Salt Spring Island Archives

Donate Now Through!


To Be Free: The 150th Anniversary of Black Settlement on Salt Spring Island

Evelyn C. White and Joanne Bealy

Poster for Historical Society presentation on the history of the Lady Minto Hospital
Accession Number Interviewer >Address to the Historical Society
Date >February 11, 2009 Location >Central Hall
Media Audio CD




Speaker 1 0:00
About a year ago, a little over a year ago, these two ladies, Evelyn and Joanne approached us the historical society about doing some work on the history of psaltery, especially the history of the black folks who arrived in Salt Spring. And so we had a number of discussions with them. And they agreed they would put a program on together at one of the historical meetings. So we set it up for February of this month, because that is Black History Month. And they have come forward today to present their findings in their program. So I'd like to introduce them to you. They're in the third row, Evelyn white, and Joanne Bailey, who are going to do our presentation this afternoon. So here's the mic, and away you go. Thank you.

Speaker 2 0:56
I'd like to thank the Saltspring Historical Society, for inviting us to speak at this gathering at such a momentous time in world history. Joanne and I have found previous programs we've attended, informative, and thought provoking, and hope our efforts today continue that tradition. And all the work that I do, I'm mindful that I'm a descendant of enslaved Africans, who were forbidden on the penalty of death, to learn how to read or write. Such was the slave masters understanding of the power of literacy, that blacks were forbidden to obtain this transformative, life affirming skill. And Sylvia Stark, a pioneer, available at local bookstores. One finds this passage about Sylvia's early years in the Leopold household in Missouri, where she and her mother Hannah Estes, were enslaved, quote, Sylvia could not go to school, because there were no schools for African American children. It was against the law to teach a black person to read at that time. But when the Leopold children started learning to read, Silvia listened and learned along with them, when they did their homework, she asked them questions. Sometimes, she helped them figure out problems. End quote. As I'm sure you know, Sylvia and Lewis Stark, were among the first black settlers on Saltspring, which was then as it remains today, Coast Salish territory. Starks road is named after the family. And we are honored to have here today, Nadine Sims, the great granddaughter of Sylvia Stark, and hopefully before the end of this program, Judy Sims, Sylvia's great, great granddaughter. Also, as much as I understand and appreciate the historical significance of the widely used photo of Sylvia start, that grace is this poster. And that's on the screen. Let us not forget that she was in her early 20s When she settled on this island. Indeed, in terms of the transformative history we've been privileged to witness in the past few months, Joanne and I watched Barack Obama accept the nomination for the presidency of the United States of America at the still thriving, vibrant, Stark family homestead. As you might recall, Obama accepted the nomination 45 years to the day after Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his legendary I Have a Dream speech. Before throngs on the Mall in Washington, DC. The South same mall were three weeks ago, millions there and around the globe, saw Obama sworn in as the first black president of the United States. states. This calls to mind and epigraph from Greek playwright Euripides that the cosmic forces delivered to me recently, during one of my frequent visits to the lady Minto thrift shop, and I quote, I have found powers in the mysteries of thought, exaltation in the chanting of the Muses. I have been versed in the reasoning of men. But fate is stronger than anything I have ever known. Fate is stronger than anything I have ever known. I can't help but think that the blacks who set sail from California in 1858, and then settled a year later in Vesuvius, within a few kilometers of this very Hall, we're destined to take the journey, a journey that remarkably finds us here today 150 years later, reflecting on the past, present, and future of Black Heritage on Saltspring. As for facts, we know that the lives of the black pioneers on Saltspring, intersected fate fully in the late 1850s, with that of provincial governor, James Douglas, himself, the son of a Scottish planter, and a woman of African descent, born in Barbados, and raised in Guyana. While we'll never know as much about the mother of James Douglas, as we do about Stanley and Dunham, the mother of another mixed mixed race son, Barack Obama, records confirmed that her name was Martha and Richie. And I like to honor her memory during this gathering. What the records reveal is that at precisely the same time, James Douglas, because of the BC Gold Rush, was looking for skilled workers to replenish a diminishing workforce in the Victoria area, and to help stave off a threatened annexation annexation of this province from the United States. repressive laws in the US, prompted the blacks in California to flee. In the 1850s, a new federal fugitive slave law made it legal for enslaved blacks who'd made it to freedom to be captured and returned to bondage. In California, legislation was passed that prohibited blacks from testifying in court disputes involving whites, a stable, enterprising, and self sufficient group. Blacks in California had generally prospered as farmers, merchants, and trades people, you might call them, the best and the brightest. Concerned about an increasingly hostile climate in advance of the Civil War, leaders of the black community voiced their dismay to the state's legislators at a gathering in 1855. Quote, we own capital to the amount of near $3 million the leaders declared. This has been accumulated by our own industry. Since we migrated to the shores of the Pacific. We point with pride to the general character we maintain in your midst for integrity, industry, and thrift. You require us to be good citizens, while seeking to degrade us. You have enacted a law, excluding our testimony in proceedings were in white persons our parties. At the same time, you freely admit the evidence of white men in your midst, who are ignorant of the first principles of your government, who know not the alphabet. Many colored men who have been educated in your first colleges are not allowed to testify. And wherefore our divine father has created us us with a darker complexion. And quote, then in 1857, the US Supreme Court's Dred Scott decision, ruled that blacks were not citizens, and had no claim on rights that whites enjoy

