Go Do Some Great Thing: The Black Pioneers of British Columbia
November 4, 2013
Review By Crawford Kilian
The first edition of Go Do Some Great Thing was indeed a “first” in 1978. No book-length survey of the subject then existed, and Kilian’s volume was welcomed as an opportunity for British Columbians to learn of the contributions and tribulations of some six hundred African Americans who migrated to this province in 1858. The narrative began in 1850s San Francisco, where there were numerous restrictions on the freedom of black people, and the danger of being returned to Southern slavery was constant. The members of the black community considered emigration, sending a “Pioneer Committee” to Victoria to determine how they might be treated in the British territory. The committee’s highly favourable report encouraged hundreds more to ship for Victoria during the summer of 1858.
Boomtown Victoria offered opportunities for African-American workers, merchants, and entrepreneurs. Many grew quite affluent, and they showed their appreciation for their new homeland by establishing the Victoria Pioneer Rifle Company to protect it against American incursions. Though Kilian emphasized the contributions made by the original settlers and their descendants, his story necessarily included the discrimination they faced in housing, recreation, employment, and social acceptance. The end of American slavery in 1865 prompted many erstwhile Pioneers to try their fortunes again in the United States. Kilian followed the remnant Black community through this period and added a brief epilogue sketching developments in the twentieth century.
I enthusiastically reviewed the first edition in these pages (BC Studies 40[Winter 1978-79]: 86-91). Kilian’s explicit denial of any claim to scholarly merit dissuaded me from complaining about the lack of footnotes or the limitations of some of his sources; the absence of any contextual treatment of racism in British Columbia or elsewhere in that era; and his failure to analyze the Black community itself, its institutions, and its efforts to achieve equality. Since it was intended for the general reader I praised its style, its illustrations, its accessibility, and its challenge to professional historians to take the story further and deeper. Although there have been some journal articles elaborating parts of the story since then, the historical profession has not produced a scholarly survey to replace Kilian’s. The amateur historian has therefore stepped into the breach himself with a “second edition.” It has a new publisher and a back-cover blurb announcing: “This new edition adds vital information gathered by Crawford Kilian over the last thirty years.”
It takes a careful reading to recognize that new material. There are a few changes in wording and, occasionally, some additional details regarding episodes and personalities already described in the original. The epilogue comes closer to the present. The type is smaller and the pages more crowded, and a very few more titles are in the bibliography, although the scholarly articles published since 1978 are by-and-large ignored. Even the historians thanked in the introduction do not all appear in the list of sources. To compensate for the absence of adequate references, Kilian invites readers to visit his blog, http://crofsblogs.typepad.com/pioneers/. There are some interesting connections, but many have not been kept up to date.
Go Do Some Great Thing is still worth reading. It offers vignettes and personality sketches that support Kilian’s general thesis that the 1858 migration proved beneficial to the participants and their descendants, and to the Province of British Columbia, where their contribution is still not sufficiently recognized. It would make a good present for readers of BC Studies to give to less-informed friends and relatives.