Black History Month – Pioneer, Sylvia Stark

Black History Month, which began as Negro History Week, was founded in 1926 by Carter G. Woodson as a vehicle to “hand down information about Africans that had been altered, dismissed, or ignored,” according to the NetNoir Website. Woodson graduated from Harvard, obtaining a master’s degree and doctorate, and studied at the Sorbonne in Paris. 

The more educated he became, the more he looked up to his people and the more he noticed a troubling pattern in history and literature books. He became convinced that Africans were intentionally omitted from history and that if they were mentioned; it was only to advance misconceptions about Africa and its inhabitants. history Month, which began as Negro History Week, was founded in 1926 by Carter G. Woodson.


Sylvia Stark outside her home on Saltspring Island.
Sylvia Stark outside her home on Saltspring Island.

Sylvia Stark was born enslaved, in Clay County, Missouri, USA in 1839, the daughter of Howard and Hannah Estes. Her father was owned by a different person than the rest of the family, so he lived apart. Sylvia lived with her mom, sisters and brothers. Sylvia’s earliest memories were of working in the kitchen with her mother. With a long apron tied around her neck, Sylvia would stand on a chair to dry the endless dishes from the big house. She also tended the children of the man who enslaved her, using this time to her advantage. Sylvia secretly taught herself to read and write by listening and watching the children do their lessons. It was illegal for blacks to read and write.

  Howard Estes wanted his family to live under one roof, in freedom. He succeeded by earning the money to buy freedom for himself and his family, but not before Sylvia’s sister Agnes had died of scarlet fever. They first settled in Missouri, leaving for California in 1851 to escape the “Klu Klux” and the threat of being beaten and sold back into slavery. When Sylvia was 12, after 6 months traveling by wagon, the family settled in a mining community near Sacramento. They earned money by taking in laundry and raising vegetables and dairy cows.

  Sylvia met Louis Stark there. They married and had two children, Emma and Willis. In 1858, however, California passed legislation that forced them to register, obtain a licence to work, wear a badge to show that they were Negro. The Stark family once more looked for a safe place to live.


With the discovery of gold on the lower Fraser River and the resulting creation of the British colony of British Columbia in 1858, settlers were welcome. By August 1860, Sylvia and the children joined Louis on Saltspring Island, one of the temperate 

and fertile Gulf Islands between the mainland and Vancouver Island. Cowichan Indians had long paid it seasonal visits. American, English, German and Polynesian settlers also arrived. The farms were far apart as a married man could claim 200 acres (married women could not own land in Britain or its colonies until decades later). Racial discrimination had little place on Saltspring Island in the 1860’s because isolation made most people dependent on each other.

  The Stark’s 200 acre wilderness grew into a farm and farmhouse which Sylvia helped build and run. Another son, John and a daughter, Marie, were born. Sylvia joined the Methodist Church. After the hired man on their farm and the Methodist preacher, both black, were murdered, the Starks decided to move to a farm closer to Ganges, the largest town on the island.

  In 1875, Sylvia’s son Willis took over the Saltspring Island farm. Sylvia, age 36, and Louis moved to Nanaimo, on Vancouver Island. After the death of Louis in 1895, possibly murdered at the hands of white men who wanted to develop a coal mine on the property, Sylvia, at age 56, returned to Saltspring Island to live with her son Willis. Emma became a schoolteacher and taught on Vancouver Island. John went north as a mineralogist and prospector. Marie collected her mother’s memories.


Judy Sims and her mother Nadine Sims, fourth and third generations of the Stark Family, beside the Stark Monument in the Chase River area of Nanaimo, BC.


Between 1763 and 1865, it is estimated that about 30,000 blacks came to Canada to seek refuge from slavery and racial discrimination. About 800 of them, like Sylvia Stark and her family, came to Vancouver Island.

For more information on the black pioneers of British Columbia: Crawford Killian, Go Do Some Great Thing, 1980 (Douglas & McIntyre,Vancouver)

For an overall history of blacks in Canada and perspectives on black nation-builders: Ken Alexander and Avis Glaze, Towards Freedom: The African-Canadian Experience, 1996 (Umbrella Press, Toronto)

For an overview of the history of black women in Canada : Adrienne Shad, “300 Years of Black Women in Canadian History: circa 1700-1980”, Tiger Lily, Vol. 1, Issue 2. This can be hard to find, but it is included in this resource kit:

For a hands-on resource set for students: Black Women in Canada – Past and Present, available from Green Dragon Press, 135 George Street South, #902, Toronto, ON M5A 4E8, phone: (416)251-6366 fax (416)251-6365

For profiles of black women on Canada: Rella Braithwaite and Tessa Benn-Treland, Some Black Women, 1993 (Sister Vision, Toronto)


With thanks to The Nanaimo African Heritage Society and The British Columbia Black History Awareness Society. This feature was first published on’s predecessor site, CoolWomen.