Vancouver's Hidden Black History

If you ask either of my parents about black history, you’ll hear a story that isn’t often told around this part of the world. You’ll hear about white families pulling their kids out of public schools and starting their own private academies, or maybe about the KKK handing out pamphlets on street corners and bombing the homes of social workers. They were growing up in Mississippi during the sixties, trying to have normal lives in the heart of the controversy of integration and the Civil Rights Movement.

They grew up with an intimate understanding of the social dynamic of the time, but living in Vancouver, I find myself viewing all of their stories as an outsider looking in. We live in what is arguably the most cosmopolitan city on the planet. How can we really understand what it’s like to live around the intense and pointless hatred caused by rampant racism? Black History Month just passed, but I honestly wasn’t sure how to feel about it.

Kevan Cameron may just be the perfect person to help us understand; he’s a slam poet, actor, pro soccer player and black historian with an SFU Bachelor’s degree in General Studies and a certificate of Liberal Arts, but most of all, he’s a storyteller. His talk in the Birch Building on February 19 spanned the better portion of the human timeline, but was focused on the neglected elements of our history.

He kicked things off with a little Shabooya roll call, rolled seamlessly into several poignant speeches delivered by Malcolm X and gave us all a taste of his poetry: “His mighty afro-pick had teeth made of lightning rods from God. Every time he combed his hair, planets would explode, stars went nova and black holes would implode…” He even brought up some of the commonly unmentioned African roots in the Americas, including Olmec basalt carvings of African faces in Veracruz, dating back to pre-Columbian times and Nubian voyages to South America in the early 1300s. “Storytelling is essential to who we are,” said Cameron in a later interview, adding that “every arena and avenue of society has a story to share.” He feels very strongly that the true story needs to be told. Unfortunately, due to centuries of imperialism and misinformation, that story isn’t always easy to find. In researching black history in particular, he says that “it makes sense that you have to dig to find the roots.”

As a matter of fact, Cameron and a former professor of his, Afua Cooper, currently the Ruth Wynn Woodward Endowed Chair in the Women’s Studies Department at Simon Fraser University and a Canadian History PhD, engaged The Vancouver Sun in a debate by letter and email over an issue concerning the legacy of BC. They were outraged that the paper made almost no mention of the 600-800 Black pioneers invited to the province in 1858 by Governor James Douglas. These pioneers were offered sanctuary due to American racial persecution and were essential in maintaining an early permanent presence in the region, in particular on Saltspring Island, and by extension are founding fathers of British Columbia as we know it today.

The editors and writers over at The Sun eventually realized their negligence and published an article entitled “Black Pioneers Integral to BC,” which you can read on the Vancouver Sun website at

The writer, Stephen Hume, also points out that Governor James Douglas, or the Father of British Columbia as he is known, was of Caribbean ancestry, and goes on to say that Douglas’s social vision “foreshadows the kind of compassionate, open society that much later reformers battled to attain and whose agenda even conservative governments seek to advance today.”

Though Kevan Cameron is an artist, he speaks from an activist’s viewpoint. In his opinion, Black History Month is essential to understanding society. “We need to utilize this month,” he says, adding that the stories of black history “need to be known and told… [it is] one of the most important to be known in the place we are now.”

One of these forgotten stories is that of Hogan’s Alley, a black heritage neighbourhood in East Vancouver’s Strathcona area, located between Union and Prior street from Main to Jackson Avenue. It was known also known as Park Lane. While the neighbourhood saw some rough periods as a red-light district around 1934, it was also the site of the only Afro-Canadian church, the African Methodist Episcopal Fountain Chapel, established in 1918. The neighbourhood was destroyed in the 70s by the gentrification of Gastown and the introduction of the Georgia Viaduct, but many still hold it as a symbolic heart of the African community in Vancouver.

Jacky Essombe, a professional dancer and instructor, ex-member of the Ivory Coast African National Ballet and a major figure in African cultural events in Vancouver, takes a slightly different point of view. She is an unofficial voice for the black community and recently told the Georgia Straight that “[history] becomes an intellectual debate because it feels safer that way. It’s different to feel the pain of people’s ancestors. And for black people, it’s very painful. You just have to sink into that pain without feeling you have to do anything about it.”

Regardless, Black History Month commemorative postage stamps are being released to help with the resolution of this difficult history, featuring the first black man and woman to hold public and political office in Canada, Rosemary Brown and Abraham Doras Shadd, respectively. With such a sterile approach to the dark side of African history in Canada, it is no wonder that Kevan Cameron and Jacky Essombe are working so hard to get the real stories out into the minds of Vancouver citizens. Black history isn’t just the history of black people, it is the dark history of humanity: the things people don’t like to talk about because of the personal pain they fear it will cause—the things ordinary everyday people try to block out of their minds to remain sane. Black History Month shouldn’t be like a history class, full of dusty dates, stamps and empty facts. It is also the time when we need to open up to the pain of the oppressed, and lament the wrongs of their oppressors.

Enjoy it? Share this on Facebook


© 2011 The Capilano Courier. phone: 604.984.4949 fax: 604.984.1787 email: