An Advocate for Civil Rights

For the week of Monday, August 1, 2016.

On August 4, 2009, Canada’s former Environment Minister, the Honourable Jim Prentice, celebrated the historic significance of Mifflin Wistar Gibbs. Gibbs was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on April 17, 1823. He grew up to become a vocal proponent of Black civil rights in Canada as well as a leading businessman and Victoria’s first Black city councillor.

A portrait of Mifflin Wistar Gibbs
© BlackPast

Gibbs moved to San Francisco in the 1840s, where he established himself as a community leader. After facing mounting racial discrimination, in 1858 he and much of the city’s Black community immigrated to Victoria, on Vancouver Island, which was at that time a British colony.

Black people had more rights in Victoria, but still faced discrimination. Many churches and theatres continued to practice segregation, and Gibbs often wrote to newspapers condemning it. In one article, he suggested that militia officers enforce the rights of Black theatre-goers, who were confined to the worst seats. Gibbs even assaulted a man who tried to force his family out of their seats at a charity concert.

He also tried, but failed, to convince a local Congregationalist minister to stop segregating church-goers. However, the Anglican Bishop of Vancouver Island did promise Gibbs that his churches would not segregate their members, or support segregation elsewhere.

An Advertisement about Gibbs’s store in Victoria
© British Columbia city directory, 1961

While in Victoria, Gibbs encouraged all Black men to vote. American-born Black men were banned from voting in 1860 on the grounds that they were not British subjects, but Gibbs challenged and successfully overturned the ruling. As a result, men from the American-born Black community became legal citizens, and those with property could vote and hold public office.

In 1866, Gibbs was elected to the Victoria City Council, becoming the first Black person to gain public office in present-day British Columbia. He sat on the Council from 1866-69, where he was chairman of the finance committee, and occasionally acted as mayor. After his final term, Gibbs moved back to the United States, and died at his home in Little Rock, Arkansas, in 1915.

For his activism and leadership in Victoria’s Black community, Mifflin Wistar Gibbs remains a respected historical figure in British Columbia’s Black community and is a designated national historic person. The Black Pioneers in British Columbia is also a national historic event.

Find out more about the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada and the National Program of Historical Commemoration here.