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dave obee Fugitive slave came to Victoria

By Dave Obee

Archy Lee helped shape the early history of Victoria, although we can be quiet certain that he never asked for his role.

Lee was an 18-year-old slave from Mississippi who was at the centre of a high-profile legal battle in Sacramento and San Francisco in the spring of 1858. His case helped convince the blacks of San Francisco that perhaps they should find another place to live.

About 400 of them chose Victoria that spring. A few dozen blacks, including Lee, were on board the Commodore when it arrived here on April 25, 1858.

Lee had been brought to California in the fall of 1857 by his owner, Charles Stovall, who hired Lee out for wages. Stovall got a job teaching school, and after a while decided to send Lee back to Mississippi.

Lee ran away. Stovall found him and had him arrested. A judge set Lee free. He was arrested again under a warrant from another judge, who ruled in favour of Stovall.

Stovall vowed to return Lee to Mississippi by ship, but his plan was stymied when Lee was arrested yet again, this time by his friends. A third judge over-ruled the decision of the second one, and Lee was once again free.

He was arrested before he could leave the courtroom, because Stovall had enlisted the support of the United States commissioner, a man named William Penn Johnson. Unfortunately for Stovall, Johnson ruled in favour of Lee on April 14, 1858.

On that day, after being arrested four times, he finally walked out of the courtroom a free man. That was the same day that two ships arrived in San Francisco from Puget Sound, bringing confirmation of the gold to be had along the Fraser River in the British possessions far to the north.

That evening, a large contingent from San Francisco's black community gathered at the Zion church on Pacific Street to discuss the possibility of emigrating en masse. There were two choices, as reported by the San Francisco Daily Evening Bulletin the following day.

The people at the meeting considered "Vancouver's Island, in the British possessions, or to Sonora, in Mexico, in view of founding a permanent home for themselves on the Pacific." Most seemed to prefer the Mexican option, the newspaper said.

The blacks already knew that they were not wanted in California. The month before, the state legislature came close to passing a law that would require all blacks to carry registration papers, and would close the door to any blacks not already in the state.

The Lee case was the most celebrated fugitive slave case in the state's history, and it made it clear that change had to come. The blacks met at the church again the next night. Lee was introduced to the crowd, and there was much cheering and celebrating. A new hymn -- The Year of Archy Lee -- was sung, and money was collected to help cover the cost of his defence.

The "colored people," as the Bulletin called them, were back at the church the following evening. This time they were joined by Capt. Jeremiah Nagle of the steamer Commodore, who showed a map of Vancouver's Island and answered questions about the potential of the Victoria area.

Three days later, they reconvened at the church, and it was announced that 65 of them had decided to take the Commodore north to Victoria the following day. They were urged to buy as much land as possible, with a view of establishing a permanent settlement under British protection. The meeting was addressed by several senior members of the black community, including Mifflin Gibbs, who offered the farewell address. The Bulletin noted that while 65 were heading north, other blacks were still looking to Sonora as a possible new home.

"Whatever may be their destiny, we hope the coloured people may do well," the newspaper said.

Two weeks later, the Bulletin published a letter from its correspondent in Victoria.

"The population is generally estimated at five hundred, amongst whom may now be reckoned the celebrated coloured boy Archy. He came up with the Commodore," the report said.

On May 6, San Francisco's blacks gathered again at Zion church, this time to hear a report from some of the people who had already returned from Victoria. They said that Gov. James Douglas had welcomed them to the land of "freedom and humanity."

A letter from Wellington Delaney Moses, who was among the first blacks to go to Victoria, was read. "Thanks be to God, who brought us safe to a free land," he wrote.

"I consider Victoria to be one of the garden spots of this world," Moses said. "The governor told me to say to the coloured people of California that he authorized me to say to them if they should come and settle in Victoria they shall have all the rights and privileges and protection of the laws of the country."

With that encouragement, the people at the meeting decided to establish an emigration society to help blacks get to Vancouver Island. They met again on May 11, and adopted a document they called the "Declaration of the Sense of the Colored People."

It identified Vancouver Island as a "place which has unfolded to us in our darkest hour." The declaration stated further: "There is no country on earth that has greater resources to human happiness and greatness that the British possessions in North America, of which Vancouver's Island and New Caledonia are parts."

Hundreds of black Americans came to Victoria in 1858, including even Mifflin Gibbs, who had delivered the farewell address to the first contingent. Over time they found that they did not have the level of freedom they had been promised; Gibbs was covered with flour when he tried to attend a play in the local theatre.

After the Civil War many of Victoria's blacks returned to the United States. Gibbs became America's first African-American judge.

Lee was not as fortunate. He returned to California, where in 1873 he was found buried in sand, with only his head exposed. He was taken to hospital where he died.

Posted May 4, 2008


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