Black History Month In Canada… Portia May White

Portia May White, born in Nova Scotia in 1911, became Canada’s first internationally acclaimed Black concert singer.

Portia May White – Concert Singer and Teacher

Portia May White, contralto, teacher (born 24 June 1911 in Truro, NS; died 13 February 1968 in Toronto, ON). Portia White broke through the color barrier to become the first Black Canadian concert singer to win international acclaim. Considered one of the best classical singers of the 20th century, her voice was described by one critic as “a gift from heaven,” and she was often compared to the celebrated African American contralto Marian Anderson. White was named a “person of national historic significance” by the Government of Canada in 1995.

Portia White was the third of 13 children born to William A. White, whose parents had been slaves in Virginia, and Izie Dora White, who was descended from black Loyalists in Nova Scotia. The second black Canadian admitted to Acadia University, William White graduated in 1903 with a degree in Theology and later became the first black Canadian to receive a Doctorate of Divinity from Acadia University. Following his service as the only black chaplain in the British army during the First World War, he moved the family to Halifax, where he became pastor of the Cornwallis Street Baptist Church.

Portia began singing in the church choir under her mother’s direction at age six. By the age of eight, she was singing the soprano parts from the opera Lucia di Lammermoor and was so determined to become a professional singer that she walked 10 miles a week for music lessons. She started her teacher training at Dalhousie University in 1929 and after graduating became a schoolteacher in black Nova Scotian communities, such as Africville and Lucasville.

In the 1930s, White took voice lessons as a mezzo-soprano with Bertha Cruikshanks at the Halifax Conservatory of Music and sang on devotional radio broadcasts hosted by her father. She competed in the Halifax Music Festival, where her extraordinary voice won the Helen Kennedy Silver Cup in 1935, 1937 and 1938. The Halifax Ladies’ Musical Club provided a scholarship for White to study with Ernesto Vinci at the Halifax Conservatory of Music in 1939. Under Vinci, she began to sing as a contralto.

After giving a handful of recitals at Acadia University and Mount Allison University in 1940, White made her formal debut at age 30 at Toronto’s Eaton Auditorium on 7 November 1941. Reviewing her performance in the Globe and Mail, Hector Charlesworth stated that she sings “with pungent expression and beauty of utterance.” Writing in the Evening Telegram, Edward Wodson said White had a “coloured and beautifully shaded contralto… It is a natural voice, a gift from heaven.”

White resigned her teaching position in 1941 and continued to give concerts in Canada. After many difficulties obtaining bookings because of her race, she reached the high point of her career with a widely acclaimed recital at New York’s Town Hall on 13 March 1944. She was the first Canadian to perform there. The Nova Scotia Talent Trust was established in 1944 specifically to enable White to concentrate on her professional career. Two more Town Hall concerts followed in 1944 and 1945, and that year White signed with Columbia Concerts Incorporated, the largest artist agency in North America.

White toured North America with Columbia Concerts, but following a tour of Central and South America in 1946, she began experiencing vocal difficulties as well as problems with her management. In 1948, she toured the Maritimes, and sang in Switzerland and France, but soon after retired from public performance. In 1952, she moved to Toronto to undertake further studies with Gina Cigna and Irene Jessner at the Royal Conservatory of Music.

White herself began teaching voice in Toronto, both privately and at Branksome Hall, a school for girls. Her private students over the years included Dinah Christie, Anne Marie Moss, Lorne Greene, Don Francks and Robert Goulet. By the mid-1950s she resumed her singing career, although sporadically, singing only a few concerts in the 1950s and 1960s, one of which was before Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip at Charlottetown’s Confederation Centre of the Arts on 6 October 1964. White’s final public performance took place in July 1967 at the World Baptist Federation in Ottawa.

White did not make any studio recordings, but her voice can be heard in several concert recordings, including a song recital titled Think on Me (1968). Library and Archives Canada acquired from the White family audio recordings of her performances in New York and in Moncton, NB, in 1944 and 1945. From these, Analekta released two songs on Great Voices of Canada, Volume 5 (1994), and White’s nephew, award-winning folk musician Chris White, released the CD First You Dream (1999). A documentary by Sylvia Hamilton, Portia White: Think on Me, was broadcast on CBC TV in 2001.

