Contrary to the myth that Black population in British Columbia is both quite recent and negligible, there is in fact a rich Black history and presence in B.C. that can be traced back to 1858. The following are a few examples of significant events that helped shaped B.C.’s Black history:
1858: Salt Spring Island Settlement
In response to the gold rush and need for skilled labour, Black folks from California were invited to take up land in B.C. – in particular on Salt Spring Island – by the then governor James Douglas. Granted rights that had been denied to them in the United States, the British colony of B.C. was seen by Black folks in United States as a land of freedom and opportunity. Once in B.C., Black settlers were given land, were allowed to vote, and formed a local militia.
Between August 1867 and December 1868, three Black people were murdered in the tiny community of Vesuvius Bay. This struck fear in the community and led to racial tensions that threatened social cohesion in the area.
1859: Victoria Pioneer Rifle Corps
When the all-white volunteer fire department of Victoria, B.C. refused Black people in their ranks, a number of Black people volunteered their services to governor James Douglas as a militia unit. As a result, the Victoria Pioneer Rifle Company (VPRC), also known as the African Rifles, was officially sworn in on July 1861 with about 50 Black men.
The Royal Navy supplied drill sergeants and the volunteers built a drill house which soon became a social centre for the Black community.
However, pressure from white folks made Douglas pay less attention to the corps even though he was overall supportive. This pressure and subsequent disengagement by the governor resulted in VPRC being mostly inactive by 1863.
When James Douglas retired in 1864, the VPRC were not allowed to officially attend his farewell banquet. With the arrival of the new governor, Arthur Kennedy, the VPRC were again refused entry to various ceremonies and, by the spring of 1865, the unit ended up being disbanded.
1923: Hogan’s Alley
Hogan’s Alley was the unofficial name for what became the core of Vancouver’s first concentrated Black community in 1923, a T-shaped intersection at the southwestern edge of Strathcona and in the midst of a mixed neighbourhood. The Black community had established itself in the area due to the area’s proximity to the Great Northern Railway station where many of the men worked as porters.
Beginning in 1967, the City of Vancouver began levelling the western half of Hogan’s Alley to construct an interurban freeway running though the Alley and Chinatown.
The city expropriated homes and lands for these developments, reflecting the institutional racism intrinsic to North American land-use and planning where Black or Chinese neighborhoods were considered as most disposable and expendable and with least political power to fight back.
The freeway was ultimately stopped, but construction of the first phase – the Georgia viaduct – was completed in 1971. Since the demise of Hogan’s Alley, no identifiably concentrated Black businesses and restaurants have emerged in Vancouver. In recent years, there have been significant efforts to commemorate the neighbourhood through community and government initiatives.
Thank you to Dr. Handel Wright for suggesting this topic and providing feedback on this post.