Old cemetery tours highlight black history in Victoria

Local celebs, business leaders part of early immigrants’ stories

Sherri Robinson of the Old Cemeteries Society. The society is putting on a series of tours and talks from now until August.

Sherri Robinson of the Old Cemeteries Society. The society is putting on a series of tours and talks from now until August.

Among the rows of tombstones at Ross Bay Cemetery, Corinthia Alexander lies buried beside her one-year-old daughter Eva Teressa. Passersby would never know the significance of the as-yet unmarked grave, which holds the remains of one of the first Victoria-born black citizens.Alexander, nee Pierre, was born in 1868 to Thomas Pierre, who owned a tailor shop on Yates Street near Douglas, recounted Valin Marshall of the B.C. Black History Awareness Society. Corinthia married Thomas Alexander and had seven children. Both the Pierre and Alexander families were among the first to immigrate to Victoria in 1858, leaving behind bad conditions in the San Francisco area, Marshall said. On Sunday, as Black History Months draws to a close, Marshall will help conduct a tour of the cemetery, highlighting the graves of early black pioneers in Victoria.In California, blacks could not get citizenship and could not testify against white people in court, Marshall explained. On Vancouver Island, blacks could vote, sit on a jury and become full citizens after living here for seven years. Like any citizen, they could buy land for $5 an acre.In many respects, life was better up north , Marshall said. “In the 1850s, Victoria was very cosmopolitan … Today you don’t see too many blacks on the street (but at that time) there were about 3,000 on Vancouver Island.”The weekend’s tour is one of dozens organized by the Old Cemeteries Society, running from February through August. Each with a different theme, the tours tell the story of Victoria’s early industry, immigration and local celebrities. Held at several cemeteries in the region, the tours discuss the brewing, shipbuilding, and construction industry, as well as early settlers from China, Ireland, and elsewhere. “The stories are fascinating,” said Sherri Robinson of the Old Cemeteries Society. Tour leaders “get inside” their subjects by researching the histories through old newspapers, archives and genealogical records.Sometimes, a participant on the tour will bring new details, she said. “They’ll say, ‘That’s my great auntie,’” and the tour leader will incorporate the new information the next time around.Robinson herself has 42 family members buried at Ross Bay cemetery, and is guiding a brand new tour in April highlighting the Rogers Chocolates legacy. The cemetery speaks to our past and our future, Robinson said. Learning the stories is important because it makes us mindful of who has gone before, allowing us to live the life we have today, she said.To see the schedule of upcoming tours, visit www.oldcem.bc.carholmen@vicnews.comMark your calendar• On Feb. 26, the B.C. Black History Awareness Society will ceremoniously unveil a stone marker at the grave of Corinthia and daughter Eve Alexander. Descendant Doug Hudlin will attend. The society purchased the marker with help from the city and the Old Cemeteries Society. Meet at 1 p.m. at Ross Bay cemetery opposite Fairfield Plaza.• On Feb. 27, John Adams and Valin Marshall conduct a grave tour at Ross Bay Cemetery of early black pioneers to Victoria. Meet at Starbucks in Fairfield Plaza at 2 p.m.Did you know?The Old Cemetery Society works to restore damaged grave markers, does historical research and conducts cemetery tours. Recently, the society launched a new marker project to indicate rows and plot numbers at Ross Bay Cemetery.