Epilogue: “. . . and all mankind my countrymen”

In 1958, half a century after McGregor’s rescue from Canton Alley, a recent German immigrant named Fred Herzog snapped a colour photo of a very well-dressed Black man walking down Pender Street in Chinatown. The gentleman held his small daughter’s hand while walking a little dog. And half a century further on, that photo resonates: it challenges stereotypes, reminds us of our complicated past and foretells our multicultural present.

Like the pioneers, the Black citizens of modern British Columbia have contributed more to the larger society than their numbers would seem to warrant, and without gaining the recognition they deserve. The war of complexional distinction is not yet over for them, or for their fellow citizens of all races. A detailed history of the Black communities of modern BC is beyond the scope of this book, but we can at least trace the outlines of that history.

In the last years of the nineteenth century, one or two Black settlers tried unsuccessfully to promote renewed Black immigration to British Columbia. Around the turn of the century, however, numbers of Black emigrants from Oklahoma came through Vancouver en route to homesteads in what is now Alberta—despite Ottawa’s strenuous efforts to discourage such migrants. Some of these settlers eventually moved into British Columbia. At the same time, at least a few Black British Columbians moved to the US, generally for economic reasons. The province’s Black population therefore grew little, if at all, during the early 1900s.

As BC’s centre of economic gravity shifted from Victoria to Vancouver, many Black people moved to the Lower Mainland, and by 1900 they were numerous enough to hold a large and lively Emancipation Day celebration in North Vancouver’s Moodyville. A Province reporter covered the event and described the participants in the usual racist clichés (“dusky maidens . . . a squash-face [Black]”), but it was honest enough to note that the only disturbances were caused by drunken White people.

A small Black community developed in the Strathcona district of Vancouver’s East End. Many of its members were sleeping car porters for Canadian Pacific. The focus of the Black community was the Fountain Chapel AME Church on Jackson Street. Founded in 1908, the church was active until the mid-1950s, though by World War II it was suffering from dwindling congregations and a rapid turnover of ministers—almost all of them Americans.

This community, which by 1914 probably numbered no more than three hundred, was scattered around the southern edge of Chinatown east of Main Street, another community disliked by the White majority, and it eventually was limited to an area known as Hogan’s Alley. As Adam Rudder describes it in his 2004 MA thesis, the neighbourhood was considered a disreputable and dangerous slum by White Vancouverites, though the residents found it safe and friendly. Hogan’s Alley was demolished in the early 1960s to make room for the Georgia and Dunsmuir viaducts (intended as part of a freeway system that fortunately was never built.) With the planned demolition of the viaducts in the early 2020s, Hogan’s Alley is on its way to being restored as a centre of Black culture in BC.

Though World War I made enormous demands on Canada’s manpower, Ottawa did not feel democracy and the Empire quite threatened enough to warrant recruiting Black soldiers for combat duty. The government followed contradictory policies in the first years of the war: while no official barriers stood in the way of Black volunteers, local commanders could reject them if they wished. Most did.

At least one BC unit accepted Black soldiers, however, for Leo Smith—the sole surviving son of John Freemont Smith—went overseas and died in action on September 2, 1918, aged twenty-six. It must have been a terrible blow to the “negro-Siwash family” that Lieutenant Colonel Flick had condemned; John and Mary had already lost their first daughter, Gertrude, and their other son, Clarence. But the great majority of Black men who volunteered for service were assigned to construction and forestry units.

Probably the single most important nonreligious Black institution in the early years of the century was the union of porters employed by the Canadian Pacific and Canadian National Railways. Organized in 1919, it later amalgamated with the Americans as the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. As Cecil Foster has described the porters in his excellent book, They Call Me George, work on the sleeping cars was the best job opportunity Black men had for many decades, though it involved abysmal working conditions. Since Vancouver was the national rail terminus, some porters established homes there where they could lay over for a few days before the next two weeks of endless, sleep-deprived work.

Through their occupation and their connections with the Brotherhood, members were in close touch with larger Black communities elsewhere in North America. As a result, Vancouver’s Black citizens were aware of, and influenced by, such movements as Marcus Garvey’s United Negro Improvement Association, which flourished in the 1920s. A Garveyite group was established in Vancouver and devoted most of its energies to encouraging young Black people to become teachers and nurses.

That such encouragement was considered necessary is an indication that Black British Columbians had lost some ground since the 1860s and 1870s, when their status had been largely middle class and their children had been well educated as a matter of course.

