Scholar, Activist, or Religious Figure? John Wesley Gilbert’s Reception and Legacy

This paper was delivered as part of a student-led symposium on the life and legacy of John Wesley Gilbert held on 2 March 2018, as part of the Joukowsky Institute’s conference entitled State of the Field 2018: Archaeology and Social Justice. A video recording is available here; my presentation begins at 30:30. The slides I used are available here, and I’ve added the appropriate images below when possible. Any questions or comments are very much appreciated (as are requests for sources)!

In this paper, I analyze primary sources to reveal contemporary attitudes to Gilbert and his work as a cleric, a writer, and a scholar. First, I discuss Gilbert’s relationship with Methodism, including his mission to the Congo. I then turn to Gilbert’s political activity and contemporary reception, before ending with Gilbert’s modern legacy. I argue that these three facets of Gilbert’s life – his religion, politics, and scholarship – reflect three different approaches to John Wesley Gilbert, the man and the symbol. Paying close attention to the shifting emphases in the legacy of John Wesley Gilbert pushes us to be more reflexive in our own approaches to him and reflect on how our politics are entangled with the representation of the past.


As I demonstrate, Gilbert’s relationship with Methodism (and particularly the Colored Methodist Episcopal Church, known as the CME) undergirded his scholarship, occupations, and politics. The Paine College ideal – that is, the coexistence of interracial partnership and white paternalism – was embodied in all its paradoxes by John Wesley Gilbert. Until the end of his life, Gilbert’s relationship with religion remained foundational to his sense of self.

Methodism in America had long been associated with African-Americans and slavery; the northern and southern factions split over the issue in 1845. The Colored Methodist Episcopal Church (CME) was in turn formed from the white Methodist Episcopal Church, South, in 1870. Reginald Hildebrand (a historian of southern Methodism) argues that the CME comprised “black traditionalists … [who] saw relationships between white and black southerners as cords of stability in a world that had become tumultuous and unpredictable.”1 The CME leadership proscribed political activity, cooperated with white Methodists, and focused on black education in an attempt to “retain some of the traditions of antebellum paternalism.”2 The complications of “religious reconstruction” reflected and interacted with the wider troubles of the postbellum South.3

John Wesley Gilbert at an unknown date.

John Wesley Gilbert was raised in the midst of Reconstruction – both political and religious. Gilbert was born in Hephzibah, Georgia on 6 July 1864 to Gabriel and Sarah Gilbert, farm hands who were born to slavery.4 He was named after his uncle; presumably, their namesake was John Wesley, the English theologian who co-founded Methodism.5 Until Gilbert left for Brown, he “spent half the year on the farm and the other half in the public schools of the city of Augusta.”6 After completing grammar school, Gilbert spent twelve months at the Atlanta Baptist Seminary (a forerunner of Morehouse College). He then studied at the Paine Institute for eighteen months before transferring to Brown University in 1886.7

Paine College today.

Paine had been founded by the MECS and the CME Church in 1882 as an “interracial” venture for the education of blacks.8 The principles of Paine College reflected the complex dynamics of interracial partnership in the postbellum South. The “Paine College ideal” was both an “extension of the plantation mission ideology of paternalism”9 and a “practical model for racial comity … for the mutual benefit of both races.”11 Nowhere is this better argued than in J. C. Colclough’s The Spirit of John Wesley Gilbert, the only book entirely devoted to Gilbert’s life and legacy. Colclough outlines the “Gilbert program … in the following sentences: No two races can live together, interlarded, under the same laws, but with different race marks and proclivities, in anything like peace without a program of ‘good will’ and interracial understanding.”12 These ideas are clearly rooted in the history of Paine, which itself reflects the history of southern Methodism. It is clear that Gilbert’s immersion in the CME church and Paine College undergirded his scholarship, work, and politics. I also argue that these tensions – especially the coexistence of white paternalism and interracial partnership – structured his sense of self.

The Paine College ideal was also reflected in Gilbert’s 1914 mission to Africa. Gilbert left the US with Bishop Walter Russell Lambuth and set up a mission in Wembo-Nyama in the Belgian Congo. Lambuth (a white member of the MECS) believed that southern Methodists were uniquely suited to successfully evangelize Africa: “We are born and brought up with black men. They understand us, and we understand them. We understand their good qualities and their bad qualities.”13 By all accounts, the relationship between Lambuth and Gilbert, the chosen representative of the CME Church, was excellent. Lambuth praised Gilbert’s “sincerity of purpose, high character, and noble ideas.”14 Furthermore, Gilbert’s language skills proved extremely useful to the mission. His French was extremely “correct and elegantly expressed” (to quote Lambuth) and he compiled a vocabulary and grammar for Batetela, the language spoken in the area of the mission.15

