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Remembering secret history of B.C.'s Black pioneers

Last Updated Jan 31, 2021 at 12:17 pm PDT

Go Do Some Great Thing cover (Courtesy: Harbour Publishing)

More than four decades after it was first published, it remains the foundational work about the Black experience in B.C.

NEWS 1130 speaks to Crawford Kilian about the new edition of 'Go Do Some Great Thing'

VANCOUVER (NEWS 1130) — The Black Lives Matter movement, and especially the death of George Floyd at the hands of police in Minneapolis last year, have shone a new light on the issues of systemic racism in our society.

Here in B.C., the history of Black people in this province remains little-known. In the 1850s, native-born Black Americans were disqualified from becoming U.S. citizens following the Dred Scott Supreme Court decision. As a result, several hundred Black residents left California in search of a better life. Many ended up here, playing a vital role in the survival of B.C. as a British colony and a Canadian province.

“They decided to find another place to live and they had the courage and the determination to move to Vancouver Island and then to the British Columbia mainland,” explains author and journalist Crawford Kilian. “And, really, they did do some great things that helped shape the whole province.”

More than 40 years ago, Kilian’s Go Do Some Great Thing: The Black Pioneers of British Columbia detailed this history. Decades later, it remains a foundational work on the subject. Now, a third edition of the book has been published, in the hopes of finding a new audience.

LISTEN: Go Do Some Great Thing

Dr. Adam Rudder, co-chair of the Hogan’s Alley Society in Vancouver, wrote the foreword to this new edition. He discovered the book more than 20 years ago as a History undergrad at Simon Fraser University.

“It was impactful because it was really the first historical document on Black history in British Columbia that I’ve ever come across. In fact, it was my introduction to a lot of history that I had no idea about, even though I had grown up here in British Columbia and went through the school system here. There’s never been any mention of a Black history in British Columbia. It’s shocking.”

Kilian says now seemed like an appropriate time for Go Do Some Great Thing to reappear.

“The last year has seen a real intensification of our understanding of the position of racialized groups in North America as a whole. And so the publisher of the original edition got in touch with me and we did a blindingly fast job of revising and editing the book, bringing in a great deal of new material and effectively rewriting the whole thing,” he says.

“Some revisions were simply a matter of the fact that we are not quite as backward as we were in 1978. You don’t use terms like Indians anymore except when you’re talking about people from India,” Kilian adds. “And there were some uses of things like the N-word. So, those are gone.”

Kilian admits writing the book was a tough task, given the lack of primary sources and documentation. Still, he felt it was a story that needed to be told.

“I think there is, in general, still an attitude that it’s a very minor story and therefore isn’t worth much attention. There is this general attitude that the Black pioneers are outliers, minor players in the story of the province. And so who cares? I care, for one, and a lot of other people turned out to care.”

Rudder agrees, adding he hopes a new generation of readers discovers Go Do Some Great Thing as he did.

“My hope is predominantly that it reaches young people of all backgrounds, but particularly those of African descent, because I think one of the things that young people are struggling with here in our community is the sort of sense of not having not having a sense of belonging at all and dismissed that we don’t have a sort of history here that roots us here.”

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Kilian is disappointed that more that 40 years later, no-one has continued his work and written a more detailed and scholarly history of the Black experience in B.C.

“I’m an amateur,” he admits. “I just picked up the story because it was a great story. So, I’m still hoping that someone’s going to turn up and say ‘Boy, did he get that wrong’ and do the job right. But it was also a matter of just reminding people that the Black pioneers were here. They played a critical part in our development as a province and as a country in the 1850s and ’60s. And we should remember that.”

Rudder, who is an academic and a lecturer, agrees.

“That work needs to be done. And it’s complicated by a number of things. There’s not a lot of interest in that history or hasn’t been. I would assume that there’s going to be more now and I think actually probably right now is a great time for someone to really start to dig into that.”

Partial proceeds of Go Do Some Great Thing will go towards the Hogan’s Alley Society.

“That was actually the publisher’s idea,” Kilian admits. “I feel slightly embarrassed as the period I studied [in the book] was really from the 1850s to about 1900. And while I pay some attention to the experiences of B.C.’s Black community in the 20th and 21st century, I really haven’t gotten into that as deeply as I should have. So Hogan’s Alley was an important place in the history of Blacks in B.C., but it’s not an area I know much about.”

Indeed, Hogan’s Alley was once home to a thriving Black community in Vancouver that was effectively erased with the construction of the Georgia

Viaduct in the early 1970s. Rudder is working on a book about it.

“It’s actually based on my Master’s thesis and what I’m hoping to do is a little bit more archival research interviews and really contribute to the process of putting the Hogan’s Alley Black community onto the map in a way that is respectful, not only to the history of Black people, but the history of all folks that were in the Strathcona area and contributed to the vibrancy and the growth of Hogan’s Alley.”

As for Go Do Some Great Thing, Rudder hopes it inspires others to continue what Kilian started.

“It’s pretty incredible what he did, you know, with his spare time, putting this document together, just because he wanted that story to be out. And I think we owe him thanks for that, but at the same time, I don’t think that we can really rely on that sort of generosity.”

“I think that what we don’t sometimes realize is how much work it is to do this research in the archives and to do these interviews and to get out there and try and dig and figure out and to discover these sort of histories. This is work and it needs to be paid.”

Go Do Some Great Thing: The Black Pioneers of British Columbia is available from Harbour Publishing.