In general, Black organizations seem to have made less public impact on BC in the 1920s and 1930s than Black individuals did. Joe Fortes was the best-known Black man in Vancouver, thanks to his position as lifeguard and special constable at English Bay Beach. John Freemont Smith continued to be active in Kamloops; he had just finished an article for the Kamloops Sentinel the day before he died in his office in the Freemont Block in 1934, aged eighty-three.

George Paris, a noted boxer who first arrived in Vancouver in 1899, had a long career. He was a friend and sparring partner of heavyweight champion Jack Johnson, and when Johnson arrived in town for a match in 1909, no hotel would accept the Black boxer and his White wife. They spent the night at Paris’s home. Paris had twin careers, as a jazz drummer and as a coach and trainer for boxers and runners. At the age of sixty, he became athletic coach for the Vancouver Police Department, a position he held until he was past seventy-five. He died in Vancouver in 1947, aged seventy-eight.

Jay Mack McAdow, better known as “Johnny Mack,” settled in Vancouver in 1910. Four years later he organized the Independent Coloured Political Association (ICPA) to encourage Black people to become naturalized and to educate them politically. The ICPA endured for a quarter-century under Johnny Mack’s leadership as a consistent supporter of the Liberals and of the municipal Non-Partisan Association. He died in 1964, aged eighty-nine.

In the northern Interior, a Virginia-born Black man named Arthur Clore began a long, legendary career as a prospector in 1910; the Clore River and Clore Mountain are named for him. A tough, self-reliant bachelor, he farmed and prospected successfully even through the Depression and was reluctant to accept help from anyone.

“They tell me I should collect the old age pension,” he told an interviewer in the early 1960s, “but I don’t know if I will. I’ve stood on my own two feet so long that it’s hard to hold out your hand for something.” He died in Terrace in 1964, aged eighty-one.

Young Black British Columbians growing up in the years after World War I did not encounter much discrimination and were ill-prepared for it when they did. Earl Barnswell recalled being barred from a Victoria swimming pool when he was about twelve—an incident that left a lasting hurt. And in a case reminiscent of the 1860s, a Vancouver shoemaker named Ed Rogers was refused service in a downtown hotel beer parlour in 1938. He went to court and was awarded damages, but not until two years later.

The casual, almost random nature of such incidents made them especially hard to fight; they may have contributed to the tendency of Black British Columbians to avoid much public involvement and to focus their energies on work and family. Those who grew up in the decades between the wars still remember the warmth and intensity of family ties. Indeed, descendants of many pioneers tended to marry one another. As a result, much of the modern Black community belongs to one vast extended family.

In the 1920s, the Ku Klux Klan established itself in British Columbia, though how firmly is uncertain: the Klan claimed a membership of ten thousand in BC, and five members of the legislative assembly were allegedly also Klansmen in 1925. In that year an American Klan official was refused permission to enter BC from Washington state, but a KKK meeting a few days later attracted two thousand people to the Hotel Vancouver.

Lacking many Black targets, the BC Klan fell back on anti-Asian agitation. In the late 1920s a Vancouver Klan parade drew only two hundred marchers, most of them Americans; the local KKK then rapidly collapsed through internal quarrels. Significantly, the Black community seems to have taken no overt steps against the Klan. This was a wise strategy for the time, since an open attack would have given the Klan more media attention.

In her novel A Proper Marriage, Doris Lessing describes a British colony in Africa which, at the outbreak of World War II, exhorts its Black population to join with the White colonizers in fighting “the monster across the seas . . . whose crimes consisted of invading other people’s countries and forming a society based on the conception of a master race.” If the irony was less apparent in Canada than in Africa, it was still there for many racial minorities, including Black, Chinese, Japanese and Indigenous people. Colour lines still existed in the armed forces, though they were drawn less firmly: Earl Barnswell was rejected by the navy solely on grounds of his race, but the army accepted him. Descendants of other pioneer families also served: Rod Alexander, Charles Winchester, Bob Whims and Tommy Woods were among them.

As in the United States, the war accelerated the pace of social change, making British Columbia’s Black citizens as determined as their American cousins to make their country live up to its wartime egalitarian propaganda. One victory was the end of the ban on non-White use of the Crystal Pool near Stanley Park—a ban all the more outrageous in the neighbourhood where Joe Fortes had taught a whole generation of White children how to swim.

