Black Heritage On Salt Spring Island

By Evelyn C. White

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In June 2006, as I stood in my living room, a voice that I’ve come to believe was that of an African forebear, exhorted me to write a book about black heritage on Salt Spring Island.

As a former reporter, who’d spent a decade completing a biography of Alice Walker (best known for her novel *The Color Purple*), I didn’t intend to begin another major writing project when I moved to Salt Spring from the San Francisco Bay area in 2002. Still, I’d gained much, over the years, by honouring the cosmic voices I believe “speak” to all who are receptive to their guidance. And so, working with local photographer Joanne Bealy, I began the task of documenting the 150-year black presence on Salt Spring Island.

Widely hailed as one of the top artist colonies in North America, there are several books about the Island. But *Every Goodbye Ain’t Gone* (EGAG) is the first volume to focus exclusively on Salt Spring's black heritage and to examine its unique racial history through a 21st century lens.

A quick overview: The first black settlers arrived on Salt Spring (by way of Victoria) from Northern California in 1859. Literate and highly accomplished, the free blacks fled the “Golden State” after the enactment of a series of racially repressive laws that threatened their hard-won freedom. Interestingly, the disaffected blacks in California were seeking refuge at the same time that B.C. provincial governor James Douglas (himself mixed race) was in need of skilled labourers to support the boom town frenzy after gold was discovered along the Fraser River. A core group of the blacks that arrived in Victoria later migrated to Salt Spring.

The early blacks on Salt Spring included the community’s first teacher, John Craven Jones. A college graduate trained in Greek and Latin, Jones taught the youth on Salt Spring (without pay) for several years. Who could look at a 1929 class photo from Salt Spring and not marvel, as Canada marks Black History Month, at the ethnic diversity of the students?

The force behind Salt Spring’s first public recreation site, Jim Anderson was another early black pioneer. An archival photo finds him in the company of a black youth in a canoe. Here’s a reflection I was thrilled to include in EGAG: “Most people find it tiresome to have to sweep their back porch but Jim Anderson made a hobby of keeping his beach clean and he was down there every morning [with a broom]. This was [Anderson’s] little park and he delighted in having people come down for picnics.”

The boy in the photo was a member of the Whims family, also among the black pioneers. Born on Salt Spring, octogenarian Bobby Wood is related, on his maternal side, to the Whims clan.

Long attractive to retirees, Salt Spring is also enlivened by many children. Those featured in EGAG include Safiya Carroll-Labelle, a seasoned fiddler who often performs at the Island’s renowned Saturday Market. Then there’s toddler Levi Welch who was delivered by the same Salt Spring nurse who ushered his mother Hanna into the world, 30 years ago. Salt Spring is also home to several black children who’ve been adopted by white families. “The story of the early African American settlers is deeply moving for us,” said Shauna Klem, who is pictured in EGAG with her Ethiopia-born sons, Selamu and Dexter.

Given the Island’s storied reputation for creativity, it was especially rewarding for me to profile artists of African descent living on Salt Spring. Among their ranks are Sav Boro, an acclaimed muralist and Yasmine Amal, a potter who sells her wares at the Saturday Market.

As the world turns itself to B.C. because of the Vancouver Winter Olympics, I’m elated to have “answered the call” to create a book that celebrates the multicultural splendour of Canada.

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Showing 1 to 1 of 1 comments.

Great Article, I'm writing a book on the Black Migration to Alberta Canada. I'm from the Oakland California and attended College at Cal State Hayward and U,C Berkeley Extension Program. My family Grand parents are part of the black migration to Alberta in 1910.

Posted by James House | January 3, 2011 Report Violation

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