SLYVIA ESTES STARK
(1839 – 1944)
By Mary M. Alward
Sylvia Estes was born into slavery in Clay County, Missouri in 1839. Her father, Howard Estes, worked for Tom Estes, a man of Scottish descent. Her mother, Hannah, worked for a German baker and bore three children. As with all slaves, Sylvia’s parents took their last name from their owner.
The British Columbia Archives, MS-0091, Wallace, Marie Albertina (Stark) 1867 – 1966, tells a bit about Sylvia’s earliest memories. “Sylvia’s first recollections of her childhood days were associated with work. Sylvia remembered that her mother used to tie her big apron around her neck and stand her on a chair to dry dishes fo white folks.” Sylvia rarely played with other children. Most of her time was spent learning how to knit and sew. Although slaves were not allowed, by law, to read or write, Slyvia became literate by listening to the school lessons of the children she cared for.
Howard Estes eventually received his freedom papers from Tom Estes. He left Missouri to work in the California gold mines during the Gold Rush and bought his wife, Hannah, and their son from their owners for $1,000. He paid $900 to free Sylvia.
At this time Howard decided that he wanted to return to Missouri. Being a free man, he was allowed to purchase land in that State. The family’s new-found freedom and happiness soon came to an end. Night riders, called Klu-Kluks began beating “colored people.” Frightened for their lives, Sylvia and her family left their land on April 1, 1851 to settle in California, which was a “free State.” They arrived five months later.
Not long after their arrival, California passed legislation prohibiting blacks from testifying against whites in court. Sylvia and her family felt they were living under “legalized injustice.”
In 1958, the leader of the African Community received a letter from Governor John Douglas. The letter encouraged the people of the Community to immigrate to Vancouver Island. Sylvia and her family decided to leave the United States.
Sylvia married farmer Lou Stark in 1855. In 1860, both the Stark and Estes families moved to British Northwest (Canada.) At this time Sylvia had two children and was expecting a third. Slyvia and Lou settled on a farm on Saltspring Island, not far from her parents, who settled on Vancouver Island.
By 1875, Sylvia began to practice midwifery. She and her family moved to Vancouver Island just outside of nanaimo. Sylvia was not happy there. She longed for her home at Saltspring. When Sylvia was forty-six, she left Lou and returned to the farm at Saltspring, which she ran with her son, Willis. Sylvia remained on the farm until 1944, when she died at the age of 106. Sylvia had led a long life, overcoming the bondage of slavery and prosecution by the white community. She is an inspiration to us all and should long be remembered.