Hotel discrimination of the kind that Jack Johnson had faced in 1909 was a persistent problem. But after World War II it weakened under pressure of increasing publicity. A touring company of Carmen Jones was alleged to have had problems finding accommodations in Vancouver; so did Black jazz groups like the Jimmie Lunceford band. But few incidents were reported after the 1940s.

Black British Columbians no doubt encountered similar problems in finding housing, but rarely publicized them. An exception was in 1948, when Dermont Cromwell, a Winnipeg-born chemical engineer, received threatening letters warning him and his family to get out of their home in southeast Vancouver. Cromwell got the issue onto the front pages of the Sun and Province, and the resulting publicity put an end to the threats.

Job discrimination was harder to fight. Cromwell, now the president of the Canadian Association for the Advancement of Coloured People, charged in 1949 that Black employees in BC were largely consigned to a few occupations thanks to employers’ ignorance. “If they’d try hiring some of us,” he said, “they’d get a different viewpoint.” William J. McLaughlin, business agent of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, made the same point a few months later, accusing both businessmen and municipal employers of anti-Black discrimination.

What little information is available on Black employment in this period tends to confirm the view that Black people were largely confined to occupations such as barbering, cooking and semi-skilled work. While Edward Boynton worked for many years in the Vancouver city works department, and his brother Orville was a manager in the lumber industry until he retired at eighty in 1947, they do not seem to have had many Black fellow workers.

Nevertheless, significant changes were already under way as a new generation began to graduate from universities in BC and elsewhere and then embarked on professional careers.

The BC media reflected the views of the White majority: they paid little attention to Black British Columbians apart from covering discrimination incidents here and there, and running an occasional human interest story. In 1946, for example, the Province ran a story on Jim Anderson, the son of a pioneer Saltspring family. Though she described Anderson in admiring terms, the reporter saw nothing wrong in describing him as a “darky.”

Other accounts tended to dwell on the more sensational aspects of Black history in BC: the tragedies of the Stark family, the theatre “riot” of 1861 and so forth. One account hinted that Black farmers on Saltspring had murdered a Black cattle rustler, without offering a scrap of evidence. And while some stories did deal with important persons and events, the media generally portrayed the Black presence as a minor curiosity of BC’s early days.

As the US civil rights movement gained momentum in the 1950s, however, British Columbia’s newspapers began to mature in their treatment of local stories relating to Black individuals. In 1954 they gave prominent and sympathetic coverage to the case of Dorothy Hewitt, the Jamaican bride of a White English teacher at Shawnigan Lake Boys’ School. A week before classes were to begin, the headmaster ordered her to leave the prestigious private school “before the boys come and see a coloured person here.” Mrs. Hewitt returned to Jamaica, followed by her husband, who had resigned his position; the headmaster declined comment.

The story had a happy ending, as reported in Time Magazine on November 8, 1954:


When Dorothy Hewitt, a pretty ex-model, flew home to Jamaica in September, leaving her schoolteacher bridegroom at his job in Vancouver Island’s exclusive Shawnigan Lake School for boys (TIME, Oct. 4), it seemed doubtful that she would ever return to Canada. According to Dorothy, who is one-eighth Negro, Shawnigan Lake’s Headmaster G.P. Kaye had asked her to leave rather than embarrass the school by remaining as a faculty wife. John Hewitt joined his wife in Jamaica, and sent a letter of resignation to Kaye.

The case created a sensation in British Columbia and in Jamaica, where Dorothy’s father, Noel Frederick Holtz, is accountant general of the Jamaican government. The Jamaican House of Representatives called upon its government to protest to Ottawa. Dorothy received a stream of sympathetic messages from Canadians, and the British Columbia Teachers’ Federation said it would help find John Hewitt a job in Canada.

Heartened by the quick turn of events, the Hewitts announced last week that they would return to British Columbia. “After the wholehearted and spontaneous support shown to us by the Canadian people . . . we feel that there is nothing ‘Canadian’ about the incident,” Dorothy explained. “We just want to be allowed to put all this unhappiness behind us.”


While it’s encouraging to see that British Columbians were beginning to reject generations of prejudice, it’s also striking that Ms. Hewitt’s precise one-eighth Blackness was still, in 1954, considered a point worth mentioning.

As we have seen, Black British Columbians rarely formed racially oriented organizations except in the face of a specific threat, and such groups were relatively short-lived. A break with this pattern occurred in 1958 with the founding of the BC Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (BCAACP). If its organizers—who included Frank Collins, Emmitt Holmes and Howard Fair—perceived a threat, it was a subtle one: Black communities were going through rapid and profound change in BC as elsewhere, but they lacked adequate communication with one another and with the White community. The BCAACP set out to correct this problem.

