History of Black pioneers celebrated during Ross Bay Cemetery walkthrough

Photo by Sie Douglas-Fish

On Feb. 28, in celebration of Black History Month, a virtual walkthrough of the Ross Bay Cemetery was conducted by John Adams from the Old Cemeteries Society and Valin Marshall from the BC Black History Awareness Society.

Victoria’s Ross Bay Cemetery can be found in the city’s Fairfield neighbourhood. The twenty-eight arce cemetery was established in 1872 and has since been the resting place of many influential Victorians. It is home to the graves of many Black pioneers and those that were vital to the immigration of Black families to Victoria.

Most social events have changed due to the pandemic, and the walkthrough was no exception. As viewers watched from their computers, Adams lectured live from the cemetery while Marshall was presenting from his office via Zoom. Despite the change in normalcy, the two still gave a lively take on history that made viewers feel like they were there.

The walkthrough shared the stories of successful Black pioneers and how important the Black community was, and still is, to the City of Victoria, a culturally diverse city. 

“Looking at history is sometimes a good way for us to get context for the present,” said Adams. 

The walkthrough took the virtual audience to the graves of prominent Black people in Victoria’s history and offered a detailed story about their lives. A general history lesson on the migration of Black workers from California by Adams and Marshall, helped tell the story of many of these pioneer’s final resting places. 

“A number of Black people came from California to escape [unjust] treatment,” said Marshall. According to Adams, Governor James Douglas issued an invitation for Black Californians to come to Victoria in 1858, adding that they would be treated no less than any other citizens. 

“Their arrival in 1858 coincided with the beginning of the big gold rush in the Fraser River,” recalled Adams. Between 600-800 Black community members arrived from California. Some went into the competitive gold boom, some took up farming , and others started their own businesses.

There were two stories that stood out for me as a viewer. The first was of Mifflin Wistar Gibbs, the first Black person elected to public office in British Columbia. Followed by Rebecca Gibbs, one of Canada’s first Black female poets.

M.W. Gibbs started his public service career in Victoria as a member of city council in 1866 and the first Black person elected to public office in B.C.. He later went on to study law in the United States and became the first elected Black judge in American history. A work-space in the sxʷeŋxʷəŋ təŋəxʷ James Bay Public Library has been dedicated to Gibbs. In 2016, the City of Victoria announced that November 19 is considered ‘Mifflin Wistar Gibbs Day’ to honour him.

Another prominent resident of the Ross Bay Cemetery is Rebecca Gibbs, considered to be one of Canada’s first Black female poets. She was born in Philadelphia, lived in Barkerville for many years, and died in Victoria.  

Her most recognized work is The Old Red Shirt. The poem discusses a miner who asks a laundress for help washing his clothes. As she looks at the clothing, she notices how threadbare it is. Gibbs’s poetic talents are prolifically displayed as she reflects on greed and poverty living in the gold rush town of Barkerville, B.C. 

“You could tell she was a compassionate woman from her poems but also as a nurse,” said Marshall of Gibbs’s character.

Although the walkthrough was only an hour long, the history of these successful black pioneers still has plenty of passages to be shared. If their history tells us anything, it is that diversity is something to be celebrated and built upon.

If you are interested in learning more about Victoria’s history, the Old Cemeteries Society conducts weekly walkthroughs of historic cemeteries. The BC Black History Awareness Society also has an extensive network of events and programs to serve and prosper the history of Black communities in B.C.