The First …

Artist, Dentist, Judge, Juror, Policemen, Politician, Teacher, Television Host. In acknowledging these “Firsts”, we can reflect on the advice Gibbs received, before deciding to migrate to Vancouver Island, from Julia Griffith, the English comrade of abolitionist Frederick Douglass: “What! Discouraged? Go do some great thing.”

Here are some “firsts” for Blacks in  British Columbia …

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Sepia toned photo, man in senior years sitting in a chair with a cane leaning against his leg. In the background is a house and ivy hedgeCarpenters by trade, Charles Alexander and Fielding Spotts built the first school in South Saanich in 1862 and became school trustees.  At the same time Alexander and Spotts were involved in the establishment of the original Shady Creek Church, a community church, including Methodists and Baptists. 
Image Charles Alexander  circa 1900. M01016 Courtesy City of Victoria Archives


man in legislation robes standing behind desk , speakers mace on desk

In March 1994 Emery Barnes becomes the first Speaker in B.C. to be elected by a secret ballot of the MLAs.  Barnes was the first Black person to hold this position in any Canadian province.
Image courtesy of Office of the Speaker, Province of British Columbia


Grafton Tyler Brown art exhibit

Grafton Tyler Brown lived in BC for a short time and while here painted landscapes of the Greater Victoria area and BC’s Mainland. He is considered the first professional Black artist on the Pacific North West AND the first to hold an art exhibition in Victoria.
Image A-08775 Courtesy of the Royal BC Museum and Archives, Grafton Tyler Brown in his Victoria studio (1883)



ROSEMARY BROWNRosemary Brown Commemorative Stamp

Rosemary Brown is the first women of African descent to serve in a provincial legislature in Canada, when she was elected in 1972 and served until 1986. In 1975, she ran for the leadership of the Federal NDP Party.
In February 2009, Canada Post Corporation issued this commemorative stamp showing Rosemary Brown standing before the BC Legislature Buildings.
Eleanor Collins Commemorative Stamp issued Jan 21-2022

Eleanor Collins is the first woman in Canada and one of the first artists of colour in North America to host her own national weekly television music variety show.
The very first Eleanor show aired on June 12, 1955. She has received many awards and honors and on January 21 2022 Canada Post Corporation issued this commemorative stamp.

Joe Fortes stamp
Initially Seraphim Joseph Fortes took it upon himself to be the English Bay lifeguard while teaching generations of children to swim. In 1900, Joe became an official employee of the city and received a monthly salary. In 1910 the City of Vancouver recognized him as the first English Bay lifeguard and made him a special constable, qualifying him to carry a revolver. This commemorative stamp was issued in February 2013.


newspaper notice
In 1865 Abner Hunt Francis was the first Black elected as a Victoria City councillor and sworn in as a representative of the Yates Street Ward, one year before Mifflin Gibbs was elected and served as a councillor. However, the next day Francis resigned to avoid what was generally agreed and described as unfairness in not recognizing his property ownership. Francis’ notice of resignation, ‘YATES STREET WARD” effective November 15, 1865 was posted in the Times Colonist, November 16, 1865, pg.2

Portrait. Black male age 50, dressed semi-formally wearing jacket, vest, winged-collar white shirt with a striped pattern bow-tie

Mifflin Wistar Gibbs was the first Black to be elected and serve on Victoria City Council. He served as a Councillor from 1866 to 1869 representing the James Bay Ward. While on council Gibbs chaired the council’s ways and means committee and from time-to-time acted as Deputy Mayor. Gibbs returned to Little Rock, Arkansas in 1870, passed the bar exam, became an attorney. Three years later, he was elected there as a city judge, the first Black judge elected in the United States.

Portrait circa 1883, Image B-01601 Courtesy of Royal BC Museum and Archives

Rebecca Gibbs Gravemarker at the Ross Bay Cemetery

Rebecca Gibbs is one of Canada’s first Black female poets; though very little is known about her. A sister-in-law of Mifflin Gibbs, she spent most of her time in Barkerville which is when she wrote and published 3 poems. One of her poems, “The Old Red Shirt” is printed on her grave marker at Ross Bay Cemetery. Image © BC Black History Awareness Society, all rights reserved


Giscome Portage Trail sign hanging from timber arch of tree-lined grassy trail

In 1862 Jamaican born Robert Giscome and his Bahamian partner Henry McDame explored forests, lakes, rivers and mountains in central and northern BC, about a 330 mile trek.  Led by a Lheidli T’enneh guide they reached their destination of Fort McLeod where they were greeted with a gun salute in their honour as they were the first non-Indigenous people to travel this route.  Giscome, Giscome Portage, Giscome Rapids and McDame Creek were named for this duo.  
Entrance to Giscome Portage Trail courtesy of Kevin Creamore, Prince George
Barabara Howard with souvenir koala bear
Barbara Howard, born and raised in Vancouver is the first black woman athlete to represent Canada in an International competition at the 1938 British Empire Games held in Sydney, Australia from February 5th to 12th; and the first person from a visible minority to be hired as an educator by the Vancouver School Board (1948).
Image Credit: A 17-year-old Barbara Howard holds a gift from a fan, a stuffed koala bear. Vancouver Archives Reference Code: AM54-S4-2-: CVA 371-1643 Public Domain: Photographer: Major James Matthews


