Ron Nicholson is a director of the BC Black History Awareness Society. He believes it’s important to share Canadian Black History to diffuse prejudice, spread the awareness of Black contribution to Canadian history and provide positive role models for young Black people today. (Nicole Crescenzi/News Staff)

Black History Month: ‘My family has been here since before Canada was a country’

Oak Bay man shares his family’s history of coming to Canada via the Underground Railroad

In a quiet Oak Bay cafe, Ron Nicholson strummed the side of his coffee mug as he delved into his thoughts. As a director of the BC Black History Awareness Society, Nicholson’s historical knowledge intertwines with his own personal history.

While there were four major migrations of Black people into Canada, and while those who came up to B.C. in 1858 were free people, his own ancestors came up in the 1800s as part of the rush coming to Ontario and Quebec to escape slavery.

Most of these people travelled via a system of secret alliances and shelters known as the Underground Railroad. The term came from the secret code used so information about shelters (or stations) and guides (conductors) could be spoken of with less risk of discovery.

ALSO READ: Upcoming events for Black History Month 2019 in Victoria

“My great grandfather, he was a traveller on the Underground Railroad,” Nicholson said. “He and two other companions escaped from slavery in West Virginia and they made their way on foot from West Virginia through to Pennsylvania.”

For many people of Black descent, it can be difficult to find records or paperwork about ancestors since birth and death certificates were not kept for slaves. However, some abolitionists in the United States and Canada kept records of the people who came through the Underground Railroad, a move that came at great risk since aiding an escaped slave was illegal.

One of these record keepers was William Still, who kept records of Underground Railroad passengers, including where they’d come from, how much money they were given, and where they were heading.

After slavery was abolished in the States in 1865, Still published a book in 1868, under the title The Underground Railroad.

ALSO READ: The Alexander family was among the first Black pioneers in B.C.

“I call it the Bible of the Underground Railroad, it’s about two inches thick,” Nicholson said. “But my great grandfather is in those records, on page 228.”

Adam Nicholson, under the alias John Winkoop, passed through a station in Philadelphia before he and two companions crossed the border into what was then Upper Canada in 1854.

Adam settled in the Niagara area, in what is now southern Ontario, and helped build a community there through farming and construction.

Records in the St. Catharine’s library tell of Adam, including records from a family that hired him to help them on their farm.

ALSO READ: Black History Month offers an opportunity to learn

“She talks about how sad it was that he was a big strong man, he could carry 100-pound bags of sugar from the boat docks … about how he was a good worker, and it was kind of sad because he had all these scars on his back from whippings,” Nicholson said. “It was a kind of emotional reading that for me.”

Adam built a two-storey home in the Niagara area, one that the Nicholson family lived in for four generations. While Nicholson didn’t live in the house himself, he recalled visiting his uncle at the home when he was a child.

“My strongest memory of it was the terrible tasting well water,” he said with a laugh.

After Nicholson moved to B.C., he took on the role as the family historian and joined the B.C. Black History Awareness Society. Since then, he’s spent 20 years sharing the history of Black Canadians to spread education of their history and awareness of their contribution to the country.

“It’s amazing how many people aren’t aware of it,” Nicholson said. “So many times people will ask me ‘where are you from?’ and I’ll say ‘Canada,’ and they’ll ask ‘No but where are you really from?’ as if I have to be from the West Indies, or I have to be from Africa. But, my family has been here since before Canada was a country … Most of the people who are asking me, their family hasn’t been here half as long as my family.”

Nicholson said that while prejudice against Black people has certainly declined, it’s paramount for newer generations to know where they’ve come from.

“I think it’s important for young Black people in particular to have positive role models, and to learn that they’ve been here as long as most Whites,” he said.


Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter

Just Posted

VIDEO: ‘Stewie the Starfish’ mascot revealed at Premier League kickoff party

Pacific FC kickoff party scores in Victoria Inner Harbour

Victoria cannabis dispensaries are busy in their first days of legal operation

The Cloud Nine Collective and The Original FARM opened their doors on April 15

Report calls on Saanich to expand multicultural programming at recreation facilities

Report also notes that Saanich could do more for sexual minorities.

Big Brothers Big Sisters’ Bowl for Kids’ Sake returns to Langford

Annual fundraising event held from April 26 to 28

WATCH: Movie star and PACE alum Calum Worthy talks musical theatre and his career

“American Vandal” and “Austin and Ally” actor has been returning to the program for over 20 years

POLL: How often does your family use BC Ferries?

Navigating the lineups for BC Ferries is a way of life for… Continue reading

Crime Stoppers most wanted for Greater Victoria for the week of April 16

Greater Victoria Crime Stoppers is seeking the public’s help in locating the… Continue reading

Deck collapses in Langley during celebration, 35 people injured

Emergency responders rushed to the Langley home

B.C. mom wages battle to get back four kids taken from her in Egypt

Sara Lessing of Mission has help from Abbotsford law firm

VIDEO: Fire guts Peachland home

Crews are still on scene pumping water onto the blaze in the Okanagan neighbourhood

$6K raised in one day’s time for family of woman gunned down in Penticton

GoFundMe launched for family of Darlene Knippelberg, to pay for funeral costs and other expenses

B.C. mountain biker sent home from hospital twice, despite broken vertebrae

Released in Maple Ridge to go home with three fractured vertebrae

Seven tips to travel safely this Easter long weekend

An average of three people are killed, and hundreds more injured, each Easter long weekend in B.C.

Most Read