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A look back at John Fremont Smith

In honour of Black History Month, KTW revisits this story on John Fremont Smith of Kamloops,, one of the first black politicians to serve in B.C. This story was originally published in February 2016.
John Fremont Smith
Jophn Fremont Smith, as photographed in the early 20th century.

Kamloops pioneer John Fremont Smith is widely known as one of the province’s first black aldermen, having served on Kamloops council from 1903 to 1907.

Smith built the Fremont Block in 1911. It stand today, downtown at 207 West Victoria St. Smith is memorialized in the pages of the now-defunct 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 and postmaster and helped found several community organizations, including the Kamloops Agricultural Association, Conservative Association, Board of Trade, Rifle Association, Moral Reform Association, Mock Parliament, Children’s Aid and Society for the Prevention of Cruelty of Animals.

Smith was elected to city council in 1903 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. 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 famous line inspired the title for Ashok Mathur’s book on Smith, The First White Black Man, a long-form poem blending history and fiction released in 2016.

Mathur lived in the Fremont Block when he was Canada Research Chair in Cultural and Artistic Inquiry at Thompson Rivers University. Mathur 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.

Smith died in his office at the Fremont 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.”