The crowd cheered as a sheet was slowly lifted to reveal a bronze plaque put in place to honour Mifflin Wistar Gibbs, the first Black person to hold elected office in B.C.
Holding the sheet on either side was Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps and Gibbs’s great-great-great-grandniece Dr. Verna Gibbs, who had gathered in Irving Park in James Bay on Saturday with friends, family and community members to celebrate Gibbs’s great contributions to the city more than a century earlier.
Gibbs was a James Bay resident and merchant and served as a Victoria city councillor from 1866-69. His estate was situated near Irving Park, where he is now commemorated.
The plaque commemorates Gibbs as a person of national historic significance and reads, “After helping lead the exodus of 800 Black residents from San Francisco in 1858, Gibbs became the recognized leader of their community on Vancouver Island. He strove to make these newcomers a force in colonial politics and, as a member of Victoria City Council, he became the first Black person to hold elected office in British Columbia. This innovative entrepreneur, who invested in mining and trade, also encouraged the integration of Black settlers and advocated for their rights. Though he returned to the United States in 1870, Gibbs remains a revered historical figure in the province’s African-Canadian community.”
The plaque honouring Mifflin Wistar Gibbs was unveiled today at Irving Park in James Bay by Dr. Verna Gibbs, his great-great-grandniece. Mifflin Gibbs was the first black person to hold elected office in B.C. @VictoriaNews #yyj pic.twitter.com/ilDFmbq3Js
— Keri Coles (@KeriColesPhotog) May 4, 2019
The honour was years in the making, originating from recognition given by the Government of Canada in 2009.
“Our government is proud to honour a man who worked tirelessly for the local Black community as a politician, businessman, and defender of human rights,” said Jim Prentice, Canada’s Environment Minister at the time.
The plaque was then commissioned by Canada’s Historic Sites and Monuments Board, and was presented to the B.C. Black History Awareness Society in February 2017.
The City of Victoria installed the plaque in January 2019 after some restoration and landscaping work in the park was complete.
“It is an unbelievable honour to be able to represent my family and celebrate with the people of Victoria,” said Dr. Verna Gibbs. “It is made of concrete and bronze and so it will be here, one hopes, for a very long time.”
Mayor Lisa Helps spoke of the long road to get the plaque installed, calling the day a final step and a first step. The final step was unveiling the plaque and celebrating Gibbs’s contribution to Victoria, but it was also a first step in the Welcoming City Strategy to be developed by council in 2020.
“I think we like to think of ourselves in Victoria as a very progressive place, and in many ways we are, but one of the things that I hear and know for sure is that there is still racism here. There is still more work that we need to do as a community to make this a welcoming place for everyone,” said Mayor Lisa Helps. “We need to carry on the legacy that started with Mifflin Wistar Gibbs when he was elected to city council.”
A room in the recently opened sxʷeŋxʷəŋ təŋəxʷ James Bay Branch of the Greater Victoria Public Library, just down the street from the park, is also named in honour of Gibbs – the Mifflin Wistar Gibbs Study Room.
“I would like to thank very much everybody in the city of Victoria and Canada for this really special honour,” said Gibbs, at the unveiling. “And keep up the good work with our recognition of difference and celebration of those who are not just like us.”
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