In 1995, White was named a “person of national historic significance” by the Government of Canada. A millennial stamp bearing her image was issued in 1999, and a life-sized sculpture of her was carved from a tree in front of Truro’s Zion Baptist Church in 2004. The Portia White Prize is awarded each year by the Nova Scotia Arts Council to an outstanding Nova Scotian in the arts. The inaugural recipient of the award in 1998 was her great-nephew, the writer George Elliott Clarke. The Nova Scotia Talent Trust presents the Portia White Scholarship Award to exceptional vocalists, and also named its annual gala concert in her honor. At the East Coast Music Awards in 2007, White was posthumously awarded the Dr. Helen Creighton Lifetime Achievement Award.

In addition to Clarke and Chris White, Portia White had several other notable family members. Her brother, Bill White, was a composer and social activist who became the first black Canadian to run for federal office, representing the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) in the Toronto constituency of Spadina in 1949. He was made an Officer of the Order of Canada in 1970. Portia’s brother, Jack White, was a noted labor union leader and one of the first black Canadians to run for provincial office in Ontario; and her niece, Sheila White, is a noted political consultant and commentator.

Canadian postage stamps: Portia White Digital Art - Illustrated Stamps Portia White And Maude Abbott by Monica Margarida
Portia White Digital Art – Illustrated Stamps Portia White And Maude Abbott by Monica Margarida (Fine Art America)

Today’s Sources:

* CBC News Canada                                                     

* The Canadian Encyclopedia                                  

Black History Month In Canada… Donald H. Oliver

Senator Donald Oliver, born in Nova Scotia in 1938, enjoyed a very successful life as a lawyer, businessman, Senator, and community activist.

Donald H. Oliver – Lawyer, Businessman, and Senator

Donald H. Oliver, lawyer, businessman, senator (b at Wolfville, NS 16 Nov 1938). In 1990, Donald Oliver became Canada’s first African-Canadian senator when he was appointed to the Senate by Prime Minister Brian Mulroney on 7 Sept 1990. Growing up in a devout Baptist family of five children, Oliver was instilled with a strong sense of community and a desire to assist those around him. He attended Acadia University, majoring in philosophy, and later Dalhousie University, where he earned a degree in law.

Called to the Bar in 1965, he began practicing law in Nova Scotia and became active in the professional community, serving on the boards of several legal committees, in a career that spanned 36 years. Oliver maintained distinguished tenures both as a civil litigator and as an educator, teaching law at the Technical University of Nova Scotia, Saint Mary’s University, and Dalhousie University Law School. He has served also on the executive of several private companies and has lectured on human rights, the Canadian constitution, and election law.

Oliver’s community involvement led to a career in politics, and he was particularly interested in promoting equality for Blacks, First Nations and other minorities in Canadian society. Inspired by former Nova Scotia premier Robert Stanfield, Oliver began working with the Progressive Conservative Party in 1972 and remained involved with the party over the next 30 years. During that time he served as the director of legal affairs in six general elections between 1972 and 1988. After his appointment to the Senate, he served as a member of standing Senate committees on banking, trade, and commerce; agriculture and forestry; and was the chairman of the standing committee on transport and communications, as well as other Senate-House of Commons committees. Oliver has worked on several Private Member’s Bills, including one to amend the section of the criminal code regarding stalking, and another to address the increasing problem of computer SPAM.

Oliver continued to be active in community service throughout his career, serving in positions that have included President and Chairman of the Halifax Children’s Aid Society; Chairman, President and Director of the Neptune Theatre Foundation; Director of the Halifax-Dartmouth Welfare Council; Founding Director of the Black United Front; and Founding President and First Chairman of the Society for the Protection and Preservation of Black Culture in Nova Scotia. In 2003, Dalhousie University awarded him with an honorary doctorate in recognition of his lifetime of achievement, both in the public and private sectors.

Senator Donald Oliver writes that overseas volunteers are 'among the most motivated citizens in the country
Senator Donald Oliver writes that overseas volunteers are ‘among the most motivated citizens in the country (The Hill Times)

Today’s Sources:

* CBC News Canada                                                         

* The Canadian Encyclopedia                                                

Black History Month In Canada… James Mink

James Mink was the son of a slave who was brought to Canada by a United Empire Loyalist after the American Revolution. He went on to be a millionaire businessman in Toronto, Ontario.

