Mifflin Wistar Gibbs was an influential figure in Victoria in the second half of the 19th century, and his legacy has had lasting impacts on both the city and the province. At various points in his career he was an entrepreneur, politician, judge, diplomat, and banker, and he was the first black person to sit in public office in what is now the province of British Columbia.
Born free in Philadelphia in 1823, Gibbs grew up poor. From the age of eight he worked to help his widowed mother support the family. A voracious reader, he educated himself through his reading, and he later furthered his education by entering black literary societies.
As a young man, Gibbs joined the abolitionist movement and helped run the Philadelphia “station” of the Underground Railroad. Along with Frederick Douglass, he toured New York State giving anti-slavery lectures.
In 1857, the American Supreme Court’s Dred Scott decision ruled that African Americans were not US citizens, meaning that they could not appeal to the law for justice or protection. In 1858, at Governor James Douglas’s invitation, Gibbs migrated to Vancouver Island along with six hundred other black Americans. They comprised a diverse group of people, from the illiterate to the highly educated.
These migrants helped fill a need in Victoria: the gold rush had caused a boom with a surge of people flowing through the city, and there was a high demand for workers of all skill sets. As a result, before long most of these immigrants obtained full-time employment.
Gibbs quickly found a way to capitalize on the gold rush boom. He and his business partner Peter Lester were the first competitors of the Hudson’s Bay Company, selling food and supplies to those passing through Victoria to the Fraser Valley gold fields. He had also secured other sources of income: immediately upon his arrival in Victoria, he entered the real estate market to significant financial success.
James Douglas’s invitation of the black American migrants had political motives: he needed to bring in those who were not American citizens to balance out the Americans who were streaming in. Douglas feared that the wave of white Americans who were coming through would result in the loss of the colony, as it had in the Oregon Territory.
By inviting these migrants, Douglas had also hoped to sway elections in his favour and shift the balance away from Amor De Cosmos, publisher of the local newspaper the British Colonist (later the Times Colonist) and the future premier of BC. He was successful. Because votes were cast on public ballots, resentment towards the black community grew when Douglas won due to the large voter turnout from the black migrants who voted for him.
De Cosmos responded by attacking the validity of the black vote in his newspaper. Over the next few years, he continued his retribution by publishing and promoting anti-black stories. Gibbs spoke out against this racist behaviour and even wrote to the British Colonist to complain, but when he later entered politics he nonetheless worked constructively with De Cosmos.
A year following his arrival, Gibbs met and married Maria An Alexander. The two settled in Victoria, where they had five children.
In 1866, Gibbs won a seat on the Victoria City Council, making him the first black person to be elected to public office in the province. He had a productive and successful career in which he paid off the city’s debt and even served for a time as Acting Mayor. He later supported Confederation when BC was deliberating about joining Canada.
Although he eventually returned to the States and lived in BC for only about a decade, Gibbs left a lasting impact. In 2016, the City of Victoria proclaimed November 19th as “Mifflin Wistar Gibbs Day” to honour Gibbs’s historic election as the first black person to sit in public office in BC.