The story of Mitchell’s escape is “not completely unknown – it was in the newspapers at the time – but it had been forgotten,” McConaghy told Postmedia News.
“And the reasons for forgetting it are interesting to probe,” she added, noting a “conscious disinclination to emphasize a story like this one” in the history of the U.S. Pacific Northwest.
But “people brought their convictions here with them, when they settled in the northwest,” she said. “That’s as true of Victoria as it is of Washington territory.”
Nevertheless, the dominant historical narrative in the state education system suggests that rather than transplanting the battle over slavery from back east, “people came west to get away from the war. They were busy planting orchards and panning for gold.”
McConaghy and her co-author, Judy Bentley, have told the Charles Mitchell saga in a new book aimed at young readers, so the story can spread among a new generation of U.S. citizens.
And Crawford Kilian, one of the few B.C. historians to have written about the Mitchell case, applauded the U.S. authors for shining a spotlight on an important and long-overlooked moment in Canadian history.
“Charles Mitchell’s story does deserve to be better known,” said Kilian, author of the 2008 book Go Do Some Great Thing: The Black Pioneers of British Columbia. “It shows two kinds of determination: Charles Mitchell’s determination to escape to freedom, and the Victoria black community’s determination to make him free.”
He said knowledge about the 19th-century black community in B.C. is limited to “what we learn in school — and until recently, that was very little.
McConaghy said there’s a sad footnote to the Charles Mitchell story. Another newspaper clipping — this one from an 1876 edition of Victoria’s British Colonist — describing the disappearance and apparent death of a “colored man named Charles Mitchell” and a “white man known as Bill” after their canoe, laden with shingles for delivery to an unknown destination, was found overturned near Sooke, B.C.
Charles Mitchell appears to have died before reaching the age of 30, but as a free man. The grim notice in the British Colonist said Mitchell left a wife and four children — “one of whom has been born since he left home,” the paper noted.
“This is an important story for educators,” said McConaghy, “because it’s an important story for kids — that you can remake your life, that you’re not stuck with your lot.”