On an island now known for its well-educated citizenry and penchant for social
justice, the story of its first teacher makes a poignant link to the past.
If we could step inside Salt Spring's first log schoolhouse built at Central in the early 1860s, we would witness children absorbing Latin and other staples of a classical education, subjects more likely taught in private schools in 19th-century centres of civilization.
In 1861, their teacher was John Craven Jones, a 27-year-old African American from North Carolina, who was educated at Oberlin College in Ohio, the first higher-learning U.S. institution to accept blacks and women.
Salt Spring resident Arlene Richardson has devoted parts of the past decade to researching Jones' life, bringing into play her anthropology degree and abiding curiosity for life stories.
"He was one of the most educated people in the province," says Richardson.
Jones attended Oberlin for six years, graduating in 1856 as one of the first blacks with an arts degree.
Richardson has scoured documents and correspondence in provincial and Salt Spring archives, and corresponded with Jones' descendant Cameron Faulkener of North Carolina, who sent photographs of Jones’ progeny and filled in the story before and after his Salt Spring era.
"I discovered their name two doors down from the address where Jones had died. That's the marvel of the Internet and the marvel of their staying in one place for a long time."
Jones married Almira Scott, daughter of active abolitionists, after returning to North Carolina, and their descendants maintained the family tradition of political and educational activism.
“John Craven’s daughter Madge married a senator. Then they had a son who married Margaret Evans, a college instructor who taught Jessie Jackson,” Richardson says.
"He was born into a Resistance family and his father helped train blacks to pursue skilled and professional training.”
"Jones’ life is really the story of the struggle for ideals of democracy, liberty, freedom and civil rights."
Learning Salt Spring's first teacher was emblematic of an entire people's rich history has been rewarding for Richardson. And her enthusiasm was rekindled when she met Evelyn White, whose is gaining notoriety as the writer of Alice Walker: A Life, the biography published last fall by W.W. Norton & Company.
White was raised in Gary, Indiana and lived in California for years before moving to Salt Spring in 2002. She’s thrilled to be privy to Richardson's research.
White knew the island was first settled by U.S. black people seeking a better life, but she was not familiar with Jones' story.
Over tea at Barb's Buns last month, surrounded by islander Gene Grooms' stunning portraits of his family and Salt Spring black pioneer descendants, the two women's research and analysis complement each other as the discussion unfolds.
Richardson explains how she got started.
"When I went into the archives locally I had no idea of what I'd find. I just had a question in my mind: why did the blacks leave?"
She unfolds a map showing where African Americans pre-empted significant tracts of land on Salt Spring beginning with the 1859 arrival of men from at least 13 families. Map names include Scott, Isaac, Anderson, Buckner, Stark, Lester and Robinson.
Jones had 200 acres from Upper Ganges Road at Churchill Road across to Booth Canal.
"All around Central is black, and where the school is built it's built by the black community and it's a black community trying to get school funding," says Richardson.
“Parents fought hard over the years, building a school, forming a board of trustees and following all the necessary protocols to gain recognition as a school district. Despite the fact that Salt Spring had more than enough students to qualify, 11 years would pass before the community would secure a salary for Jones.”
Even then he was only granted “third-class qualifications at the lowest rate of pay,” says Richardson, and only for two years before the Board of Education questioned his appointment.
The resulting conflict saw Jones dismissed by the provincial board in 1875. Parents were furious and refused to send their children to school.
Since he was not paid by the government, Jones relied on community goodwill to survive.
Yet one personal letter Richardson found illustrates that generosity may not have been as bountiful as once thought.
"Basically [in the letter] he's making a plea to someone to bring him food, so I knew things weren't all wonderful at that time for him."
When personal hardship is added to the experiences with education officials, Richardson is not surprised Jones and others did not remain on Salt Spring.
Being American in a British colony was even an obstacle, with true allegiances sometimes questioned.
"When asking for school funds, they always expressed their loyalty to the Crown," notes Richardson.
White admires the effort needed to decipher material like hand-written letters, which differs from researching a still-living high-profile individual as she did with Alice Walker.
Much of the archive material is correspondence with school authorities. "I was peering through everything looking for the word 'Jones,'" says Richardson.
Seeing Jones' history take shape under Richardson's hand has also been inspiring for White.
"So much of what blacks in America usually see is stuff out of slavery and the reconstruction period and struggle. To see these photos of a prominent, educated black family is very uplifting and indicative of how we don't know the whole story."
White is also pleased that Jones is now getting the attention he deserves through Richardson's efforts, which will ideally result in a book being published at some point.
"It's so moving to me that . . . so many years later his plea has been heard, and I think that speaks of the human bond . . . We are all connected, and sooner or later we will all touch each other in that heart place.”