Speaker 2 10:26
outrage by the ruling that again, intersected faithfully. With what was happening in BC, the blacks decided to leave. distinguished writer may Ruth Sarsfield, born in Montreal, and now a resident of Parksville. Put it this way, quote, imagine American prospectors are flooding your territory. The US wants to push the border north. What do you do? You are going to want immigrants, but not just those who will come take the gold and returned to the US. The blacks from California were prized people coveted immigrants because of their skills. They were men and women of authority, who knew how to work and who had diverse skills and quote. And so the blacks left in 1858, with the core group settling on Salt Spring in 1859. And let me add at this juncture that the $3 million in capital that the African Americans had accumulated when they left California would be valued today, according to the consumer price index, at $65,999,317.38 or about $80.5 million Canadian. Clearly, we are not talking about slackers nearer do wells are in the racist parlance of a previous US Republican administration, welfare queens. In addition to their industriousness and financial acumen, we know that the black settlers placed a high premium on learning and education for in addition to clearing land, cultivating farms, they made it a priority to welcome to the community as Salt Springs very first teacher, a black man, John Craven Jones. Now I want you to meditate on the fact that John Craven Jones could. At the time, he decided to hitch his wagon to Salt Spring. He could have taken his talents and skills as an educator to newly opened are soon to be opened. Historically Black Colleges, such as Morehouse in Atlanta, the alma mater of Martin Luther King, Jr. and filmmaker Spike Lee, amongst others, or fiscal College in Nashville, Tennessee, home of the fame, Jubilee, Fisk Jubilee Singers, and an institution that counts among its esteemed alumni. figures such as W. EB Dubois, a future founder of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and organization without which it's safe to say we would have not witnessed the swearing in of Barack Obama. John Craven Jones could have been in on the ground floor of those still thriving institutions. Instead, he chose to dedicate himself to the use of Saltspring. Here I quote, from the Historical Society's meaning the Saltspring Island historical societies research. Quote, almost all the black settlers came as families with children and John Craven Jones was teaching almost immediately. By 1861, the black settlers were building a big log school house at Central not far from where Central Hall is today. Before that, We know that Mr. Jones was teaching children wherever he could, in rough sheds, or in a family's cabin for a day. So he had two school houses, the one at Central and one further north near where far Fernwood school is today. On Sundays, the schoolhouse was used as a church, where the children were taught Sunday school by a black man named William Robinson, in quote. The historical records also revealed that the education officials reputedly in Victoria show their gratitude for Mr. Jones's dedication as a teacher by refusing to pay him again, he worked without compensation for many years. Is there a teacher on this island who would do that today? Instead, John Craven Jones dependent on the generosity of the families of the children, he taught for support for food, clothing, shelter, they took care of him. As for early black settler, William Robinson, of Robinson road fame. He was among three black men murdered on Saltspring in the late 1860s. The others were a man named Giles Curtis, and an unnamed stone cutter reputedly murdered at South the point. Legend has it that hostilities with First Nations gave rise to the fatalities, and that the deaths contributed to the exodus of blacks from Saltspring, including Lewis Stark, who'd moved to the knight Nanaimo area, where he would also suffer a tragic death. Be that as it may, I'm also of the mind that blacks left after the end of slavery in 1865. On the presumption that freedom and justice would, as promised in the Emancipation Proclamation prevail. It's my thinking that Salt Springs early black settlers would have surely followed the news about the Civil War and its aftermath with rapt attention, just as folks in the past few years have followed the landmark events leading up to the election of Barack Obama. And just as many black expatriates have had their hopes renewed by Obama, and returned to the US. It's likely that many of the Piatt pioneer blacks on Saltspring decided to return home for the same reason, renewed hope. The Historical Society records reveal, for example, that the current site of the Salt Spring Island Golf and Country Club, just down the road, had once been the 100 acre farm of a black settler named Armstead Buckner. It was purchased in 1894 by the Reverend E. F. Wilson, who writing in his diary noted that the asking price for the farm was $1,200. But by paying cash, he got it for, quote, considerably cheaper. In quote.

