Mifflin Wistar Gibbs

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Mifflin Wistar Gibbs
Mifflin Wistar Gibbs - CM Bell Studios 1902.jpg
Gibbs in 1902
Born(1823-04-17)April 17, 1823
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, US
DiedJuly 11, 1915(1915-07-11) (aged 92)
ResidenceLittle Rock, Arkansas
OccupationBusinessman, lawyer, judge, diplomat, banker, real estate
Political partyRepublican
Spouse(s)Maria Ann Alexander Gibbs
ChildrenIda Alexander Gibbs
Harriet Gibbs Marshall

Mifflin Wistar Gibbs (April 17, 1823 – July 11, 1915) was an African-American lawyer, judge, diplomat, and banker.


Born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, he moved to California as a young man during the Gold Rush. Angered by discriminatory laws passed in 1858, he and several hundred other American blacks moved that year to Victoria, British Columbia, Canada, where he worked 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 the capital city of Little Rock, Arkansas, 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 United States. In 1897, in the William McKinley administration, he was appointed as American consul to Madagascar.

Gibbs was the second of four siblings, the eldest being his brother Jonathan Clarkson Gibbs. Their father was a Methodist minister.[1] As a young adult, Gibbs became active in the abolitionist movement 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 American Revolutionary War.

Emigration to California[edit]

Like tens of thousands of other men, Gibbs joined the California Gold Rush,[2] having arrived in San Francisco in late 1850. He sought work as a carpenter, a trade that he had pursued in Philadelphia, but was discouraged by the racial discrimination that he faced. He then partnered with Nathan Pointer to sell clothes and then with Peter Lester to import boots and shoes. In 1851, he and Jonas H. Townsend, W. H. Newby, and William H. Hall, 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 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 State 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 men that they would be treated like other residents in this frontier area.

Emigration to Victoria[edit]

Starting in 1858, Gibbs led an estimated six hundred to eight hundred African Americans,[6] many with families, from California to British Columbia, 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 fifty-two 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 seventh in this race, having missed winning a council seat by four votes.[8] He was elected to Victoria City Council in 1867 and served in that body until 1869.[9]

Confederation Movement[edit]

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

Return to United States[edit]

After about a decade, Gibbs returned to the United States and settled in Little Rock. He read the law to become an attorney and passed the bar examination 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.[11] In 1872, he was a delegate to the National Convention of Colored men in New Orleans, Louisiana.[3] In 1873, Gibbs was elected 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 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's failed candidacy for a third nomination at the 1880 convention in Chicago, Illinois. In 1882, Gibbs was elected to the Little Rock Bar Association.[3]

He became wealthy through his law practice and real estate investments. In 1897, Gibbs was appointed American consul to Madagascar. As an aide, he hired a friend of his daughter Ida, William Henry Hunt, whom he mentored. Hunt became 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, the former Maria Ann Alexander, during the decade they lived in British Columbia. The family relocated to Oberlin, Ohio, in 1869 where both daughters later attended college. Mary Ann had attended Oberlin College from 1852 to 1854. Daughter Ida Alexander Gibbs (1862–1957) earned both bachelor's and master's degrees in English. Her sister, Harriet Gibbs Marshall went to the Oberlin Music Conservatory, where she completed the equivalent of a bachelor's degree 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. Hunt was appointed to succeed Gibbs as American consul in Madagascar and had numerous assignments after that. He served until 1932.[2]

In 1902, Gibbs purchased a property at 902 T Street, NW in Washington, D.C., at which his daughter, Harriet Gibbs Marshall, ran the Washington Conservatory of Music there, one of the most successful female-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, May 28, 2010. Retrieved January 5, 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", The Washington Post, May 16, 2010. Retrieved January 5, 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. Retrieved January 5, 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. Retrieved January 5, 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. Retrieved January 5, 2015
  13. ^ "Oberlin Alumni Magazine". March 1966: 38. Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  • 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