It’s about telling stories that should’ve already been told.
Since the mid-1800s, British Columbia has been home to Black communities.
“. . . but finding the Black community in most official historical records has been challenging and frustrating. Except for in a few specific collections, they have simply not been included,” notes a passage in We’ve Been Here All Along, an online exhibit at coquitlamheritage.ca
However, after delving into local history, Coquitlam Heritage is planning to unveil a new exhibit focusing on Coquitlam’s Black community, says Tannis Koskela, manager of exhibits at Coquitlam Heritage at Mackin House.
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“We’ve been doing oral histories and we’ve been talking to people and getting their family stories,” Koskela says.
While timelines are tentative, Koskela says they’re hoping to have the exhibit online later this month. The exhibit will likely range on people who found their way to Coquitlam from Africa and from the Caribbean, ranging from newcomers to fifth-generation Canadians, according to Koskela.
The new exhibit is slated to look at William Theophlus Brown. Born and raised in the American south, Brown eventually became president of the Canadian Psychiatric Association in the 1980s.
Known for his work in psychopharmacology and lithium, he travelled to Riverview Hospital as part of his private practice, Koskela says.
Having worked as a porter in his youth, Brown was also a member of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, a group that was, “instrumental in a lot of inroads into fair employment practices,” according to Koskela.
At the Port Moody Station Museum, curator Markus Fahrner says he’s hoping to find some artifacts to better tell the story of Olympic high-jumper, Grey Cup champion, human rights advocate, and one of B.C.’s first Black politicians, Emery Barnes.
Born in New Orleans and raised in Oregon, Barnes had a stint with the NFL’s Green Bay Packers. He reportedly said that racism toward a teammate convinced him to leave the United States
After earning a Bachelor of Social Work from UBC, Barnes eventually followed the urging of then-fellow social worker and future B.C. Premier Dave Barrett and ran for political office.
After an unsuccessful campaign in 1969, Barnes won his first race in 1972. Barnes was also known for living on welfare for two months, using that experience to lobby for better social assistance.
In addition to representing Vancouver Centre in the Legislative Assembly of B.C. four times, Barnes also lived in Port Moody for a while, according to Fahrner.
“I’m hoping to set up a small, permanent display for him, that honours him,” he says.
Speaking to CBC last year, Constance Barnes discussed her father and his message to youth: “Dreams of hope can come true if you keep a clear vision of where you are going.”
Artifact collection limited
Coquitlam Heritage’s collection of artifacts currently includes: “a tin toy, a uniform, a tablecloth, and a set of books that vaguely hint at the existence of a Black community,” notes We’ve Been Here All Along.
“The uniform is a reminder that Black people also fought for our country, and the books illustrate the ease with which Black accomplishments were overlooked for much of this country’s history. The other items, sadly, are a commentary on the prevalence of, and disregard for, racism.”