senior man standing in umpires uniform, baseball field in the background

Doug Hudlin was the first non-American to be invited to umpire the Little League World Series in Williamsport, Pennsylvania in 1967 and in 1974; a founding member and first president of the British Columbia Baseball Umpires Association. He was also a founding member of the British Columbia Black History Awareness Society. In 2017, Doug was inducted, posthumously, to the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame.
Image courtesy of Barbra Hudlin
HARRY JEROMEbronze statue side facing man running with arms outstretched

Harry Jerome made headlines when he ran the 100 metre dash in 10.0 seconds at the Canadian Olympic trials in Saskatoon in July 1960. This equaled the world record set by German sprinter Armin Hary a month earlier; the first Canadian to hold, officially, a world track record.  Statue of Harry Jerome in Stanley Park in Vancouver, British Columbia is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 



Black & white portrait of older male in suit with full white beard

John Craven Jones, middle brother of three who arrived in BC circa 1858. Jones is the first Black teacher in the Province and first teacher on Salt Spring Island circa 1859 to 1875.

Shown is portrait of John Craven Jones circa 1885, after returning to the United States; he continued teaching for about 20 years. Image 2005005001 Courtesy of Salt Spring Island Archives

WILLIAM ALLEN JONESWilliam Allen Jones - The Barkerville Dentist

William Allen Jones is the oldest of three brothers who arrived in BC circa 1858. He and his youngest brother Elias initially mined in the Cariboo, returned to Ohio, William studied dentistry at Oberlin College and then returned to settle in Barkerville. William Jones is the first dentist (1886) to be granted a licence under the British Columbia Dental. Image is commissioned pencil sketch by Gene Grooms, local artist (1994); ©BC Black History Awareness Society

b&w portrait, older man, balding with salt & pepper short beard and sideburns, dressed in suit with vest, white shirt and bowtie

In February 1860 Peter Lester was the first Black person to sit as a juror in B.C. However, Black men were not on the “official list of jurors maintained by the Sheriff’s office” as had been promised by Douglas, until November 1872; and only after they petitioned the Legislative Assembly requesting their names be added to the official list. Their first petition in March 21, 1872 was lost 5 to 13. Image A-01626 Courtesy of Royal BC Museum and Archives


judge seated at desk

Honourable Selwyn Romilly is the first Black person to serve on the British Columbia Supreme Court. Prior to his appointment he served on the Provincial Court in Terrace and then Burnaby. Image: © Selwyn Romilly all rights reserved

Historical plaque on post

 In 1912, the Scott family were the first Black family to settle in Surrey. The plaque, installed in April 2019 reads: Neighbourhood History:  Henry Houston Scott Park.  The plaque tell us Henry, his wife Amy and their three children Roy, Jesse and Benola arrived from Oklahoma; purchased and farmed on seven acres. The orchard is all that remains. “In spring the blossoms tell of the Scott family’s endeavours to build a new life in Canada.”  More




Carpenters by trade, Charles Alexander (1824-1913) and Fielding Spotts assisted in building the first school in South Saanich in 1862 and became school trustees.

At the same time Alexander and Spotts were involved in the establishment of the original Shady Creek Church, a community church, including Methodists and Baptists.

Fielding Spotts was also a member of the congregation that established the First Baptist Church in Victoria.

Image (circa 1900) F-00651 Courtesy of Royal BC Museum and Archives


Emma Stark

Emma Stark is the first Black teacher on Vancouver Island 1874 at the Cranberry-Cedar School located near Nanaimo.  Emma grew up on Salt Spring Island and completed high school near Nanaimo. She was appointed as teacher after her graduation.  The photo is believed to have been taken at a portrait studio in Nanaimo. Image: Emma Stark, 1875, 989024010 Courtesy of Salt Spring Archives. Professional Photographer.

Victoria Pioneer Rifle Corps standing in ranks with band membersIn the spring of 1860, 40 to 50 black men were enrolled in the Victoria Pioneer Rifle Corps. This first corps of all Black men, was officially sworn in on July, 1861.

In the photo about 20 members stand in their ranks with the British flag in the background. A brass band formed part of the unit; a few musicians can be seen on the left. At the bottom “Victoria Pioneer Rifle Corps. Also known as Sir James Douglas Colored Regiment” Image F-00641 Courtesy of Royal BC Museum and Archives

#colspan#"Hope Meets Action: Echoes Through the Black Continuum"

woman standing viewing light box with images and text

The first provincial Black History exhibition in BC.

Opened on August 14, 2021 at the Royal BC Museum, Victoria BC until April 14th 2022. This exhibition will continue as a travelling exhibition to tour the Province.  Image courtesy of Royal BC Museum and Archives