Two British Columbia cities are culturally richer and more enlightened because of Joseph and Gail Morong’s missionary-like zeal to promote Black history.
When the Trinidadian couple arrived in Prince George 17 years ago, Black History Month was not celebrated and very few residents were aware of the impact made by the early Black settlers to the development of the western province.
With the help of colleagues at the College of New Caledonia – where Joseph was a Geographic Information Systems instructor – and family friends, the Morongs co-founded the Prince George Black History Society in 1999.
“We started with a concert and event where tasty Black and West Indian foods were offered as samples and these were well received by the community,” said Gail Morong, who taught at secondary schools, conducted anti-racism workshops and was the president of Educators Against Racism. “Celebrations were expanded over the years to include dance and steelpan presentations and funds were even provided to start a project related to researching Black Pioneers in Northern B.C. At the peak, we had about 10 events during the month of February to mark Black History Month.”
When Joseph Morong left the College of New Caledonia four years ago, the couple relocated to Kamloops where he was hired by Thompson Rivers University (TRU).
“There was nothing about Black history when we got here,” said Gail Morong, who is an instructional designer for open learning and chair of the equity committee at TRU. “I gave some of my personal books on Black history to the library for a display and then I learned from a member of the equity committee (Ashok Mathur) last year that he lived in the building where (an early Black settler once had his business). I was blown away by that.”
Born in 1850 in the Danish West Indies which is now the U.S. Virgin Islands, John Freemont Smith lived in Victoria for a few years before moving to Kamloops in 1884. He owned a shoemaking business, served as an Indian agent, postmaster, secretary of the local board of trade and city assessor, wrote articles for mining and agriculture publications and was elected B.C.’s first Black alderman in 1903.
His office was located at 246 Victoria St. where Mathur – who is also the director of TRU’s Centre for Innovation in Culture and the Arts in Canada – lived.
So far this month, Gail Morong has led a group in Afro-Caribbean dance and has arranged for Vancouver-based raconteur, playwright and educator, Comfort Ero, to perform on Saturday and speak at an event on February 27.
“The Black communities in both Prince George and Kamloops are small, but that doesn’t mean that the rich Black history of those communities and northern B.C. cannot be celebrated,” said Gail Morong. “All it takes is for someone to run with an initiative and others will follow.
“The group that we helped form in Prince George has morphed into the Prince George African Heritage Society and is doing great things year-round.”
Gail Morong (nee Dindayal) attended Naparima Girls High School before travelling to Winnipeg in 1976 to pursue undergraduate science studies at the University of Manitoba where she met her husband who was a student at neighbouring Presentation College in T & T.
After graduation, they returned to the twin-island republic where they got married and started a family before moving back to Winnipeg in1993. They relocated to Prince George a year later.
Blacks have been an integral part of British Columbia’s history, starting with Guyanese-born Sir James Douglas – B.C.’s first governor – inviting African-Americans to become pioneers in the province just over 150 years ago.
America’s first elected Black judge and abolitionist, Mifflin Gibbs, was Canada’s first Black politician, having being elected to Victoria City Council in 1866. He also built B.C.’s first railway, served as Victoria’s deputy mayor and played a pivotal role in the then colony’s entrance into the Canadian Confederation.
Midwife and Salt Spring Island resident, Sylvia Stark, delivered hundreds of babies and saw the island pass through its frontier stage to the modern era before passing away in 1944 at the age of 105.
By RON FANFAIR