News / Vancouver

B.C.’s Salt Spring Island a beacon to black pioneers

The stirring 1963 “I Have A Dream” speech by Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. stands as a landmark in the black freedom movement in North America.

But more than a century before King’s plea for racial justice, a group of blacks, weary of discrimination, left the U.S. and settled on B.C.’s Salt Spring Island, located in Georgia Strait between Vancouver Island and the Mainland.

Today, direct descendants of the black pioneers still reside in the pastoral landscape also hailed as a vibrant artist colony.

I was thrilled to discover Salt Spring’s black history when fate brought me to the island about a decade ago.

The intriguing saga begins with Sir James Douglas (1803-1877) who, in 1858, was appointed the first provincial governor of B.C.

The son of a black woman from Barbados and a Scottish planter, Douglas, in need of skilled workers to meet a gold frenzy in the region, urged a band of blacks in California to move to B.C.

At the time, a federal Fugitive Slave Act that poised them for possible return to bondage threatened free blacks. Dispirited by an increasingly hostile climate, several hundred blacks accepted Douglas’ invitation and sailed north to Victoria.

By 1859, a core group of the blacks had built log cabins on nearby Salt Spring Island, the ancestral grounds of the Coast Salish people. There, they hunted cougars, cultivated farms and cleared the deeply forested terrain for future immigrants.

Salt Spring’s black pioneers included Jim Anderson who built the community’s first public picnic site on his property. Proficient on the trumpet, he routinely roused neighbours with a brisk blast of “Reveille.”

I was captivated by the image of a nattily dressed Anderson and a black boy in a canoe that appears in my book Every Goodbye Ain’t Gone: A Photo Narrative of Black Heritage on Salt Spring Island.

Our African forebears packed like sardines in the holds of slave ships, many North American blacks have a pained relationship with boats and water. This discomfort has been compounded, over the years, by our wounding experiences with segregated beaches, swimming pools, and “coloured” drinking fountains.

The serenity that the pair exhibits in the photo marks the peace that has prompted a steady stream of black folk to settle on Salt Spring since the late1850s.

Inspired by Anderson and the youngster, I braved my long-standing fear of water and learned how to swim during my sojourn on the island.

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