From its inception, the association was involved in both long- and short-term activities. A Black community had first to be identified and described, both for itself and for the larger society. Widespread ignorance and prejudice had to be replaced with knowledge and understanding, and racism had to be fought.

Self-definition began in 1958 with the compilation of a list of 250 Black citizens in BC; a year later, the “census” expanded to 950. The association set up links with similar groups in Alberta and the US; though it took its name from the Americans’ National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the BC group remained independent of it. In 1961, Emancipation Day was revived as a day of celebration—ninety-eight years after Victoria’s Black community had set off cannons in Beacon Hill Park to mark the freeing of Black Americans.

In the mid-1960s the BCAACP supported Martin Luther King’s demonstrations in Selma, Alabama. A few years later it gave support to West Indian students involved in protests at Sir George Williams University in Montreal. In the early 1970s, it raised money for African drought relief. Intentionally or not, the association found itself affirming Gibbs’s assertion that “the world is my country and all mankind my countrymen.” Though few in numbers, the Black communities of British Columbia were aware that they formed part of an immense, complex, worldwide community that was itself still searching for a new identity.

The BCAACP also set out to educate both its members and the public. Its efforts included a study group on South Africa, a scholarship fund and interventions with BC school districts found to be using racially biased materials. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, for example, a grade 4 workbook with a racially offensive title was being used in BC classrooms. In 1964 the association objected to the use of Joel Chandler Harris’s book Uncle Remus in Abbotsford school libraries. The request was denied, but it did call attention to the problem.

Investigating racist incidents was never a major activity of the association, but it was involved in a number of such cases. Though each incident appeared isolated, and was soon forgotten by most British Columbians, the cases formed a familiar North American pattern. In 1959 the Hudson’s Bay Company was advertising sweaters in a shade described by a racially offensive term. In 1960 a Vancouver motel refused to rent to Black guests. In 1962, harassment of Black travellers by immigration officials at the border became a serious problem. A “Sambo’s Pancake House” opened in Burnaby in 1964. And throughout the early 1960s, well-known business firms in the Lower Mainland refused to hire Black employees.

The BCAACP succeeded in fighting some of these cases, but not all: the HBC changed its advertising, and the pancake house changed its name, but the racially offensive children’s book stayed in the schools and a court upheld the motel’s discriminatory policy.

In the 1970s, BC’s Black community made progress, but slowly. Although Vancouver’s first Black policeman joined the force in the 1970s, his colleagues continued to harass Black people on the street, including internationally famous entertainer Leon Bibb. The BCAACP won battles against housing discrimination, but Black students at Simon Fraser University were still coping with suspicious border officials in 1972. Even in the late 1970s, Black travellers visiting Canada from the US or the West Indies continued to encounter problems at the border. Racial profiling was not invented after 9/11.

Nevertheless, Black British Columbians in the 1970s found White attitudes growing more positive—sometimes for ironic reasons. Canadians’ exposure to American mass media was beginning to show them new images of Black individuals as sharp-witted, decisive, tough and elegant. Shaft, alas, was no less a stereotype than Stepin Fetchit had been in the 1930s.

White Canadians, especially young people, tended to accept this new image as uncritically as their grandparents had accepted the comic “darkies” in Maclean’s stories of the 1920s. As a result, a 1976 survey of racial attitudes in Lower Mainland schools found that White students generally considered it “cool” to be Black—though the same students were openly biased against South Asian people, who were more numerous and less favoured by the media.

Surprisingly, few Black British Columbians after Mifflin Gibbs chose to write about their experiences as individuals and as a community. But as Wayde Compton has shown in his book Bluesprint, a powerful spoken culture thrived from the beginning of the twentieth century, recorded as oral history.

A few Black British Columbians wrote poetry, but none seems to have explored fiction until Truman Green. In the early 1970s, he privately printed A Credit to Your Race, describing a Black teenager’s unhappy affair with a White girl. Though its plot is melodramatic, the story is convincing where it depicts an uncomprehending White society: a Surrey schoolteacher, for example, asks the protagonist’s sister if she can “speak Negro.” (Green’s brother James, who has been active in Vancouver politics, has written an unpublished memoir of growing up poor in Surrey.)