Speaker 2 18:43
On page 133 of his book Saltspring, the story of an island, Charles Kahn notes that the esteemed man of the cloth, but Mr. Buckner has 100 acre farm for $900, or about 21,000 in today's dollars. Khan also notes in his book that black settler, Abraham Copeland and his family, so they're 153 acres on St. Mary Lake to Thomas and Jane Mowat in 1885. Bottom line, most of the black settlers left those who decided to stay got on with the business of life and contributed what they could to the growth and stability of Salt Springs. People like Jim Anderson, who created Salt Springs first public picnic site near his Walker's hook property. He created a new picnic site when he moved to Isabella point in the 1930s. Writing in her 1969 book Saltspring Island, B. Hamilton put it this way, quote, if one could look back at the 1950s one could see a fine Looking Negro in the parlance of the day, Jim Anderson, a tall, tall, barefoot and carrying Salt Spring special domestic tool, a broom, Jim was off to sweep the beach below his property. Most people find it tiresome to have to sweep their back porch. But Jim Anderson made a hobby of keeping his beach clean, and he was down there every morning. This was Jim Anderson's little park, and he delighted and having people from the north end, come down for picnics. At night high on the Hill would come the sound of Jim's trumpet as he sounded the last post to honor past war veterans. At dawn started neighbors would be roused by a tootling Reveley, the old man could play well, and was sadly missed when he passed away. In quote, we have the Saltspring Historical Society to thank for preserving words and images by and about Salt Springs black pioneers, especially Frank Newman, who has digitalized so many of the images and made them accessible via computer. In recent years, Saltspring has what I've come to view as a renaissance in its black heritage. And when I say Renaissance, I'm not talking necessarily about numbers, population growth, though there are many more people of African descent living on this island than might be discernible to the casual observer. I'm talking about a renaissance or reawakening in the desire among Island folk of all backgrounds, to claim Salt Springs unique Black Heritage. This has been evident in the many invitations I and others have received to speak at local schools, community organizations, and faith groups. There is a desire to celebrate the black pioneers, as well as contemporary blacks now on Saltspring, who were part of a major migration from the Caribbean in the 1960s. Blacks who trace their lineage to long standing BC families, newcomers of African descent, who hail from Europe, from the continent of Africa, children of African descent adopted by white families on Saltspring. Children recently born on Saltspring, who like Barack Obama, and James Douglas, are the progeny of interracial couples. Blacks like myself, who hold dual citizenship in Canada, and the United States, blacks who found respite in the natural landscape, the trees, the water, the farmland, fall fair, the Apple Festival, the film festival, the goon but gumboot Gala, the overall pastoral way of life. For all its glory, we understand that Saltspring is not the idyllic paradise that the travel writers rave about after a mere weekend visit. They don't delve into the controversies over water, the length of the school week, the future of a pioneering local coffee company. They know little, if anything about Canada's shameful history with regard to Indian residential schools, or the internment of Japanese Canadian citizens. And on that note, I'd be remiss if I didn't acknowledge rose Murakami, and her family for donating the land from which they could have made a very tidy sum upon now which sits Salt Springs first public affordable housing complex Murakami gardens, the Murakami's who were imprisoned and had all their land and possessions stolen from them, returned to this same place, started over with nothing and gave back to this community in a gesture of generosity, Self Love, dignity and honor to their parents that can serve as a model for all of us. Thank you rose