James Mink – Millionaire Businessman

James Mink was a black man who became a respected millionaire businessman in Toronto, Ontario, Canada in the 1840s when slavery was rampant in the United States.

Mink was the eldest of 11 children of a slave known only as “Mink.” His father and mother were owned by United Empire Loyalist, Johan Herkimer. Not much is known about his earlier years. Continue reading “Black History Month In Canada… James Mink”

Black History Month In Canada… Sam Langford

Sam Langford, born in Nova Scotia is claimed by some to be the greatest fighter to step into the ring.

Sam Langford – Professional Boxer

Sam Langford, boxer (born 4 March 1886 in Weymouth Falls, Nova Scotia; died 12 January 1956 in Cambridge, Massachusetts). Langford was a professional boxer who competed across multiple weight classes during his 24-year career. A well-rounded boxer with fierce punching power, Langford often found success against much larger opponents and garnered praise as a fearless competitor. Despite an impressive winning record and praise from icons of the sport, Langford faced racial barriers that prevented him from competing for a title during an era when White champion boxers didn’t want to be seen losing to Black opponents. Though he was crowned heavyweight champion of England, Australia, Canada and Mexico, Langford is considered one of the best fighters never to win a title in the United States. Langford lost his vision during a fight later in his career, which ultimately forced his retirement. He was inducted into Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame in 1955, one year before his death. Langford’s professional record varies depending on the source — with the most comprehensive listing 214-46-44 with 138 knockouts. Some historians contend that Langford may have fought in over 600 matches. Continue reading “Black History Month In Canada… Sam Langford”

Black History Month In Canada… Mary Ann Shadd Cary

Mary Ann Shadd Cary, born free in Delaware played an important role in the Underground Railroad in Windsor and Chatham, Canada West / Ontario.

Mary Ann Shadd Cary – Educator, Publisher, and Abolitionist

Mary Ann Camberton Shadd Cary, educator, publisher, abolitionist (born 9 October 1823 in Wilmington, Delaware; died 5 June 1893 in Washington, DC). The first Black female newspaper publisher in Canada, Shadd founded and edited The Provincial Freeman. She also established a racially integrated school for Black refugees in Windsor, Canada West. In 1994, Shadd was designated a Person of National Historic Significance in Canada.

Born to free parents in Delaware, a slave state, Mary Ann Shadd was the eldest of 13 children. She was educated by Quakers and later taught throughout the northeastern United States, including New York City. Following in the footsteps of her activist parents, whose home was a safe house (or “station”) on the Underground Railroad, Shadd pursued community activism upon settling in Canada.

On 10 September 1851, at St. Lawrence Hall, Shadd attended the first North American Convention of Coloured Freemen held outside of the United States. The event was presided over by Henry Bibb, Josiah Henson, J.T. Fisher, as well as other prominent figures, and was attended by hundreds of Black community leaders from all over Canada, the northern United States, and England. Many Convention delegates encouraged enslaved Americans and refugees from enslavement to enter Canada. The year before, the United States had passed the Fugitive Slave Act, which allowed slave owners to recapture escaped enslaved persons in states where enslavement had been abolished.

At the Convention, Henry and Mary Bibb, activists and publishers of the newspaper Voice of the Fugitive, met and convinced Shadd to take a teaching position near their home in Sandwich (now Windsor), Canada West. After settling there in 1851, Shadd set up a racially integrated school that was open to all who could afford to attend (education was not publicly provided at that time). The school was opened with financial support from the American Missionary Association.

Shadd wrote educational booklets that outlined the advantages of Canada for settlers moving north, including A Plea for Emigration; or Notes of Canada West (1852). About this time, Shadd, who opposed segregated schools for Black children, engaged in a heated debate with Henry and Mary Bibb, who favored segregation. The dispute informed many editorials written by the Bibbs and Shadd in Voice of the Fugitive. As a result of the public dispute, Shadd lost funding from the American Missionary Association for her school.

