Remembering black politician and entrepreneur John Freemont Smith
When Vaughn Warren removes the Freemont Block sign from the 100-year-old bricks at 246 Victoria St., he hopes to discover another piece of history.
The artist was commissioned to refurbish the sign and, since familiarizing himself with the location’s storied past, Warren has been enthralled by its namesake, Kamloops pioneer John Freemont Smith.
Widely known as one of the province’s first black aldermen, Smith built the Freemont Block in 1911.
Warren’s workshop at 207 West Victoria St. was, in the early 1900s, the federal building, housing the post office, lands and titles and Indian affairs office, a location Smith likely frequented as Indian agent starting in 1912.
“I’ve never felt that living history before,” Warren said.
“In Kamloops, we have a few prominent characters we like to romanticize, like Billy Miner. J.F. Smith is definitely worthy of the same sort of treatment and it is tempting to romanticize and sort of embellish such a fascinating historical character.
“I’m looking forward to taking the sign down and renewing it and seeing what’s inside, what’s on the back of it and what marks or history have been left.”
Warren hopes to have the Freemont sign refurbished and hung again in time for Canada’s 150th anniversary on July 1.
Smith is memorialized in the pages of the Kamloops Sentinel as a well-respected citizen and community leader.
He was born in 1850 on the island of St. Croix to newly freed parents shortly after the end of slavery.
He earned his well-respected education in Copenhagen and Liverpool before travelling extensively in Europe.
Smith arrived in Victoria in 1872 and married before coming to Kamloops in 1884.
In the Interior, Smith worked as a prospector, cobbler, agricultural journalist, postmaster and helped found several community organizations — the Kamloops Agricultural Association, the Conservative Association, the Board of Trade, the Rifle Association, Moral Reform Association, mock parliament, Children’s Aid and Society for the Prevention of Cruelty of Animals, as reported in the Sentinel.
Smith was elected to city council in 1902 and became Indian agent in 1912, a role in which he was highly regarded.
Though Smith is widely remembered as one of the first black aldermen in the province, he wasn’t the first — on the west coast, Mifflin Gibbs was elected in Victoria in 1866 when B.C. was still a colony.
“It could be said he was the first black person to be elected to public office in the province of British Columbia, formed by joining Confederation in 1871,” said Ken Favrholdt, former curator of the Kamloops Museum and Archives.
“But, it is probably best to say Smith was the second black man to be elected to public office in British Columbia.”
Smith famously referred to himself as the first white man to explore the remote regions of the Thompson Valley — by that he meant he was the first person of non-First Nations descent to travel the region.
The infamous line inspired the title for Ashok Mathur’s new book on Smith, The First White Black Man, a long-form poem blending history and fiction released in 2016.
Mathur is a professor in the faculty of creative and critical studies at UBC Okanagan, but lived in the Freemont Block when he was Canada Research Chair in Cultural and Artistic Inquiry at Thompson Rivers University.
Mathur, like Warren, was soon intrigued by Smith’s life, even meeting the pioneer’s great-grandchildren and travelling to St. Croix to learn more about him.
“I’m really interested in some of the hidden stories of race politics in the construction of the nation and they are often hidden,” Mathur said.
“It’s more recently we’ve heard more about the Chinese railway workers or Japanese-Canadian internment and these kinds of things people choose not to hear about.
“Black history is largely written as a positive thing.”
There are few documented instances of discrimination against Smith, but it’s known his appointment as Indian agent was criticized by some who felt liaising with First Nations should be a white man’s job, Mathur said.
“Race certainly played a part in his life. How indeed his life was affected by his race, I can’t say with certainty,” Mathur said.
“Being in Kamloops at the time, one of the interesting things about race politics is it often depends on critical mass. If you’re the only racialized person in the area, often it’s less of a question or concern.”
Smith died in his office at the Freemont Block in 1934, but not before writing one last column on Kamloops settlement for the Sentinel, in which he recounted all the ways the town had changed since his arrival.
“One of Mr. Smith’s proudest pasts was that he was the first pioneer of the North Thompson Valley,” his obituary reads.
“Always ready to take a sporting chance, his is the real spirit of the true pioneer.”
February is Black History Month, honouring the legacy, achievements and contributions of black Canadians. The TRUSU Pan African Club is hosting a Black History Month dinner showcasing African music, dance, drumming, arts and crafts and more on Saturday, Feb. 25 at the Yacht Club, 1140 River St. at 6 p.m. For tickets, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.