Gibbs, Mifflin Wistar

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Gibbs, Mifflin Wistar

Born April 17, 1823

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Died July 11, 1915

Little Rock, Arkansas

Abolitionist, pioneer, businessman, lawyer, elected official, college president

"Labor to make yourself as indispensable as possible in all your relations with the dominant race, and color will cut less figure in your upward grade."

Mifflin Wistar Gibbs was a pioneer in every sense of the word. In the 1850s he was among the many pioneers who set out for California in search of riches during the gold rush. Gibbs found not riches but racism, and he was forced to make his way not as a miner but as a shopkeeper. Refusing to accept the limits placed on him by racism, Gibbs became a pioneer for his race. He campaigned against discrimination in California before moving to Canada. In the 1870s he returned to the United States and began an illustrious career as a politician and public servant. He was the first black elected a municipal judge in the United States, and he received several federal appointments, eventually becoming consul in Madagascar. His autobiography, Shadow and Light, published in 1902, helped publicize his story of achievement to the world.

From stable boy to abolitionist

Mifflin Wistar Gibbs was born in Philadelphia on April 17, 1823, to Jonathan Clarkson Gibbs, a Methodist minister, and Maria Jackson Gibbs. Gibbs's father died shortly after Mifflin's eighth birthday, and the boy was put out to work as a stable boy for three dollars a month. He worked at a series of similar jobs until he was sixteen, when he was apprenticed to carpenter James Gibbons, a former slave who had bought his freedom. Under Gibbons, Gibbs learned a skill that would serve him well in life. He helped Gibbons build several black churches in the Philadelphia area in the 1840s. During his apprenticeship, Gibbs studied in his free time and also joined a local black literary society, the Philomatheon Institute. At the institute he met some of Philadelphia's leading black citizens and began to speak out against slavery in the South.

After finishing his apprenticeship, Gibbs won a place for himself in Philadelphia as an abolitionist (a vocal opponent of slavery) and a builder. He was an active member of the Underground Railroad, a network which helped runaway slaves reach safety in the North and Canada, and was a member of a committee that petitioned (presented a formal request of citizens to) the Pennsylvania legislature to give blacks the right to vote. After the National Antislavery Convention held in Philadelphia in 1849, Frederick Douglass, a former slave and leading black abolitionist, invited Gibbs to accompany him on a speaking tour in western New York, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. Gibbs had just completed the tour and returned to Rochester, New York, when word of the gold rush in California lured him westward.

Gold rush racism

Gibbs made his way to California in 1850 by boat. He first traveled south along the Atlantic Coast, then crossed the Isthmus of Panama before taking a steamship north to San Francisco. San Francisco was a bustling town, the harbor crowded with ships and the city sprawling with the influx of miners bound for the goldfields. Gibbs quickly found work as a carpenter, but just as quickly found himself out of work when white carpenters refused to work alongside an African American. For a time Gibbs worked shining shoes and doing other menial jobs, but he was too ambitious to be satisfied with such work for long. He had saved enough money by 1852 to form, along with fellow black Philadelphian Peter Lester, the Pioneer Boot and Shoe Emporium. For several years their business prospered, but all was not well in California.

Though many blacks traveled to the West because they believed that they might escape the racism and ill treatment that they received in the East, they were often disappointed. As whites poured into California, they created laws similar to those they had made in the East; in April 1850, for example, a state law barred nonwhites from testifying in court in any case involving a white person. Gibbs soon felt the sting of this law firsthand, when a disgruntled customer beat Lester right in front of him. Because resisting the assault would have meant death and because the black businessmen could find no help in the courts, they were helpless. Gibbs joined other area blacks in 1851 to draw up the first black protest, which was published in one of the leading papers. Gibbs also participated in state political conventions in 1854, 1855, and 1857, where he protested the treatment of blacks in California.

His stay in San Francisco was not entirely negative, however. Gibbs was an active member of the San Francisco Atheneum, the intellectual center for blacks in the city, and with other members of the group he established the state of California's first black newspaper, the Mirror of the Times, in 1856. Moreover, he had succeeded in building a fairly successful business that was supported by many members of the community. By 1858, however, Gibbs had grown tired enough of discrimination in California that he jumped at the opportunity to travel to the city of Victoria, on the British colony of Vancouver Island (which later became part of the Canadian province of British Columbia).

Success in Canada

With his partner Lester, Gibbs bought some cheap land in Victoria. The city was attractive for several reasons: because the territorial governor was sympathetic to blacks, there was little discrimination, and a new gold rush brought people and trade into the city. The black community in Victoria eventually grew to nearly eight hundred people. Gibbs's various business enterprises soon made him a wealthy man, and—after applying for British citizenship—he became one of the city's leading citizens. In 1859 Gibbs traveled back to the United States to marry Maria A. Alexander; the couple would have five children together. In 1861 Gibbs helped form a black militia for defense of the city, and in 1866 he was elected to the town council. His status in the city was further enhanced in 1867, when he and some associates received a charter to build a railroad to a coal mine north of the city. Despite all his successes, however, Gibbs felt that his economic prospects were limited. Gibbs thought that since the Civil War (1861–65; a war between the Northern and Southern United States over the issue of slavery) was over and slavery had ended, perhaps it would be possible for a black man to succeed in the United States.