An estimated 30,000 to 40,000 freedom-seekers — born free or enslaved — reached Canada through the Underground Railroad. In 1850, over 35,000 Black persons lived in Canada West. To promote emigration to Canada, Shadd publicized the successes of Black persons living in freedom in Canada through The Provincial Freeman, a weekly newspaper first printed on 24 March 1853. This made Shadd the first Black woman in North America to publish a newspaper, and one of the first female journalists in Canada. “Self-Reliance Is the True Road to Independence” was the paper’s motto.

Co-edited by Samuel Ringgold Ward, a well-known public speaker and escaped enslaved person living in Toronto, the paper was published from Windsor (1853–1854), Toronto (1854–1855) and Chatham (1855–1857). While Ward was listed as editor on the paper’s masthead, Shadd did not list her own name or take any credit for articles written by her, thus concealing the paper’s female editorship. By 1860, the paper had succumbed to financial pressure and folded.

After spending the first few years of the American Civil War as a schoolteacher in Chatham, Shadd returned to the United States and began work as a recruitment agent for the Union Army. Later, she moved to Washington, DC, where she worked as a teacher. Years after, Shadd pursued law studies at Howard University and in 1883 became one of the first Black women to complete a law degree.

The BME Freedom Park, Chatham Picture: Close Up bust of Mary Ann Shadd
The BME Freedom Park, Chatham Picture: Close Up bust of Mary Ann Shadd (Kentake Page)

Note About This Image:

In response to the growing tensions surrounding slavery, Canadian members of the African Methodist Episcopal Church Conference formally established Chatham’s BME (Black Methodist Episcopal) Church in 1856. On this site, American Abolitionist John Brown held his initial meeting to gain supporters for his attack on Harpers Ferry, Virginia. Also, the fight to end segregation in Chatham schools was led by a minister from this church. In 1983, the church was designated a heritage building by the City of Chatham due to its significance as one of the earliest religious institutions owned and governed by former slaves who escaped to and settled in Canada. In 1989, the BME Church was demolished due to disrepair. The lot was vacant until the establishment of the BME Park in 2009. Chatham – Canada West/Ontario – is located 83 km (52 miles) east of Windsor.

Today’s Sources:

* CBC News Canada                                                        

* The Canadian Encyclopedia                                       

Black History Month In Canada… Elijah McCoy

Born a free man in what is now Ontario, Elijah McCoy’s parents were escaped slaves from Kentucky.

Elijah McCoy – Engineer and Inventor

Elijah McCoy, engineer, inventor (born 2 May 1843 or 1844 in Colchester, Canada West [Ontario today]; died 1929 in Detroit, Michigan.) McCoy was an African-Canadian mechanical engineer and inventor best known for his groundbreaking innovations in industrial lubrication.

Elijah’s parents, George McCoy and Mildred Goins, escaped enslavement in Kentucky by way of the Underground Railroad, arriving in Upper Canada in 1837. Following brief military service, George McCoy was awarded 160 acres of farmland in Colchester Township, where Elijah was born and raised. At the age of fifteen, Elijah McCoy left Canada for Edinburgh, Scotland, where he apprenticed for five years as a mechanical engineer. By the end of his career, he had registered over 50 patents.

Elijah McCoy had difficulty finding a job upon his return to Canada and instead found work in Ypsilanti, Michigan, as a fireman for the Michigan Central Railroad. Steam-powered engines of that era faced consistent mechanical problems as industrial lubricants would quickly wear off, overheating and corroding the machinery and wasting tremendous amounts of fuel. Locomotives had to stop frequently as firemen such as McCoy tended to the engine, squirting oil onto its axles, gears, and levers — a time-consuming process that delayed many passenger and freight trains.

After six years on the job, McCoy developed a device commonly known as an “oil-drip cup,” which administered a regulated amount of lubricant into the engine through a spigot. On 23 July 1872, he filed his first patent on the drip cup, registered under the title “Improvement for Lubricators in Steam Engines.” The innovation spread rapidly through the railroad business, as it enabled locomotives to work without interruption.

The following year, McCoy married Mary E. Delaney and moved to Detroit. He soon found work instructing mechanical engineers on the proper installation of his lubricator, and consulting with manufacturers such as the Detroit Lubricator Company. He also continued to design new lubrication devices for a variety of mechanical engines. His 1882 hydrostatic lubricator for locomotive engines, as well as his designs for ship engines, made a significant impact on the transport industry in the late 19th century. His most elaborate innovation, however, was the graphite lubricator, designed for “superheater” locomotive engines, which he patented in 1915 when he was 72 years old. Due to the immense heat generated by these new engines, a more viscous lubricant was required, which he developed by mixing graphite and oil. McCoy considered this to be his greatest invention. The engine, combined with the lubricator, drastically reduced the quantity of coal and oil used in train travel.

