When you’re the current matriarch of a legendary Greater Victoria Black pioneer family, the stories just flow.
Such is the case for Bernice Alexander. A vibrant soon-to-be 90-year-old Sidney resident, she is descended from Charles and Nancy Alexander – her great grandparents who arrived in Victoria in 1858 and were among the first 35 Black citizens to settle in the fledgling British colony.
“I can’t imagine what they went through,” Alexander said. “Today everything is at our fingertips; hot water, electricity, you’ve got everything. In those days they had to start from scratch. I have to admire their determination and perseverance.”
A count in 1992 determined that 400 people were descended from this pioneer couple. Alexander, the last remaining family member in her generation, had four children with her late first husband Herbert – who was her second cousin – and has 17 grandchildren and 20 great grandchildren.
As communities across Canada celebrate Black History Month, Alexander said it’s important to note the contribution and impact of Black pioneers and those who followed. In her own family are top-level athletes like lacrosse star Kevin Alexander, legendary umpire Doug Hudlin and many entrepreneurs and community leaders.
While the story of Charles and Nancy’s journey is remarkable, other family stories emerge. Alexander’s grandfather Fred drove a horse and buggy in the era of Judge Matthew Begbie, known after he died in 1894 as “the hanging judge.”
“When there was a hanging, (Fred) used to go down to the docks, pick up the hangman and take him up to the jail, where S.J. Willis school is now,” Alexander said.
While overt racism has diminished around the region, she said, she experienced it growing up. When her parents needed to rent a home for their young family, her mother, who was White, dealt with the paperwork at the office. “My dad was Black and he did not go, because of the prejudice that existed.”
A teen-aged Bernice applied for a job after high school and wrote out her resume in perfect handwriting. Upon walking in, she felt the interviewer’s enthusiasm wane.
“I remember the look on his face. It was like he was thinking this Black person can’t possibly have handwriting like that,” she recalled. “He made me write something down just to prove it was me who wrote it.”
Alexander said she shares family stories when asked – “You don’t get interested in your heritage until you get older” – but she cherishes her scrapbook full of newspaper clippings and other material about family members that dates back to 1901. She plans to pass it on to her oldest son, hoping he will celebrate the Alexander heritage with future generations.
For more on B.C.’s Black history, visit bcblackhistory.ca.