Black pioneer speaks at exhibit launch

An appreciative crowd came out to the Whitehorse Public Library on Tuesday evening to celebrate the diversity of Yukon's past as part of Black History Month. 

An appreciative crowd came out to the Whitehorse Public Library on Tuesday evening to celebrate the diversity of Yukon’s past as part of Black History Month.

Sponsored by Hidden Histories Society Yukon, the event featured the launch of two new exhibits. This was followed by a fascinating talk by a guest speaker, the Reverend Joshua Phillpotts, formerly of Watson Lake and Whitehorse.

The history of the Yukon has long been written as a WASP text, built upon the foundation works of Pierre and Laura Berton, Martha Black and various gold rush chronicles, but there is more to the story than that.

The Hidden History Society came together as an informal group in the early 2000s, gathering information about Asian, black, and other ethno-cultural groups that have been an integral part of the history of the Yukon. Over the years, this group has sponsored a number of special events throughout the Yukon and created several exhibits, some of which can be viewed at the Yukon Department of Tourism and Culture’s website.

The first exhibit portrays the Hunter family. Charles and Lucille Hunter came to the Klondike via the Stikine Trail in late 1897. Their daughter Teslin was named after the place along the trail where she was born in December 1897. They staked Bonanza Creek claims in 1898, and operated a Grand Forks restaurant. In the years that followed, the Hunters mined all over the territory.

After Charles died, Lucille continued to operate the mines on her own. During the Second World War, she operated a laundry in Whitehorse, aided by her grandson, Buster. Buster relocated to the Queen Charlotte Islands after the war, and even brought his family back to Whitehorse for a brief period of time. Current descendants helped in the design of the family exhibit panel, which proved to be a learning experience for both the family and the Hidden History Society.

The second exhibit is of the Morgan family. Dudley and Reita Morgan both graduated from Bellevue Hospital School of Nursing in Kingston, Jamaica, after which they moved to Canada, and worked their way west until they reached the Yukon in the late 1970s. They lived an active community life in Whitehorse for nearly three decades, adopting their son Rodney in 1985. Rodney proved to be a gifted performer, “dazzling audiences with his talented singing, dancing and choreography.” Dudley and Reita retired to Calgary in 2006, and Rodney moved to Toronto where he follows a career as a widely recognized performer. While the Morgans were unable to attend the launch of the exhibit, Dudley’s sister Joy was in attendance.

The main feature of the event, however, was Reverend Joshua Phillpotts, whose powerful oratory enthralled the audience for close to two hours. Archivist and historian Linda Johnson, who has conducted extensive oral history with Phillpotts, introduced him, making reference to their collaboration.

Phillpotts was born in Jamaica 86 years ago of mixed parentage. Tracing his lineage back to his grandparents, he described himself as one variety short of a Heinz 57 blend. Phillpotts came to Canada in 1965 with his wife Yvonne, whom he married after an old-fashioned courtship, and their three children.

He said that each incoming traveller to Canada was allowed to bring two bottles of alcohol. With a family of five, that amounted to 10 large bottles of Jamaica rum. When inspecting their luggage upon their arrival and learning that they were destined for the Yukon, the customs officer commented: “You’re going to need every drop of it!”

While Phillpotts had been to northern Canada before and was not surprised by the weather conditions in Watson Lake, his family must have taken some time to adjust to the starkly different climate. But the community of Watson Lake welcomed them with open arms, if not for the authentic Jamaica white rum packed in their suitcases, then for the skills they brought with them.

They were a matched pair. Phillpotts served the spiritual needs of the community, while Yvonne served the medical health needs. Yvonne was both a qualified nurse and mid-wife – skills in demand in the small community. In less than three weeks she had a job at the nursing station.

Within a short time of their arrival, Yvonne was advised by a neighbour to keep her children separate from the native children because they had “head vermin.” Yvonne saw it differently: “That’s why I am here, because they have needs. I want to be able to help them because they are God’s children. I am going to care for them and I want you to see the little northern angels that I turn out when they get rid of their head vermin. “

Phillpotts campaigned to have the First Nation children integrated into the public school at Watson Lake. The conditions that prevailed at the time were tantamount to segregation; the school the native children attended did not offer the kind of education that would provide them with marketable job skills when they graduated.

That is how their ministry in the Yukon unfolded. Phillpotts had a large region to serve, from near Fort Nelson in the south, to Rancheria in the west, to Cantung to the east, on the border with the Northwest Territories. When prompted, the Reverend recalled a trip he made one year to Cantung the day after Christmas for a service. His car became stalled on the road at minus 50 degrees, and he had nearly frozen to death when help arrived. He survived, which was a good thing for Cantung.

The delayed rescue was the result of a fire in the small mining camp, which left the tiny community without water. For several days, he applied the skills he learned in technical school, before turning to the seminary, to make the repairs required to help get the water running again.

The Phillpotts eventually moved to Whitehorse to continue their ministry until they were dispatched to serve northern Alberta after 10 years in the Yukon. As Phillpotts noted himself, this was the first time that he had been back in the Yukon for 40 years.

Michael Gates is a Yukon historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse. His latest book, Dalton’s Gold Rush Trail, is available in Yukon stores. You can contact him at msgates@northwestel.net

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