Speaker 2 24:46
as we mark the 100 and 50th anniversary of the black settlement on Saltspring let us be inspired by and mindful of the praise that poured in After the 2003 death of BC, heroine, Rosemary Brown, the first black woman elected to political office in Canada, and who is honored on a stamped released last week by Canada Post, Rosemary Brown, it was said of Miss Brown. Quote, she will be remembered for taking on issues that others were afraid to take on, such as human rights and equality. And yet she was also very strong on the bread and butter issues of socio politics, such as supporting working families, she championed equality, and diversity. So let us continue and her tradition. Thank you.

Speaker 3 26:12
So with all of that in mind, as some of you know, already, Evelyn came to me a few years ago, and asked if I would be interested in photographing all of the people of African descent, or at least those who identified as such, who currently live on Salt Spring Island. She was already writing the text in her head for a book that would be led by the photographs she was hoping I would take, and I'm just gonna run this slideshow while I'm speaking, and then we can talk about it together. I said immediately, yes. And over the course of the last couple of years, I've photographed some 50 plus people, individuals from infants to 90 year olds, from people who are direct descendants of the original pioneers, to newcomers on the island, who had no awareness of the islands history before they got here, people who had been here for years, and those here for just a few minutes in comparison. While I was putting this particular slideshow together for that, I was struck by how the concept of family stood out. I believe the first photograph I took for this project was actually Nadine Sims, and she and her daughter, Judy have become like family for both Evelyn and myself. But I was struck by the number of young families, which made me realize more than ever, how important it is to keep Saltspring diverse and accessible if we don't want to lose them all. One of the first people actually the first person that I cold call, I didn't know him and I hate cold calling anybody was Houston Welch. I don't know where if he's gone up there already or not. To ask him if I could take photos of him. And his young son, and his wife, Hannah, and cash was the son. And he grilled me over the phone, about why we were doing the project, and then what my interest as a white person was in doing it. As it turns out, he was the first person to ask me that question. But he wasn't the last. And I'm glad he asked it because I really had to step up and think through all the issues. We like to think we're all one big happy family. But racism is a real thing. And it's important to talk about it. I understood where the question was coming from. There's a whole history of what's known as the white gaze where blacks are seen as not human and all the beautiful things that that entails. But rather, they've been objectified under that gaze as criminals, exotic other, something separate and almost always unequal. What I'm showing here today are just a small number of the photographs I took over the last couple of years. My intent is not to go through the slides, identifying each person, regaling you with stories, the book will be out soon, and then you can read them all for yourself. But what I would like to briefly acknowledge is that Salt Spring, despite its small size, and its image as a predominantly white enclave has a surprising diversity as the slides continue to run, and we can stop them at any point if people have particular questions. I would like to open the discussion up to the audience. Both Evelyn and I welcome your questions, comments, whatever. Every goodbye ain't gone. And Evelyn came up with that. So I don't know. Do you want to talk about where that came from? The history of that phrase,

Speaker 2 30:05
there is a saying, in African American tradition, every shut, I ain't sleep, every goodbye ain't gone. And it has to do with a sense of things are not finished that, again, a shut eye doesn't necessarily mean that it's sleeping and out of it. And just because you've said goodbye, doesn't mean that you're gone. And I found that that resonated very much with the perceived understanding of the black history on Saltspring that at some point, all the blacks had vanished. And so this title was delivered to me, as happens with almost all of the work that I do I receive a cosmic spiritual message from what I like to believe are my African forebears. And I had heard this phrase all my life, every every good every shirt, I ain't sleep every good buying gone. And so we thought that title, every goodbye and gone a photo narrative of Black Heritage on Saltspring with put forth that idea