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

Ron Sivorot, business director at Kennametal’s Langford site, the Greater Victoria facility that made a component being used on NASA’s Perseverance rover on Mars. (Jake Romphf, Black Press Media)
NASA’s Perseverance Mars rover using piece made at Kennametal’s Langford site

The Greater Victoria plant’s tooth blank is helping the rover’s drill collect rock cores

The Tsartlip First Nation was outraged after Green MLA Adam Olsen revealed on social media that the community had been experiencing a COVID-19 outbreak – a fact the First Nation had chosen to keep private to avoid racist backlash as experienced by the Cowichan Tribes when an outbreak was declared there in January. (Black Press Media file photo)
Tsartlip First Nation ‘outraged’ after Green MLA revealed COVID-19 outbreak

Chief shares concerns about racist backlash, MLA Adam Olsen apologizes

A rockfall closed Finlayson Arm Road and West Shore Parkway on Friday (March 5) afternoon. (Twitter/BC Transportation)
UPDATED: Malahat reopens following rockfall

Section of Trans-Canada Highway was scheduled for intermittent closures today for rock scaling work

A 5-2 majority of Sidney councillors voted against trimming the 2021 draft budget off $30,000 earmarked in part for the search of pickleball specific courts in Sidney. (Black Press Media File)
Sidney serves up $30,000 toward search for, design of pickleball courts

Coun. Scott Garnett urges action as majority defeats motion to strike funding from budget

Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry updates B.C. on the COVID-19 situation. (B.C. government)
Dr. Bonnie Henry predicts a ‘post-pandemic world’ for B.C. this summer

‘Extending this second dose provides very high real-world protection to more people, sooner’

Malawian police guard AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccines after the shipment arrived in Lilongwe, Malawi, Friday March 5, 2021. Canada is expecting its first shipments of AstraZeneca vaccine next week. (Associated Press/Thoko Chikondi)
B.C.’s daily COVID-19 cases climb to 634 Friday, four more deaths

Currently 255 people in hospital, 66 in intensive care

A crashed helicopter is seen near Mt. Gardner on Bowen Island on Friday March 5, 2021. Two people were taken to hospital in serious but stable condition after the crash. (Irene Paulus/contributed)
2 people in serious condition after helicopter goes down on Bowen Island

Unclear how many passengers aboard and unclear where the helicopter was going

Surrey Pretrial in Newton. (Photo: Tom Zytaruk)
B.C. transgender inmate to get human rights hearing after being held in mostly male jail

B.C. Human Rights Tribunal member Amber Prince on March 3 dismissed the pretrial’s application to have Makayla Sandve’s complaint dismissed

Supporters rally outside court as Pastor James Coates of GraceLife Church is in court to appeal bail conditions, after he was arrested for holding day services in violation of COVID-19 rules, in Edmonton, Alta., on Thursday March 4, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson
‘Law remains valid:’ Pastor accused of violating health orders to remain in jail

The Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms is representing the pastor

The Netflix logo on an iPhone. B.C. delayed imposing sales tax on digital services and sweetened carbonated beverages as part of its response to COVID-19. Those taxes take effect April 1, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP, Matt Rourke
B.C. applies 7% sales tax on streaming, vaping, sweet drinks April 1

Measures from 2020 budget were delayed due to COVID-19

A lawyer wears a face mask and gloves to curb the spread of COVID-19 while waiting to enter B.C. Supreme Court, in Vancouver, B.C., Friday, Aug. 28, 2020. British Columbia’s highest court has sided with the land owner in a dispute over public access to public land. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
B.C. high court finds in favour of large landowner in fight over access to pair of lakes

The Nicola Valley Fish and Game Club launched legal action after the cattle company blocked road and trail access

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau holds a press conference in Ottawa Friday, March 5, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
Trudeau holds firm on premiers’ health-care funding demands, COVID-19 aid comes first

Premiers argue that the current amount doesn’t keep pace with yearly cost increases of about five per cent

Free Reformed Church is seen as people attend service, in Chilliwack, B.C., on Sunday, Feb. 21, 2021. Lawyers for the British Columbia government and the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms are back in B.C. Supreme Court today, squaring off over the legality of COVID-19 rules that prohibit in-person religious services. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
B.C. top doctor has power to restrict access to a place during health hazard: lawyer

Under B.C.’s Public Health Act, Jacqueline Hughes says, Henry can restrict or prevent entry to a place

Most Read