to Sherry Edmunds Flett in her entry about Gibbs, in Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online, the boy was sent to work when he was the tender age of eight years old, “driving a doctor’s horse and eventually becoming a carpenter’s apprentice.” An intelligent young man, he joined an African American literary society in 1839, the Philadelphia Library Company. As a black man, he was absolutely against slavery, participating in the Underground Railroad to aid slaves escaping to the north, and attended abolitionist conventions in the United States.

Moving to San Francisco in September 1850, Gibbs joined with Peter Lester in business a year later, importing fine-quality boots and shoes. As discrimination against black people grew, Gibbs protested. One of his methods was publishing a magazine in San Francisco, “Mirror of our Times”, in which he demanded equal rights for black people.

History marker for the Underground Railroad, Ohio branch

Black Community Moved to Canada

Over the next few years, racism spread and by 1858, Gibbs and Lester decided to join the black community moving to Canada. Settled into business, Gibbs joined the Victoria Pioneer Rifle Corps, an all-black militia unit, in case of a full American uprising over the San Juan Islands. In 1859, he returned to the United States for a brief trip and while there, married Marie Ann Alexander. Gibbs brought his bride to his new home to Victoria.

Gibbs found British Columbia people were more open to equality. There was no need to set up black-only churches. The new community members were welcomed to worship at the local churches. But there was still racism to rear its ugly head. Gibbs and other black property-owners voted in the 1860 House of Assembly elections. (Before any man could vote, property requirements needed to be filled.) Afterward, an editor of the British Colonist newspaper argued that the vote was illegal because the blacks were not British subjects. After bitter arguments, a year later the immigrants’ votes were disqualified. Gibbs was not daunted – he became a naturalized British citizen. He was then able to register and vote in the next campaign, and he went even further than that. Gibbs ran in the election.

Gibbs on Victoria City Council

In 1866, Mifflin Gibbs made history. He was the first black representative elected to the Victoria City Council, and the first black politician in Canada. He enjoyed the political success on his own, though. His wife and their children – all five born in Canada – had returned to the state of Ohio in 1865. Elected in two terms, Gibbs served as acting mayor and was made Chairman of the financial committee for the city. He was highly praised for his balanced budgets.

A lecturer and debater, Gibbs studied law and continued to nurture success in business. Working as a Director of the Queen Charlotte Coal Company, he stepped down to take on a different role, that of contractor. With his successful bid in hand, Gibbs and his company of 50 workers travelled to the Queen Charlotte Islands in January 1869 to build wharves and a railway to ship coal mined on the coast to San Francisco. When the job was completed, Gibbs returned to the United States to unite with his family.

Judge Mifflin Gibbs

Furthering his studies in law in Ohio, Gibbs then moved to Little Rock, Arkansas to join a law firm. In 1872, he opened his own law office. His skills and efficiency in French, a newly learned language to him, led him to election as a judge and then on to the post of American Consul to Madagascar in 1897. Returning to Little Rock in 1901, Gibbs took on the challenge of President of Capital City Savings Bank. The industrious man was 78 years old.

Mifflin Gibbs returned to Victoria for a short stay in 1907. His wisdom, activism and steadfast belief in equality made him the best candidate to hold office as the first black politician in Canada. He died on July 11, 1915 at age 92 in Little Rock, Arkansas.

Read more on Black Hisory, Mifflin Gibbs, and many others at Historica Canada

This article first appeared on Suite101.com in 2010.  Copyright Susanna McLeod.

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