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Digging into the buried history of Vancouver Island’s Black miners

Cumberland had a significant if obscure community working the coal mines in the 19th century
This cairn on the way to Comox Lake from Cumberland marks where the village’s Black community once stood. Photo by Ali Roddam

By Madeline Dunnett, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter THE DISCOURSE

In 1889, 60 Black miners arrived in Cumberland, B.C. from Pennsylvania and Ohio, hoping for work and a better life.

At that time, the coal industry was booming and workers came from around the world in search of opportunity. But miners faced harsh working conditions, racism and segregation.

Much of the history of the small Black settlement north of Comox Lake Road between Chinatown and No. 1 Japanese town is unknown, and many of the miners moved away the summer after their arrival, according to Cumberland Heritage, a book by Jennifer Nell Barr on the area’s history from 1888 to 1950.

“It’s a really obscure history,” said Silvia Mangue Alene, president of the BC Black History Awareness Society, in an interview with The Discourse.

At the Cumberland museum, an empty case acknowledges the absence of these stories. The history of oppressed and marginalized groups has been ignored, disparaged and erased by institutions of colonial history, explains the text beside the case.

“The absence of Black experience from British Columbia’s official historical memory was not simply the result of absent-mindedness,” writes Adam Rudder in the foreword to Go Do Some Great Thing: The Black Pioneers of British Columbia by Crawford Killian.

Instead, “the term ‘absenting’ here is used to draw attention to the very active process that has rendered Black experience invisible in the official historical record.”

But not all the stories have been lost, and some people and organizations are making an effort to tell a more complete history of this place.

“People should learn about Canadian history in its fullest,” Alene said.

Newcomers to Vancouver Island, and especially Black newcomers, should have the opportunity to learn the Black history of this place, she added.

“A true commitment to confronting racism in our communities must go well beyond the celebratory proclivities of multicultural politics,” Rudder writes. “Change requires accepting responsibility for the impacts of history on the present, and to do this we need accurate and sometimes bold histories that are unafraid to tell the stories that not everyone wants to hear.”

In 1858, Sir James Douglas wanted a sizable group of hardworking people, loyal to the British crown, to settle on Vancouver Island. His aim was to bolster the colony against potential U.S. annexation. This is how several hundred Black pioneers came to Canada from the United States.

Douglas sent a letter by way of Jeremiah Nagle, captain of the steamship Commodore, which often sailed between Victoria and San Francisco, to invite Black Californians to British Columbia. He promised British citizenship and the right to own land. At this time in the U.S., Black people had no rights to citizenship, and slavery was not yet abolished.

Douglas saw potential in this group of Black Californians, Alene said. “He knew that they were organized, he knew that they were well-to-do and that they were hardworking people.”

The irony of this invitation is not lost on Alene. Douglas’s interests were in the colonial pursuit of Vancouver Island and British Columbia.

“There were already people here, right?” she said, referring to the Nuu-chah-nulth, Coast Salish and Kwakwaka’wakw people.

Though most of the Black pioneers that came left to go back to the U.S. after the civil war, some stayed to leave their legacy.

“This group of people were truly very involved with the community,” said Alene.

Emma Stark was the first Black teacher on Vancouver Island, and she is recognized on a plaque at 331 Wesley St. in Nanaimo, where she owned a home.

Mifflin Wistar Gibbs, a human rights activist, politician and businessman, was elected to Victoria City Council in 1866.

John Craven Jones was the first teacher on Salt Spring Island and taught there for more than a decade.

According to B.C. Black History Awareness Society, Jones “taught without pay until the creation of the Salt Spring Island School District in1869.” After that, he earned a salary of about $40 a month.

The society is helping to share these stories, and many more, through free educational materials on its website.

“We are happy to teach people about the history,” said Alene.

The society also occasionally hosts events that highlight the history, which can also be found on their website.

The Village of Cumberland is rich in history, including a vibrant labour rights movement from its coal mining days. Its street names pay homage to these stories. Dunsmuir Avenue is named after the notoriously exploitative coal baron Robert Dunsmuir. Ginger Goodwin Way memorializes a labour rights protester, shot by police in 1918.

During Cumberland’s mining days, workers of various backgrounds flocked to the village for a stake in the coal prospects and peripheral economic opportunities. Cumberland had one of Canada’s largest Chinatowns at the time, with the population estimated at around 1,500 in its peak, according to the village’s website.

The Cumberland Museum’s current exhibit, “A seat at the table,” showcases the contributions that Chinese migrants made for British Columbia. The exhibit runs until May 12, 2024. The museum also has permanent exhibits on Cumberland’s coal town, historical communities in the village, Indigenous resistance and land.

Immigrants and miners from racialized communities were treated worse than white miners. Asian miners were paid less than whites, and some were not offered housing by the mining companies.

It’s in this context that stories from the small Black community have been mostly absented from official histories.

The racism that has obscured these stories also contributed to the shrinking of the community itself. Of the small group that stayed, many lost their jobs to white workers during the Great Depression, wrote Barr in Cumberland Heritage.

But Cumberland’s Black history is not entirely lost, and the Cumberland Museum is among the groups working to revive it. The museum provided The Discourse with a summary of existing research and documentation.

That documentation includes information about John Henry Brown, the most well-known member of Cumberland’s Black community, who came in 1909. His birthplace is unclear some sources say he was born in the Caribbean, some say he was born in Maryland.

According to Isenor et al, Brown would take off to the mountains prospecting. He was looking for iron ore or uranium, often exploring Forbidden Plateau, and for a bag he used a big potato sack slung over his shoulder.

Reportedly, he was the first non-Indigenous person to climb Forbidden Plateau. His days were spent working in the mines in the winter and prospecting in the summer. Barr’s book states that he also had a cabin on Circle Lake and staked a claim in Oyster River.

According to a 1957 Times Colonist article by Ben Hughes, Brown was “a tall man with a deep, booming voice and a rich vocabulary.” Barr described him as a great storyteller.

Brown was one of the few members of Cumberland’s Black miners to stay. He died in 1960 at the age of 93 at the former Cumberland General Hospital.

More photos of Cumberland’s historical Black community can be found on the Cumberland Museum’s Flickr Page. Information about Cumberland’s community heritage can be found on the village website, and more information about Vancouver Island’s Black pioneer community can be found on BC Black History Awareness Society’s website.

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