In his portrait of an uncertain, isolated young man trying to find a relationship with a society that would rather ignore him, Truman Green defined the general status of Black British Columbians in the 1960s and 70s. Since then a new generation of young Black writers has portrayed itself with increasing complexity and sophistication.

As in the pioneer period, Black British Columbians have often pursued urban middle-class occupations. Perhaps because such fields as teaching and social work opened to them relatively early, they were, by the late 1970s, employed in social service professions out of all proportion to their numbers, but were relatively rare in medicine and the law. (The Trinidad-born Romilly brothers, Val and Selwyn, are notable exceptions: both were prominent judges, often involved in cases involving discrimination and hate crimes.)

The social service professions have also provided some remarkable Black politicians, including MLAs Rosemary Brown and Emery Barnes, and North Vancouver alderman John Braithwaite.

All three began their careers in the 1970s, and all three won strong, repeated support at the polls. Not only were all three members of a very small racial minority, all were from outside BC and two were naturalized Canadians. All began as social workers strongly concerned with human problems in a province largely apathetic toward such problems.

But John Braithwaite topped the polls when he first ran for alderman in the City of North Vancouver, and Emery Barnes and Rosemary Brown were among the few New Democratic Party MLAs who survived the Social Credit landslide in the 1975 provincial election.

Born in Ontario in 1929, Braithwaite gained his BA and MSW at the University of Toronto. In 1956 he moved to BC and began to work at North Shore Neighbourhood House; a year later, at twenty-seven, he became its executive director. Active in municipal politics by the nature of his job, Braithwaite ran for city council in 1972. After serving for four years as a highly popular and effective alderman, he stepped away from politics for a while; re-elected, he served on council until 2002. The city honoured him with the creation of John Braithwaite Community Centre in Lower Lonsdale.

Emigrating from Jamaica, where she had been born in 1930, Rosemary Brown encountered racism and sexual discrimination in early-1950s Canada. After moving to BC and starting a family, she continued her career in social work. Confronting the twin problems of racism and sexism, Brown ran for the NDP in 1972 more to make a point than to win. But she did win, launching a fourteen-year career in politics that included a dramatic race for the leadership of the federal New Democrats in 1975.

Brown went on to serve as a professor of women’s studies at Simon Fraser University, CEO of a development agency run by and for women, as well as chief commissioner of the Ontario Human Rights Commission. She died in 2003.

Born in Louisiana in 1929, Emery Barnes was a professional football player, first with the Green Bay Packers and then, from 1962 to 1964, with the BC Lions. Leaving football for social work, Barnes was elected to the legislature in 1972, where he served until 1996; in 1994 he became the first Black person to be elected Speaker of any Canadian legislature. Barnes was appointed to the Order of British Columbia in 1995. After his death in 1998, the City of Vancouver named a park on Seymour Street in his memory.

Black contributions to BC’s political life have also included strong grassroots support to all political parties and to various community action groups. Their political efforts helped to pave the way to the exuberantly multicultural society that began to emerge in the 1980s—across Canada, but especially in British Columbia.

With the benefit of historical hindsight, we can see that the passengers on the Commodore in April 1858 foreshadowed the experience of future immigrants. They would come in hope of economic success and political equality; they would encounter political corruption and incompetence, demagoguery and stereotyping. Their adversaries would claim they couldn’t “assimilate,” when the newcomers demonstrated again and again that they could adopt the competitive, free enterprise democratic values of Canada and prosper under them.

The Chinese community did it after the Black pioneers, and then the Japanese and South Asian communities. In the 1970s, Vietnam’s boat people and central Africa’s Ismailis recapitulated the Black immigrants’ experience. By the end of the century, Korean, African and Latin American immigrants followed in the original Black pioneers’ footsteps. We are seeing Afghan and Syrian immigrants doing the same thing in the third decade of the twenty-first century.

It’s tempting to speculate on what might have happened if Sir James Douglas had been able to keep his word to the Pioneer Committee. No doubt Black migration would have continued, even after the end of the Civil War and the deceptive promises of Reconstruction. Modern BC might well have experienced some of the racial tensions of the US, but it would also have become a livelier, more complex and more honest society. Sometime in the 1880s, Mifflin Gibbs might have become premier of British Columbia, or a businessman on the scale of a Dunsmuir.

When asked why he had come to Canada, Arthur Clore replied, “There is hope in this country. Yes, that is what has kept me here—the difference between hope and no hope.”

The old prospector chose his words well. There is hope in this country. The achievement of full racial equality is yet to come.