October 2021 is Women’s History Month in Canada

Canada’s 2021 Theme is Woman Making History Now … and we remember and celebrate those women who blazed the trail for us to do so … “If we stand tall it is because we stand on the shoulders of many ancestors.” African proverb

Sherry Edmunds-Flett, an historian and one of our members writes “ One hundred and forty women of African descent were identified as immigrating to Vancouver Island and neighboring Saltspring Island during the first decade of settlement 1858-1868. The majority were under the age of 35 years; many were single emigrating with their families. Many were in their late thirties or early forties; only four women were 50 years of age or older (Hannah Estes, Rebecca Gibbs, Emma Stewart; and Ellen Copeland, at age 56 was the oldest female immigrant).”

Sherry also notes “these women existed at the intersection of gender, race and class in the nineteenth century.” Today we recognize this “intersectionality” creates overlapping and interdependent systems of discrimination or disadvantage.

Kimberlé Crenshaw, lawyer, activist and scholar in relationship to Black women and the law in the United States. “The legal system fails Black women because it did not acknowledge, or address, systemic inequalities linked to the intersections of racism and sexism.” Olena Hankivsky, a professor at Simon Fraser University’s School of Public Policy, notes, “according to an intersectionality perspective, inequities are never the result of single, distinct factors. Rather, they are the outcome of intersections of different social locations, power relations and experiences.” British Columbia’s Office of the Human Rights Commission. Disaggregated Data Report Pg. 46

Here is a selection of 9 trail-blazers from our collection
Black and white professional studio portrait woman upper torso standing in long sleeved formal dress, hair parted in the centre, pulled back into a bun

Nancy Alexander, Community Leader and Matriarch. Nancy worked alongside her husband, carpenter Charles Alexander feeding the crews to build the first Shady Creek Church in Central Saanich and the first public school in South Saanich. In July 1995 the Alexander family gathered for a reunion in Victoria. “Victoria’s Alexanders: Pioneering Black family back for reunion. Over 200 descendants of one of Victoria’s oldest and most successful pioneer families are coming from all across Canada and the United States.” Richard Watts, Times Colonist, July 15, 1995. Today more than 100 descendants of the Alexander family still live in British Columbia.

Rosemary Brown Commemorative Stamp

Rosemary Brown Advocate for Social Justice and gender equity, politician; Canada’s first Black female member of a provincial legislature and the first woman to run for leadership of a federal political party.
Rosemary Brown also served as the Ruth Wynn Woodward Endowed Chair in Women’s Studies at SFU during 1986-7.

On May 6, 2021 at this year’s Rosemary Brown Memorial Symposium, Dr. June Francis received the Rosemary Brown Award for Women. Dr. June Francis , MBA, LLB, PhD is the Director of the Institute for Diaspora Research and Engagement at SFU and Associate Professor at Beedie school of Business. She is Co-Founder of the Co-Laboratorio project that works across sectors and actors to foster racial, ethnic and gender equity.

Sydna (Dandridge) Francis: Suffragist, abolitionist, devoted daughter, wife and mother.

Sydna Edmonia Robella (Dandridge) Francis was born in 1815 in Virginia. This story tells of her becoming President of the Ladies’ Literary and Progressive Improvement Society of Buffalo; her family struggles in Oregon; her early days on Vancouver Island and how she persevered against the backdrop of her husband, Abner Hunt Francis’s political and financial troubles; and how to her death continued to demonstrate compassion in her community.


Rebecca Gibbs, One of Canada’s first Black female poets

One of her poems “The Old Red Shirt” written in 1869 tells the story of the sometime dashed hopes of a miner. This poem is on her grave marker.

Barbara Howard

Barbara Howard, Athlete, Teacher, Advocate for Youth. First black woman athlete to represent Canada in an International competition and the first person from a visible minority to be hired as a teacher by the Vancouver School Board.

Studio portrait upper body middle aged woman in formal dress with collar, facing camera hair parted and pulled back

Nancy Lester, Abolitionist, Community Leader. Nancy Lester was born in 1810 in New Jersey. She arrived in Victoria with her husband and teen-aged children. In June 1858 prior to arriving in Victoria, Nancy wrote to her abolitionist friend, William Still “… it seems a providential provision for us who are so oppressed. I feel somewhat encouraged to believe that ere long we may find a home for our children in the right place”

Ruby Sneed

Ruby Sneed an accomplished pianist, singer and teacher. She Introduced the Suzuki Teaching Method for Piano to the Vancouver Academy of Music in 1973.

sepia photo, senior woman seated at table looking out a window, hands cupped around a mug placed on a newspaper open on the table

Marie (Stark) Wallace, Family Historian
Marie was born on Salt Spring Island circa 1868. By 1901 she was living in the Vancouver, Burrard District with her husband Joseph Wallace and there raised 5 children. When Marie was in her nineties she wrote the history of her family. “The history of the Stark family is a moving chronicle of the first negro settlers on Salt Spring Island. In her manuscript Marie traces her routes back to a town in Missouri where her father, Howard Estes, bought the family’s freedom from slavery.”

After her death, her manuscript was published in The Gulf Islands Driftwood newspaper as an 11-part series that ran for 4 months from November 1979 to February 1980. This photo was taken in 1966, age 98. Marie is buried with her younger sister Louise at the Ganges Community Cemetery on Salt Spring Island.

In addition to being solely responsible for raising children, women contributed to the household economy in various ways and here are 2 examples of fundraising for local and broader causes.

January 9, 1862 $100.00 for operating funds for the Victoria Pioneer Rifle Corps
January 3, 1863 $150.00 for the “contrabands” who were Black troops fighting in the American Civil War

Additional Sources:
* Sherry-Edmunds Flett PHD thesis on the history of African Canadian women in British Columbia from 1858-1938. Chapter 3 (draft) “A Home for our Children in the Right Place”
*Richard Watts “Victoria’s Alexanders: Pioneering Black family back for reunion” Times Colonist 1995-July 15 C8
*Maria (Stark) Wallace “The History of the Stark Family”
Image Credits
*Nancy Alexander: From the studio portrait of Charles and Nancy taken for their 60th wedding anniversary
*Rosemary Brown. Canada Post Black History Month Commemorative stamp issued Feb. 2, 2009
*Rebecca Gibbs Grave marker. BC Black History Awareness Society Collection
*Barbara Howard is being inducted @BCSportsHall (2012) in the Pioneer category. She is a LEGEND!” by miss604 licensed with CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
*Nancy Lester. Image A-01627 Courtesy of Royal BC Museum and Archives
*Ruby Sneed. Courtesy of the personal collection of Theresa Lewis
*Emma Stark. Image 989024024 Courtesy of Salt Spring Island Archives. Professional Photographer.
*Marie Wallace. Salt Spring Island Archives/Gulf Islands Driftwood Archives, August 19, 1965
*Post Photo of fall leaves, Craig Bradford, Unsplash