Mifflin Wistar Gibbs

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to: navigation, search
Mifflin Wistar Gibbs in 1902

Mifflin Wistar Gibbs (17 April 1823 – 11 July 1915) was an African-American attorney, judge, diplomat and banker. Born in Philadelphia, he moved to California as a young man during the California Gold Rush. Angered by discriminatory laws passed in 1858, he and several hundred American blacks moved that year to Victoria, British Columbia. Gibbs lived and worked there for ten years.

After the American Civil War, Gibbs and many of the other black settlers returned to the United States. In the late 1860s, he settled in Little Rock, Arkansas, the capital of the state, and became an attorney. He was active in Reconstruction politics, and in 1873 Gibbs was elected as a city judge, the first black judge elected in the US. In 1897 he was appointed as American consul to Madagascar.

Early life and education[edit]

Mifflin Wistar Gibbs was born in 1823 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (a free state), as the second of four siblings, the eldest being brother Jonathan Clarkson Gibbs. Their father was a Methodist minister.[1] As a young adult, Gibbs became active in the abolitionist movement in the city and worked for Frederick Douglass.[2] He was also involved in the Philomatheon Institute of Philadelphia, a literary organization which included Douglass, Charles Burleigh Purvis, William Whipper, and Izaiah Weir.[3] Philadelphia had long had a flourishing free black community, as people had found work there even before the revolution and slavery was abolished after the Revolutionary War. Like tens of thousands of other men, Gibbs moved to California during the Gold Rush years.[2] He arrived in San Francisco in late 1850 and tried to find work as a carpenter, a trade he had pursued in Philadelphia, but was discouraged by discrimination he faced. He then partnered with Nathan Pointer selling clothers, and then with Peter Lester importing boots and shoes. In 1851 together with Jonas H. Townsend, W. H. Newby, and William H. Hall, he published the Alta California,[3] "the state's only African-American newspaper."[2] He was later a proprietor, publisher, and contributor to another paper, The Mirror of the Times.[4] He was also active in statewide conventions of black people in 1854, 1855, and 1857, and together with Lester, stood against poll taxes in San Francisco.[3]

In 1858 he and other American blacks were angered when the California legislature passed discriminatory laws intended to discourage blacks from entering or staying in the state: they were deprived of the right to own property and were disqualified from giving evidence against a white person in court. All black people in California were required to wear distinctive badges.[5] Angered by these developments, Gibbs and two other African-American men went to British Columbia to meet with Sir James Douglas, governor of the province, to learn about the treatment of blacks in Canada. Douglas assured the Americans that they would be treated like other residents in this frontier area.

Emigration to Victoria[edit]

Starting in 1858, Gibbs led an estimated 600 to 800 African Americans,[6] many with families, from California to the Victoria area, where some settled on Vancouver Island.[5] They comprised a major portion of the early frontier community.[6] Gibbs became a naturalized British citizen in 1861, together with 52 other American blacks from the emigrant group.[6] Gibbs worked as a merchant and also became involved in politics during his ten-year stay in Canada.

In the 1860 Vancouver Island Legislative election, the vote of the black community in the election for the Vancouver Island Legislative Assembly defeated Amor De Cosmos.[7] He railed against blacks having the franchise and worked to prevent their voting in the next election.[6]

Victoria City Council[edit]

Gibbs ran in 1862 in the first race for a Victoria City Council seat; he placed 7th in this race, missing a council seat by four votes.[8] He was elected to Victoria City Council in 1867, serving till 1869.[9]

Confederation Movement[edit]

In 1868 Gibbs was the Salt Spring Island delegate to the Yale Convention, an important step toward British Columbia joining Canada in the confederation.[10]

Return to United States[edit]

After about a decade, Gibbs returned to the United States, settling in Little Rock, Arkansas, the capital of the state. He read the law to become an attorney, passing the bar in 1870. Becoming active in the Republican Party, he was appointed to a number of judicial and government positions, including County Attorney of Pulaski County, Arkansas.[11] In 1872 he was a delegate to the National Convention of Colored men in New Orleans.[3] In 1873 Gibbs was elected to the Office of the City Judge as a Republican,[11] the first black judge elected in the United States.[1]

In 1876 he was elected president of the National Convention of Colored Men at Nashville, Tennessee, and in June of that year he was appointed register of the United States Land Office at Little Rock. He was also a delegate to the 1876, 1880 Republican National Convention, and 1884 Republican National Conventions, and was a number of the "immortal 306" who supported Ulysses S. Grant in the 1880 convention. He was elected to the Bar Association of Little Rock in 1882.[3]

He became wealthy through his practice and real estate investments. In 1897, Gibbs was appointed by Republican president William McKinley as the American consul to Madagascar. He hired as an aide his daughter Ida's friend, William Henry Hunt, whom he mentored. Hunt was the first African American to have a full career as a diplomat for the United States.

