Raising the Silence: Remembering The Downtown Eastside’s Historical Black Community
By Savannah Walling
When whole neighbourhoods vanish and historical buildings and homes are bulldozed, our history and fundamental character disappear too.
How many people remember that black pioneers were among the founding immigrant groups of the city of Vancouver and the Downtown Eastside?
Back in 1870, black entrepreneurs Josephine Sullivan and her husband Phillip opened a tiny restaurant and general store in today’s Gastown area. Phillip, a fine pianist, also started a musical band. Over the years more black immigrants arrived from Britain, the Caribbean, Africa, the USA and Canada,
One group of African Americans started arriving from Alberta in the 1930’s, descendents of all-black settlements forming during the aftermath of the Civil War in Indian Territory, USA, in places where former slaves of the Five Civilized Tribes settled together for mutual support. Some fled for Alberta when Oklahoma – on achieving statehood – passed discriminatory laws and took away folk’s right to vote. Many of these immigrants – including the Gibson family – were part Aboriginal.
Like immigrants from all over the world, they arrived looking for a comfortable place to live, raise families, and develop business. They were prepared to work hard, but due to the unwritten racial segregation of the times, jobs and housing opportunities were limited. Black women were mostly limited to jobs as domestics and cooks or workers in the canneries and poultry packing houses, Black men to jobs as train porters, working on trains bringing thousands of immigrants onto the former False Creek Flats.
During hard time years and the Great Depression, they faced the same struggles many residents face today – the need for affordable housing, wages you can live on, and respect. People didn’t have much, but what they had they shared; they looked out for each other, putting on minstrel shows, community dances and rent parties to raise funds for the needy. Working hard to feed their families and put their children through school, people developed a tremendous personal dignity that allowed them to survive in hard times.
For over 60 years, the Downtown Eastside – from Main St. to Campbell Avenue and from Hastings to Prior Street – was home to Vancouver’s only black neighbourhood. The East End’s mix of many races was a place where blacks felt treated as human beings. Chic Gibson played baseball with the Japanese on the Powell Street Grounds (today’s Oppenheimer Park). Leonard Gibson attended Chinese language school with his friend Leonard Wong. Strathcona School was always a little United Nations.
Folks found down-home cooking and community at popular eateries like’s Vie’s Chicken and Steakhouse, run by
Randy Clark’s grandmother Vie Moore at 209 Union St. or the Country Club, a popular eatery located at 475 Powell St. that was run by Leona and Sylvester Risby, parents of Thelma, Chic and Leonard Gibson. At these eateries taxi drivers, sugar refinery workers, longshoremen, railroad porters and loggers rubbed shoulders with reporters, politicians, police, baseball players and visiting celebrities – all walks of life and different backgrounds.