In 1923, Mary — by then known as a prominent activist for civil and women’s rights — passed away. McCoy’s health subsequently began to deteriorate and in 1928 he was committed to the Eloise infirmary, where he died a year later. By the end of his career, McCoy had registered over 50 patents. In September 2001 he was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in Akron, Ohio.

“The Real McCoy”
It remains unclear today whether Elijah McCoy is the original namesake of the phrase “the real McCoy,” but it is unlikely. Many have suggested that the phrase became common parlance among mechanical engineers who refused to install knockoff lubricators onto their locomotives, demanding instead the original McCoy design. However, parallel mythologies surround a number of other figures of the late 19th and early 20th century, including the Californian boxer Charlie “Kid” McCoy and Joseph McCoy, mayor of Abilene, Kansas. In fact, the phrase is first recorded in an 1856 Scottish poem mentioning “the real McKay” — a reference to the distilling company G. Mackay and Co., which adopted the phrase as a promotional slogan.

McCoy's picture superimposed on an image of a train locomotive
Elijah McCoy Inventor(1844-1929)

Today’s Sources:

* CBC News Canada                                                        

* The Canadian Encyclopedia                                       

Black History Month In Canada… Michael Lee-Chin

Michael Lee-Chin – Businessman and Philanthropist

Michael Lee-Chin, businessman, investor and philanthropist (born 3 January 1951 in Port Antonio, Jamaica). Lee-Chin is president and chairman of Portland Holdings, a private investment company. According to Canadian Business magazine, Lee-Chin has an estimated net worth of more than $3.95 billion (as of 2017) and was ranked the 20th wealthiest Canadian. He is also one of the richest Jamaicans. Lee-Chin is also a dedicated philanthropist and has pledged and donated more than $60 million to hospitals, universities and, most notably, the Royal Ontario Museum, where the Michael Lee-Chin Crystal is named in honor of his $30-million pledge.

Michael Lee-Chin was born 3 January 1951 in Port Antonio, Jamaica. He is the son of Black and Chinese-Jamaican parents Aston Lee and Hyacinth Gloria Chen. When he was seven, Lee-Chin’s mother married Vincent Chen, who had a son from a previous relationship. The couple had seven more children together: six boys and one girl. Lee-Chin’s mother sold Avon products and worked as a bookkeeper, and his stepfather was a clerk in a local supermarket.

Lee-Chin attended Titchfield High School from 1962 to 1969. In 1965, he got his first job as part of a landscaping crew at Frenchman’s Cove Hotel (now known as Frenchman’s Cove Resort). In 1966, he started a job cleaning the engine room on the Jamaica Queen cruise ship. After Lee-Chin graduated from high school, he worked as a lab technician in a Jamaican bauxite aluminum plant.

In 1970, Lee-Chin traveled to Canada to study civil engineering at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario. He received a scholarship from the Jamaican government to complete his studies and work for the government upon graduation. Lee-Chin graduated in 1974 with a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering and returned to Jamaica. He worked briefly for the Jamaican government as a civil engineer on the Mandela Highway. Since he could not find work in his field, Lee-Chin returned to Canada.

n 1977, Lee-Chin became a financial advisor for Investors Group in Hamilton. He worked there for two years and then moved on to become regional manager of Regal Capital Planners. In 1983, Lee-Chin secured a $500,000 loan from the Continental Bank of Canada to buy stocks from Mackenzie Financial Corporation. After four years, the stock appreciated sevenfold. In 1987, he used the profits to acquire a small mutual fund investment firm called Advantage Investment Counsel (AIC) based in Kitchener, Ontario, for $200,000. The company would go on to grow from $800,000 in holdings in 1983 to more than $15 billion in assets under management in 2001.

Since 1987, Lee-Chin has been president and chairman of Portland Holdings, a private investment company. Portland owns a variety of businesses that operate in sectors such as financial services, telecommunications, waste management, tourism, agriculture, and media.

