Mifflin Wistar Gibbs

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Mifflin W. 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] 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, where he founded "the state's only African-American newspaper."[2]

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.[3] 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,[4] many with families, from California to the Victoria area, where some settled on Vancouver Island.[3] They comprised a major portion of the early frontier community.[4] Gibbs became a naturalized British citizen in 1861, together with 52 other American blacks from the emigrant group.[4] 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.[5] He railed against blacks having the franchise and worked to prevent their voting in the next election.][4]

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.[6] He was elected to Victoria City Council in 1867, serving till 1869.[7]

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.[8]

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.[9] In 1873 Gibbs was elected to the Office of the City Judge as a Republican,[9] the first black judge elected in the United States.[1]

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. Ida Alexander Gibbs (1862-1957) grew up with her schoolteacher mother in Oberlin, Ohio, where they moved about 1869. She was educated at Oberlin College, as had been her mother, and 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 musician and teacher.[10]

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 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 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
  4. ^ 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
  5. ^ britishcolonist.ca
  6. ^ "Victoria Vision: Victoria Incorporated - reports from the British Colonist in 1862". 
  7. ^ "Councillors (By Date) - Victoria". 
  8. ^ History of British Columbia#Entry into Canada .281871-1900.29
  9. ^ 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. 
  10. ^ Shannon Erickson, "Harriet Gibbs Marshall (1868-1941)", Black Past, accessed 5 January 2015
  • 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