In the 1850s, a failure of the US justice system—the Supreme Court’s Dred Scott decision—disqualified native-born Black Americans from ever becoming citizens. Among the many results of that decision, several hundred Black residents of California decided to leave the country and find a better home in what is now British Columbia.

Over a century and a half later, yet another failure of the US justice system—the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis policeman—has resulted in a major re-examination, not only by North Americans but by people around the world, of the ingrained injustice that has poisoned American politics from the very beginning.

Canadians have also faced systemic racial injustice in their own country, an injustice that blights the lives of too many of us. The Fathers of Confederation designed their new country so that it could not repeat the errors that had led to the American Civil War. But their own racism echoed that of their American cousins and led to an only slightly politer form of oppression than that practised in the US. White Canadians could safely ignore people of colour and even congratulate themselves on how enlightened they were compared to the Americans.

So, like most British Columbians, I learned only by chance that Black people had been living in the province at least since the gold rush of 1858. Surprised and interested, I pursued the subject. Most historical studies had few references to these Black pioneers, and—though I didn’t know it yet—some writers had distorted the facts.

As my research became more systematic, I found some reliable modern sources, most notably James W. Pilton’s M.A. thesis, completed at the University of British Columbia in 1951. These sources led me in turn to the documents and newspaper accounts that first recorded the Black pioneers’ arrival and early struggles. It was a vivid, dramatic, often violent story, told with the most eloquence by some of the Black immigrants themselves. In their new home, the pioneers had contended not just with the normal hazards and hardships of frontier life, but also with bigotry, political chicanery, epidemics and even murder.

I soon came to respect the Black British Columbians’ courage and resourcefulness in the face of these obstacles; I also wondered why scarcely anyone seemed interested in their experience. Information was available only in fragments. Pilton’s thesis was unpublished. Over the decades, British Columbia’s scholarly journals printed an occasional article on some aspect of the pioneers’ story; somewhat less accurately, so did popular magazines and newspapers. In regional histories of such places as Saltspring Island, Kamloops and the Peace River country, mention was made in passing of Black pioneers such as the Starks, John Freemont Smith and Daniel Williams. With few exceptions, these accounts treated such individuals as curiosities, literally “local colour” and mere anecdotes in the province’s “real” history. When not romanticizing or patronizing the Black residents, or sentimentalizing them, such accounts often betrayed outright racism. Even historians sometimes took as fact the bigoted opinions of the Black pioneers’ White contemporaries.

Those pioneers had played a key role in the early years of the colonies that became British Columbia, and yet the province had forgotten them. Fools and crooks have given their names to British Columbia’s streets and towns; when I began writing the first edition of this book in 1976, the only monument to a prominent Black figure was a drinking fountain dedicated to Joe Fortes, the lifeguard of English Bay beach.

In a book intended for non-specialist readers, I have tried to identify my sources without resorting to footnotes; citations for authors mentioned appear at the end of the book. Those familiar with James Pilton’s thesis will recognize how much I owe to his research. Later work has added to it but has changed few of his findings. Pilton in turn led me to many original sources: newspapers, unpublished memoirs and contemporary accounts such as the books by Lt. R.M. Mayne and Rev. Matthew Macfie. The staff of the BC Archives in Victoria gave me invaluable assistance, as did the staff of the Capilano University Library, the University of British Columbia Library, the Vancouver Public Library and the City of Vancouver Archives. W.E. Bigglestone, archivist of Oberlin College in Ohio, supplied a great deal of information about several Black pioneers who were alumni of the college. John L. Ferguson of the Arkansas History Commission provided a wealth of information on the later years of Mifflin Gibbs. News features by Alan Morley, James K. Nesbitt and Paul St. Pierre provided both useful information and valuable leads to new sources.

A great many individuals offered information and encouragement without which this could never have been completed. These include Chester, Harold, Mary, Norman and Verna Alexander; Emery Barnes; Earl Barnswell; Leon Bibb; John Braithwaite; Rosemary Brown; Bob Chaplin; Jesse Dillard; Irene Duncan; Ruth Ford; Don Fraser; Myrtle Holloman; Cam Hubert; E.J. Image; Edward Meade; Art Sherman; Rudy Spence; Nan E. Tremayne; Peggy C. Walker; R. Whims; Ernie Wilby; Paul Winn; and Tom Wylie. Thanks should also go to the many people who wrote me to express their interest in the book.

Still more helped with the creation of the second edition. I owe a great deal to Wayde Compton and his colleagues at Commodore Books. In addition, I must thank the historians who have recently revealed so much of the Black pioneers’ experience: the late Chuck Davis, Sherry Flett, Christopher Herbert, P. Whitney Lackenbauer, Adele Perry, Frances Hodder Rautenbach, Ruth Sandwell and Quintard Taylor.

This third edition owes more than I can say to my editors at Harbour Publishing, Nicola Goshulak and Rebecca Pruitt MacKenney. Their sensitivity to language and their talent for fact-checking have made an enormous difference, and I’m grateful for, and astounded by, their patient scrutiny of every word. Any remaining errors of fact or interpretation are of course my responsibility. I also thank Harbour Publishing for their faith in the book and their energy in bringing it before a new readership.

The last word on any subject is an epitaph, and the Black citizens of British Columbia are still very much alive. In all its editions, this book has been an informal and incomplete history. I hoped it would encourage professional historians to re-examine the role of the Black community in the province, past and present, and to fill in the gaps and correct my errors of fact and interpretation. Instead, this book has become the standard reference on the subject. Despite its flaws, I hope it will help to remind all British Columbians of how much we owe the Black community, and to give them a fresh appreciation of the contributions that all the peoples of this province have made to our common welfare.