Blacks in the West

To many white Americans, the West was a land of opportunity. White pioneers traveled westward on frontier trails to claim cheap land and build farms, and white fortune hunters took to the goldfields of California and elsewhere to strike it rich. Such opportunities were also open to some black Americans, and many took advantage of them. Black cowboy Nat Love (1854–1921) and mountain man Jim Beckwourth (c. 1800–1866; see entry), who entered the West when it was still "young" (not yet civilized), found that there were few limits placed on their ambition. Both Love and Beckwourth became famous for their respective achievements. Other blacks who moved onto the frontier in the early days of settlement often enjoyed access to land and business opportunities. But as more white people poured into the West, the opportunities for blacks declined.

In the nineteenth century the majority of Americans believed that blacks were inferior to whites. They supported policies and laws that deprived black people of the rights—such as voting, legal protection, and economic access—that were available to white people. This was especially true in the South, where the institution of slavery had made blacks the property of whites. As western towns and cities grew, many of them instituted the same racist laws that had existed in the South. These laws allowed for discrimination and violence against black people. While anti-black discrimination in the West was never as bad as it was in the South and East, the West was hardly a land of opportunity for black Americans. Sadly, it was not until the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s that blacks would demand and gain their full civil rights and equal protection under the law. Mifflin Gibbs achieved a great deal, thanks in part to the openness of the West, but an intelligent, ambitious man like Gibbs, and many others like him, could have achieved much more if they had not been limited by racism.

Successful lawyer and politician

Going west was an experience that changed many Americans in the nineteenth century; the opportunities available in the West—including the opportunity to fail—helped school pioneers in the qualities that were needed for success. Not every pioneer learned from that schooling, but for Gibbs, his experiences in the West prepared him well for the career that would follow. Gibbs returned to the United States a different man than the one who had left nearly twenty years earlier. A young and relatively inexperienced man when he left, he had now run several successful businesses, learned the byways of politics, and studied law with a British lawyer in Victoria. After studying law at Oberlin College in Ohio, Gibbs set out to establish a career in the South, where he felt that his skills as a lawyer could best benefit his people.

By 1871 Gibbs had settled in Little Rock, Arkansas, and by 1872 he had opened his own law office with partner Lloyd G. Wheeler. He found himself immersed in the tumultuous world of Republican Party politics. Gibbs was named Pulaski County attorney in 1873, a post he soon resigned to become a municipal judge, the first African American to be elected to such a position in the United States. Gibbs left office after he was on the losing side of a small-scale civil war among political factions, but he remained influential in Republican politics. In 1876 he traveled to the national party convention as a delegate, helping to elect Rutherford B. Hayes to the presidency.

In the coming years, Gibbs would serve the Republican presidential administrations in a variety of ways. (At the time, Republicans defended the rights of African Americans.) Beginning in 1877 he served as the register in the U.S. Land Office in Little Rock, where he oversaw decisions about federal land sales in a region that was still relatively underpopulated. Gibbs reached the pinnacle of his political career in 1897 when he was named U.S. consul (a diplomatic office) to the African country of Madagascar. Thus for over twenty years Gibbs loyally served the only political party that defended the rights of black people.

Gibbs retired from public service in 1901 but continued to pursue a variety of business interests in Arkansas. He served as president of the Capital City Savings Bank, was a partner in the Little Rock Electric Light Company, and participated in a variety of business and real estate ventures in the state. Moreover, he continued to travel widely and lecture on the possibilities available to black people. In 1902 Gibbs published his autobiography, Shadow and Light. Second in prominence only to Booker T. Washington's famous autobiography, Shadow and Light argued that blacks could achieve success in America if they worked hard and applied themselves to jobs in industry and agriculture. It was an optimistic message offered by a man whose own success provided a real example of what blacks might achieve. Gibbs died on July 11, 1915, at the age of ninety-two.

For More Information

Dillard, Tom W., ed. Introduction to Shadow and Light, by Mifflin Wistar Gibbs. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1995.

Gibbs, Mifflin Wistar. Shadow and Light. 1902. Reprint. New York: Arno Press and the New York Times, 1968.

Lapp, Rudolph M. Blacks in Gold Rush California. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1977.

Logan, Rayford W., and Michael R. Winston, eds. Dictionary of American Negro Autobiography. New York: Norton, 1982.

Simmons, William J. Men of Mark. Cleveland, OH: Geo. M. Rewell, 1887.

Winks, Robin W. The Blacks in Canada. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1971.

Woodson, Carter G. "The Gibbs Family."Negro History Bulletin (October 1947): 312–22.