Following his acquisition of AIC, Lee-Chin set out to develop the Berkshire group of companies, which is comprised of investment planning, a securities dealership, and an insurance services operation. When the company was acquired by Manulife Financial Corporation in 2007, Berkshire’s assets exceeded $12 billion. The company had grown to form a network of about 750 financial advisors in 250 Canadian branches.

In 2002, Portland acquired 75 percent interest in National Commercial Bank Jamaica Limited (NCB), and Lee-Chin became its executive chairman. Today, NCB is the largest financial institution in Jamaica. In 2005, he co-founded Columbus International Inc. and acquired the Trident Hotel in Jamaica. In October 2006, Lee-Chin resigned as CEO of AIC and was replaced by Jonathan Wellum, AIC’s chief investment officer, and fund manager. The company was later acquired by Manulife Financial Corporation.

In 2012, Lee-Chin established a group of wealth management companies under Mandeville Holdings Inc., a subsidiary of Portland. Mandeville includes an investment dealer, a mutual fund and exempt market dealer and life insurance services.

Lee-Chin and his family have made several sizeable donations. In 2001, he donated $5 million to his alma mater, McMaster University. The funds were used to establish the Michael Lee-Chin & Family Institute for Strategic Business Studies (formerly known as the AIC Institute for Strategic Business Studies) at the DeGroote School of Business. In 2003, Lee-Chin grabbed national headlines when he pledged $30 million to the Royal Ontario Museum’s Renaissance ROM Campaign. In 2004, he pledged $10 million to the University of Toronto campaign that helped establish the Michael Lee-Chin Family Institute for Corporate Citizenship (formerly known as the AIC Institute for Corporate Citizenship) at the Rotman School of Management.

In 2007, Lee-Chin donated $1 million to the Toronto General & Western Hospital Foundation to support the creation of the Michael Lee-Chin and Family Short Stay Unit. In honor of his mother, Lee-Chin donated almost $4 million to Northern Caribbean University in 2008 to build The Hyacinth Chen School of Nursing, a world-class facility that can accommodate 800 nursing students. In 2014, Lee-Chin donated $10 million to Joseph Brant Hospital in Burlington, Ontario.

In 2010, Lee-Chin joined the board of directors for The Trust for the Americas, a foundation with the Organization of American States that assists with responsible investment and development in Latin America and the Caribbean (see Foreign Investment). In 2011, he was appointed chancellor of Wilfrid Laurier University. He remained in that position until 2016. He also joined the Presidential Advisory Council for Economic Growth and Investment in Haiti in 2011.

In 2016, Lee-Chin was appointed the chair of the government of Jamaica’s Economic Growth Council.

Lee-Chin married Vera Lee-Chin, a Ukranian Canadian he met at university, in 1974. The couple has three children: Michael Jr., Paul, and Adrian. The pair officially separated in 1997 and are now divorced. Lee-Chin has twin daughters, Elizabeth and Maria, with his current partner, Sonya Hamilton.

Canadian Business magazine named Lee-Chin one of the richest people in Canada. He was ranked number 20 (as of 2017), with a net worth of $3.95 billion. Lee-Chin stands by the mantra that businesses must “not only do well but also do good,” which is how he measures his success.

The north face of the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, showing part of the new Michael Lee-Chin Crystal extension designed by Daniel Libeskind, dappled by the earling morning sunlight. 4081524 © Gary Blakeley |
The north face of the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, showing part of the new Michael Lee-Chin Crystal extension designed by Daniel Libeskind, dappled by the early morning sunlight. 4081524 © Gary Blakeley | (ArchiExpo)

Today’s Sources:

* CBC News Canada                                                      

* The Canadian Encyclopedia                                          

Black History Month In Canada… Anne C. Cools

Anne C. Cools migrated to Canada from Barbados to Canada as a teen and proceeded to make her mark on her adopted country almost immediately.

Anne C. Cools – Activist and Political Trailblazer

Senator Cools was the first black person to become a Canadian senator, and the first black woman senator in North America. These are just two of the many firsts and other leading roles she has taken on in her life. Continue reading “Black History Month In Canada… Anne C. Cools”

Black History Month In Canada… William Neilson Hall

William Neilson Hall – Royal Navy Gunner & Victoria Cross Winner

In February 2010 Canada Post released a stamp to celebrate the remarkable story of William Hall, the first Black to be honored with the Victoria Cross.

