With the discovery of gold on the lower Frazer River and the creation of British Columbia in 1858, several hundred African Americans, fearing the threat that they would be sold back into slavery, escaped from California on a ship which sailed to Victoria. There were many pioneers who landed in British Columbia and one of the more renowned was Mifflin Wistar Gibbs.
Mifflin Gibbs was born on April 17, 1823, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He was the eldest of four children born to Jonathan and Maria Gibbs. His father, a Methodist minister, died when Mifflin was a child, and his mother worked as a laundress.
Gibbs was a man of accomplishment. He was an activist in the abolition movement, a businessman, author, politician, lawyer and tradesman. Upon his arrival in Victoria, he bought land and operated his own business and became popular among the colony’s black elite. Gibbs briefly returned to the US in 1859 to court and marry Maria Alexander, who had studied at Oberlin College.
In developing a coal mine in the Queen Charlotte Islands in 1869, he was instrumental in building British Columbia’s first railroad. A tireless advocate for the black community, he helped to organize the colony’s first militia, an all-black unit known as the African Rifles.
As an elected delegate to the Yale Convention, he also helped to frame the terms by which British Columbia entered the Canadian confederation. He became the first black man elected to the Victoria City Council and the second black elected official in Canada.
It is unclear why Gibbs left British Columbia, where his economic fortune was assured and where he had found a modicum of political success. In 1870, he returned to the United States and settled in Oberlin, Ohio.
After a prolonged period of declining health, Gibbs died on July 11, 1915, at his home in Little Rock, Arkansas; and he is buried in the Fraternal Cemetery on Barber Street.
Nanaimo African Heritage Society
This year’s lineup of events starts from February 2nd to the 26th; please contact Nanaimo’s African Heritage Society for more information at www.NanaimoAfricanHeritageSociety.com