Go Do Some Great Thing: The Black Pioneers of British Columbia
February 17, 2021
Review By Georgia Sitara
The revised third edition of Kilian Crawford’s ground-breaking book on BC’s Black pioneers is timely and essential reading. It is a critical corrective to omissions and erasure in both academic histories and in popular understandings, not only of the past but also of the present.
The book’s most important contribution, as relevant now as it was when it was first published in 1978, is in its peopling of Indigenous territories, the lands now known as British Columbia, with Black settlers, alongside white and other newcomers. Composed of a melee of ethnicities and nationalities, Black pioneers came from various Caribbean Islands and eastern Canada. They included free-born Northerners, Southern-born ex-slaves, Californians, and British subjects. Dispelling the white supremacist mythology of BC as a white settler society, the book introduces, by name, Black businessmen engaged in a wide variety of professions, skilled as well as unskilled workers, college graduates, teachers, preachers, and fortune seekers. All of them walk off pages of the book and into our imaginations, changing how and what we remember.
The North American focus on forced migration and slavery has led to the neglect of Black migration narratives. Kilian’s book shows Black people on the move, in search of opportunities, for a better life for themselves and for their families. Like other migrants, some early Black pioneers came and stayed; their families are now among the oldest settler families in the province. Others moved south after the abolition of slavery. If they had come to BC in search of a safe haven, “the increasing hypocrisy and pettiness of English-born Victorians must have been especially discouraging; with an American bigot, at least you knew where you stood.” (p.184)
Yes, Black pioneers in BC encountered, challenged, and resisted racism in churches, saloons, and theatres. But their history is never reduced to what was done to them. It is their hopes and their efforts which infuse the book. Nonetheless, Kilian is clear in his conclusions: in the 1860s and 1870s, Black British Columbians were largely middle class and their children were well educated: by mid-twentieth century, Black people in BC had lost economic ground.
The episodic and anecdotal history mapped in the book also shatters the illusion conjured up by the contemporary acronym BIPOC, referring to Black, Indigenous, People of Color, which might suggest a shared experience or history. Like their white contemporaries, Black settlers pre-empted Indigenous lands, “seized and destroyed Indigenous resources” (p.103) and in response “Black settlers were …robbed, threatened and sniped at by Indigenous persons” who resented the encroachment on their territories. Not because they were Black, but because they were settlers.
Documentary accounts of history like this one will help us better understand the world we inherited in all its complexity. Much work remains to done to recover Black history in BC and to ensure an anti-racist future. Kilian’s book has laid the foundations. It should be in every BC teacher’s repertoire and its gaps should inspire young historians to write the stories still to be told.
Kilian, Crawford. Go Do Some Great Thing: The Black Pioneers of British Columbia. Third edition. Madeira Park, BC: Harbour Publishing, 2020. 272 pp. $26.95 paper.