William Hall was the son of Jacob and Lucy Hall, former slaves who fled the US and landed in Halifax as refugees of the War of 1812. The Halls eventually moved to Horton Bluff, on the Minas Basin in Nova Scotia, where William and 6 other children were born. Like many Nova Scotians growing up in the age of sail, William chose to go to sea. He was only 15 years old when he joined the crew of a merchant ship. He served for three years in the American Navy and in 1852 joined the British Navy as an able seaman. During the Crimean War, he saw action with a gun crew in the siege of Sevastopol (in present-day Ukraine). Continue reading “Black History Month In Canada… William Neilson Hall”

Black History Month In Canada… Mifflin Wistar Gibbs

Mifflin Wistar Gibbs, born as a free person in Philadelphia and became a successful entrepreneur, civil rights activist, politician, and a diplomat.

Mifflin Wistar Gibbs – Successful Entrepreneur & Civil Rights Activist in Canada & the USA

Born into a free Black family in Philadelphia, Gibbs joined Frederick Douglass and others in the campaign to abolish slavery in the United States. An apprenticed carpenter, he was also an ambitious businessman. In 1850, Gibbs moved to San Francisco and became one of the city’s most prosperous Black merchants. As social and political restrictions on Black settlers increased in California, he became a leading spokesman for his community, taking a prominent role in civil rights protests. He also helped to found and publish the first Black newspaper in California. Despite his accomplishments, or perhaps because of them, Gibbs soon found himself on the move once more.

Amid an increasingly hostile racial climate, Gibbs helped lead an exodus of approximately 800 Black residents from California who were seeking the protection of British law in Victoria. After arriving in 1858, he returned briefly to California in 1859 to marry Maria Ann Alexander of Kentucky, with whom he would have five children. The couple returned to Vancouver Island where, within a few short years, Gibbs would play an important role in several aspects of the history of the local Black community.

As a politician, businessman, and defender of human rights, Gibbs was the recognized leader of the Black community in Vancouver Island during its early years between 1858 and 1870 and is still a revered historical figure in the Black community of British Columbia.

Through his political abilities, Gibbs made Black residents a force in colonial politics and, when elected to Victoria City Council, became the first Black person to hold public office in British Columbia, revealing a clear vision for the future of the colony within Confederation that was rare in the hurly-burly politics of the day.

He became one of the leading merchants of early Victoria and placed himself on the cutting edge of entrepreneurial activity in British Columbia by investing in resource development and encouraging trade links outside of the area at an early date.
In person and in the press, he acted as a spokesperson for the West Coast’s African Canadian community, encouraging their integration into Vancouver Island society and intervening repeatedly when efforts were made to segregate them in the churches and theatres of Victoria.

Mifflin and Maria Gibbs separated in the late 1860s. Returning to the United States in 1870, Gibbs studied law in Oberlin, Ohio (where his wife Maria had settled, and where four of their five children graduated from Oberlin College). He toured the Reconstruction South and settled in Little Rock, Arkansas, soon becoming the first black elected municipal judge in the United States. His long and sometimes dangerous efforts on behalf of the Republican Party earned him an ambiguous reward: at the age of 74, Republican President William McKinley in 1897 named Gibbs U.S. consul in Tamatave, Madagascar. After four years Gibbs resigned in 1901 at 78 for health reasons. He returned to publish an autobiography, Shadow and Light, in 1902, with an introduction by Booker T. Washington.

Back in Little Rock, Gibbs launched Capital City Savings Bank, became a partner in the Little Rock Electric Light Company, gained control of several pieces of local real estate, and supported various philanthropic causes. He died in Little Rock on July 11, 1915, at the age of 92.

Talk at Mifflin Wistar Gibbs' Plaque Unveiling by Yvonne Shorter Brown
Talk at Mifflin Wistar Gibbs’ Plaque Unveiling by Yvonne Shorter Brown (YouTube)

Today’s Sources:

* CBC News Canada                                                             

* Government of Canada                                                    

* Black Past Remembered & Reclaimed                         

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