Gibbs returned to the United States in 1901. He was selected as president of a largely African-American bank in Little Rock.

Personal life[edit]

Gibbs was married and had two daughters with his wife Maria Ann (Alexander) during the decade they lived in Victoria, British Columbia. The family relocated to Oberlin, Ohio in 1869 where both daughters later attended college. Wife, Mary Ann, attended Oberlin College 1852-1854. Daughter, Ida Alexander Gibbs (1862-1957) earned both a bachelor's and master's in English, completing a "full gentleman's program." Her sister Harriet Gibbs (1868-1941) went to the Oberlin Music Conservatory, completing its equivalent of a bachelor's in music in 1889. She became an accomplished concert pianist, author, and educator.[12][13]

Ida met and became friends with William Henry Hunt, whom Mifflin Gibbs hired as his aide in Tamatave, Madagascar. Gibbs became Hunt's mentor, recommending him for the diplomatic service. Hunt was appointed to succeed Gibbs as American consul in Madagascar and had numerous assignments after that, serving until 1932.[2]

In 1902, Gibbs purchased a property at 902 T Street, NW in Washington, D.C. for his daughter, Mrs. Harriet Gibbs Marshall. She ran the Washington Conservatory of Music there, which was one of the most successful women-owned businesses in the United States at the turn of the century.


  1. ^ a b Joel Dreyfuss, "A Black Power Couple in the Early 20th Century", The Root, 28 May 2010, accessed 5 January 2015
  2. ^ a b c d Martha A. Sandweiss, "Book review: 'Parallel Worlds: The Remarkable Gibbs-Hunt and the Enduring (In)significance of Melanin' by Adele Logan Alexander", Washington Post, 16 May 2010, accessed 5 January 2015
  3. ^ a b c d e Simmons, William J., and Henry McNeal Turner. Men of Mark: Eminent, Progressive and Rising. GM Rewell & Company, 1887. p597-602
  4. ^ Harcourt School Publishers, Reflections: California: A Changing State Grade 4, Steck-Vaughn Company, 1st edition (January 1, 2003), ISBN 0153385022
  5. ^ a b CHARLES HILLINGER, "MINERS LEFT U.S. FOR CANADA IN 1858/ Blacks Found Gold Couldn't Buy Freedom", B.C. Times (Vancouver), n.d., p. 5, at The Black Community in the History of Quebec and Canada, 1996, accessed 5 January 2015
  6. ^ a b c d "Chap. XXX: Some Colored Pioneers", n.d., p. 4 at The Black Community in the History of Quebec and Canada, 1996, accessed 5 January 2015
  7. ^ britishcolonist.ca
  8. ^ "Victoria Vision: Victoria Incorporated - reports from the British Colonist in 1862". 
  9. ^ "Councillors (By Date) - Victoria". 
  10. ^ History of British Columbia#Entry into Canada .281871-1900.29
  11. ^ a b Smith, J. Clay, Jr. (1999). Emancipation: The Making of the Black Lawyer, 1844-1944. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press. p. 333. ISBN 9780812216851. 
  12. ^ Shannon Erickson, "Harriet Gibbs Marshall (1868-1941)", Black Past, accessed 5 January 2015
  13. ^ "Oberlin Alumni Magazine". March 1966: 38. 
  • Gibbs, Mifflin Wistar. Shadow and Light: An Autobiography with Reminiscences of the Last and Present Century. Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press, 1995.
  • McGinty, Doris E. "The Washington Conservatory of Music and School of Expression," Black perspectives in music, vol 7, no. 1, spring 1979.

External links[edit]

Media related to Mifflin Wistar Gibbs at Wikimedia Commons