A look at Black history in British Columbia

Cover by Lauren Kelly

Cover by Lauren Kelly

Stories lost and forgotten

By Katie Czenczek, Staff Writer

 

When it comes to Black history in Canada, oftentimes not much is taught aside from the stories of Black slaves seeking refuge within Canada’s borders via the Underground Railroad. Not only does this fail to tell Canada’s very own history of discrimination and racism towards the Black community, but it also erases their contributions to Canadian society.

Silvia Mangue Alene, President of the BC Black History Society, explained the history of the first Black immigrants to move to British Columbia in an interview with the Other Press.

The people who came [to Victoria] in 1856 were invited by James Douglas and were entrepreneurs ready to start their own businesses.”

The first wave of Black migrants to the British colony came from California. Upon the invitation sent out from Sir James Douglas, they moved to Vancouver Island to build a new life. Many owned farms, worked in trades, had their own businesses, or became dentists, teachers, and lawyers on Vancouver Island. They were responsible for building many churches and buildings in the emerging settlements.

Sir James Douglas himself was of mixed heritage, as he was the son of a free woman of colour and a Scottish Merchant. Born in British Guiana—now known as Guyana—in 1803, he eventually became “Governor of the Crown Colony of Vancouver Island, [which] was established in 1851 under the direction of the Colonial Office in London,” according to BCBlackHistory.ca. Douglas formally sent out an invitation to Black Americans living in California in the hopes of staving off American Annexation of the British Colony by increasing his own colony’s population.

With the Gold Rush in full swing, tensions at the British and American border were increasing. Douglas tried to stamp out the growing American threat by inviting Americans to live on Vancouver Island, and he succeeded.

The fact of the matter is, without the approximately 800 Black people who immigrated to Vancouver Island, the British Colony could have just as easily fallen to the United States. So, did Canada save Black people from oppression, or did Black people save Canada by strengthening what was to eventually become part of British Columbia?

Alene explained the importance of documenting stories of Black Canadians in British Columbia.

“The history taught in schools is very white-centric, so it’s up to us to tell our stories. When you’re oppressed, you don’t sit down and take it, you need to rise up and tell your own history. My goal is to log the history of Black pioneers in British Columbia, along with Black people who’ve shaped Canada over the years.”

One of these stories includes Vancouver’s lost history of Hogan’s Alley.

During the first six decades of the twentieth century, Park Lane was nicknamed Hogan’s Alley, which ran on the southwestern edge of Strathcona, only to be replaced with the Georgia Viaduct we now know today. It was effectively wiped out during the 1970s as the city attempted to address poverty in Hogan’s Alley, and to provide a transportation route for people who lived in the suburbs yet worked in the city.

The area was the first and only Black community in Vancouver and a part of Chinatown.

Hogan’s Alley was where Jimi Hendrix’ paternal grandmother, Nora Hendrix, called home, and is where he spent a large portion of his childhood. A musically-gifted family overall, Nora Hendrix also sang Vaudeville with her husband in Seattle and Vancouver.

Another notable Black woman who lived in Hogan’s Alley was the first Canadian woman to have her own national television show, Eleanor Collins. Historica Canada describes Collins as Vancouver’s “first lady of jazz,” who worked for CBC radio and television for decades. She eventually moved to Burnaby in 1942 with her husband, Richard Collins, in order to start their family. They were the first Black family to move to Burnaby at this time, and the community of Burnaby did not receive them well. They attempted to petition against the Collins family’s move to Burnaby, an effort that ultimately failed.

Moreover, Barbara Howard also lived in Vancouver at this time. According to Historica Canada, “at only 17 years old, she broke the British record for the 100-yard dash, qualifying to represent Canada at the 1938 British Empire Games in Australia.” This made her “the first Black female athlete to represent Canada in international competition.”

When the freeway was built, it wiped Hogan’s Alley completely off the map. Home to a variety of Black-owned businesses and featuring the only Black church in the city at the time, an entire community was displaced due to the introduction of the freeway. It also managed to displace Italian, Chinese, and Japanese Canadians who lived in the area. Many Black men worked as porters on the Great Northern Railway because it was one of the few jobs available to them amid the city’s discrimination. The railway was nearby Hogan’s Alley, making the street a convenient location for porters to live.

Urban renewal was the policy used that involved building infrastructure on top of areas with alleged urban decay. Similar to the gentrifying policies of today, urban renewal plans tended to disproportionately affect minorities who lived in poorer neighbourhoods, such as Hogan’s Alley. According to blackstrathcona.com, “The City declare[d] eastern Strathcona as industrial. As this makes mortgages or money for renovations difficult to get, the neighborhood [began deteriorating]” in 1930. The city’s lack of upkeep took a toll on the neighbourhood, therefore causing the slum-like conditions Vancouver was so keen to erase by the ’70s.

The removal of Hogan’s Alley—not to mention the lack of city funding put towards maintaining the neighborhood’s conditions—is an example of institutional racism in British Columbia. In the not-so-distant past, an entire community of business owners, families, and fellow Vancouverites was forced to disperse in order to make way for the viaduct. It’s not purely coincidental that the viaduct was chosen to run directly through the only concentrated Black community in Vancouver.

Luckily, with the turn of the 21st century—thanks to members of the Black community today in Vancouver—the city has slowly but surely begun the process of honouring Hogan’s Alley. Announced on February 13, The Northeast False Creek Plan (NEFC) was passed. The plan aims to provide 100 per cent rental homes, of which 70 per cent will include homes for ordinary or fixed-incomes, a Black cultural centre, archives, and other infrastructure to improve the community’s quality of life.  This will help keep the stories of Hogan’s Alley alive, with the cultural centre and archives providing Black history.

Alene also noted how these stories help to improve relations between minority and majority groups in BC.

“We live in a multicultural society, but we don’t often know each other’s stories. In order to dismantle racism, we need to learn each other’s history. That way, it makes it that much harder to hate someone whose struggle you’ve heard.”

Finally, Alene discussed the importance of having Black history taught to those who are a part of the Black community.

“It’s very simple. It’s seeing someone like you doing something that you want to do. That role models who look and sound like you helped shape Canada and that you can too. It’s empowering.”

Though Hogan’s Alley was destroyed, its impact on Vancouver and Canadian culture are still felt to this day. People such as Eleanor Collins, Nora Hendricks, and Barbara Howard are a part of the city’s backbone, and their contributions are something to be immensely proud of. With the NEFC plan underway, it is possible for its legacy to live on as an important part of Vancouver’s history. Moreover, it is a reminder to Vancouverites about the danger of gentrifying areas, and how such actions can lead to the loss of cultural history.

 

The Other Press

The Other Press, Douglas College's student newspaper since 1976. Articles, insight and updates from the New West and Coquitlam campuses.

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