In this episode of BC Was Awesome host Bob Kronbauer travels to Salt Spring Island and visits with Naidine Sims, a descendent of some of the first African-Americans to settle in British Columbia after escaping slavery down south. Naidine tells the Starks' harrowing tale, reflecting on her family's past and offering hope for the future.
BC Was Awesome is a multiple Leo Award-nominated series documenting the sometimes offbeat stories of the history of British Columbia. It's a co-production of Vancouver Is Awesome and Artaban Productions.
Sylvia Stark was born into slavery in Clay County, Missouri, in about 1839. She was the youngest of three children of Hannah and Howard Estes. As was the custom for those who were slaves, Howard took the name of his owner, Tom Estes. He lived apart from his wife and children who resided with another family, the Leopolds.
Howard Estes bought himself and his family out of slavery at a cost of over $4000, an enormous sum at that time, and petitioned for their emancipation in 1852. The family subsequently moved to California hoping to find new freedom and a secure life. However, they were disappointed by the continued legal and educational restrictions they found there. A delegation was sent from a group of Black families in California to meet with Governor James Douglas of the Colony of Vancouver Island (later British Columbia), petitioning for the establishment of a Black settlement. Douglas encouraged them to resettle in the Vancouver Island area but did not agree to an exclusively Black settlement.
In 1855, when she was about 16 years old and residing in California, Sylvia had married a farmer called Louis Stark who was more than ten years older than herself. By 1860 when they began their journey to British Columbia they had two children, Emma Arabella and Willis Otis.. They travelled by boat up the coast bringing considerable livestock, both horses and 50 head of cattle, though due to bad weather some of these were lost. Howard and Hannah Estes settled in the Victoria area, while Sylvia and Louis established a farm north of Vesuvius, in the Broadwell area of Salt Spring Island.
Over the next fifteen years, Sylvia and Louis had four more children on Salt Spring: John Edmond, Abraham Lincoln, Hannah Serena and Marie Albertina. They established a farm, grew vegetables and raised chickens. They also moved twice, due to encounters with Aboriginal people and the murder of two of their friends, first to the Fruitvale area on the northeast shore of Ganges harbour, then to the property on Stark Road that is still owned by Sylvia and Louis Stark's descendants.
In 1875 the family moved to Cedar, Nanaimo, where their last child, Louisa, was born in 1878. However, Sylvia missed Salt Spring, her home and friends, and about 1885 returned to live on the family farm with her son Willis and her father, Howard who was now a widower. Her daughter Louisa continued to live in Nanaimo with Louis.
Sylvia remained on Salt Spring for the rest of her life living with Willis who farmed and hunted. She died in 1944 at age of c. 104. In 2014, Sylvia's great grandaughter, and her great-great grandaughter still live on Salt Spring and are shown in pictures on this site.
Note: Story with content from the Salt Spring Archives.