In this and other ways, the Paine College ideal of cooperation between blacks and whites was exemplified in the mission to Africa. Yet the outcome was less than ideal: rather than a joint mission of the CME and MECS, by the 1920s and 30s the Methodist missionaries in Wembo-Nyama were exclusively white.16 Why? The answer lies partly in the intransigent racism of the MECS. As noted in a history of the mission, “several wealthy families in Macon, Atlanta, and Columbus had threatened to leave the southern Methodist Church if their money was going to be used to ‘support unsaved and uneducated Negroes who want to go to Africa to represent our church as missionaries.’”17 On the other hand, historians such as Sylvia Jacobs have argued that “probably the greatest obstacle was the Belgian government, which refused to issue permits to African Americans seeking to reside in the Belgian Congo.”18 The animosity of colonial authorities was partly a result of prior African-American agitation against Belgian atrocities.19 This work was surprisingly effective; indeed, it is worth noting that Patrice Lumumba – the first prime minister of the Democratic Republic of the Congo and an icon of anticolonialism and pan-Africanism – was educated in the Wembo-Nyama school Gilbert helped establish.20 This school, now known as Patrice Émery Lumumba University, is supported by American Methodists to this day.21

The Wembo-Nyama school the mission established, today known as Patrice Lumumba University.

Clearly, Methodism influenced Gilbert’s thinking throughout his life. From the birth of the CME Church through the creation of Paine College to the abortive attempt at an interracial mission to Africa, religious events had an enormous impact on Gilbert. He truly did embody the Paine College ideal and all its paradoxes, chief among them the coexistence of interracial partnership and white paternalism. I also venture that Gilbert’s relationship with religion was personal and deeply meaningful throughout his life. He devoted much of his time and efforts to serving his church and God, even after receiving a graduate degree from Brown and teaching classics at Paine for many years. Not only were Gilbert’s scholarship and political thought undergirded by his religion, but this aspect of his life was foundational to his sense of self.


Now on to politics – after all, Gilbert was far from monastic. He was not afraid to dive into the fray when necessary by discussing controversial political issues. Indeed, this was how he achieved his greatest fame. The public saw a different Gilbert than the one he himself presented: one steeped in politics more than religion. For some of his contemporaries, Gilbert was to be judged based on his political ideals and opinions more than anything else.

To illustrate this I present two contrasting excerpts from The Appeal, an American weekly newspaper based in Saint Paul, Minnesota from 1889. The Appeal targeted a national audience of African-Americans, concentrating on blacks in the urban Midwest.22 The first mention of John Wesley Gilbert in the paper is quite brief:

One colored young man, John Wesley Gilbert, of Georgia, has gone to Athens to enter the American school there. He will find very little race prejudice in that classic land.23

This excerpt dates from fairly early in Gilbert’s career; although he had received his AB from Brown University in 1888, his AM was still to come. Nonetheless, securing a fellowship for travel to Athens in 1890–91 had already brought him to national attention, especially from the African-American press. John Lee mentions that “when Gilbert spoke at the commencement of Ware High School in Augusta – Georgia’s only publicly funded high school for Black students – more than five hundred people attended.”24 In this excerpt, The Appeal adopts a tone of simple approval, praising a young black scholar about whom little else is known.

The next excerpt dates from almost nineteen years later, in 1909.25 The Appeal has devoted much more space and attention to Gilbert. The article begins with a dispatch from the Arkansas Southern Methodist conference by the Associated Press. More interesting, though, is the text added by The Appeal after the AP excerpt. Unlike in 1891, the editors pour scorn on Gilbert rather than praising him. The concluding sentence packs a particularly strong punch: “In the opinion of THE APPEAL, Rev. (?) Gilbert is a flunkey who deserves the contempt of every self-respecting Afro-American.” What could have prompted such a dramatic shift in opinion?

The answer to this question requires context. Gilbert is explicitly connected with politicians and community leaders of the time. According to The Appeal, Gilbert’s arguments against carpetbaggers – that is, the “teachers sent down from the North [who] know nothing of the real need of his race” – reinforce white paternalism. The Appeal equates Gilbert’s policy with that of William Joel Stone, a Democratic senator from Missouri who probably supported Jim Crow legislation. The Appeal makes it clear that Stone disapproves of education and advancement for blacks: in the scenario imagined by the editors, the “dilatory movements of the waiter” are the result of “Northern white teachers.” Alluding to Stone is clearly intended to smear Gilbert as anti-black. This is further highlighted by the bitterly sarcastic reference to “those eminent statesmen, Tillman and Vardaman.” Benjamin Tillman was a Democrat from South Carolina who was known as “Pitchfork Ben” because of his virulent rhetoric and support of anti-black violence. James K. Vardaman, a Democrat from Mississippi, was well-known for his provocative statements. To give just two examples: “If it is necessary every Negro in the state will be lynched; it will be done to maintain white supremacy”; and “The only effect of Negro education is to spoil a good field hand and make an insolent cook.” In short, in this excerpt The Appeal attacks Gilbert’s support of interracial cooperation by identifying his ideology with that of notorious white supremacists. In 1891, Gilbert was seen as a symbol; in 1909, he was challenged for his ideas.

In sum, the criticism of The Appeal relies on exposing the underside of the Paine College ideal. Gilbert continued to advocate for black education and the “advancement” of African Americans in public writings and speeches, as Tino revealed in his illuminating readings. Yet some members of the black community – best represented by The Appeal – saw Gilbert as a sycophant because he so prized interracial cooperation. The black community at the time was rife with divisions. Blacks who advocated interracial partnership – like Gilbert and the founders of the CME Church – were labeled “Democrats,” “bootlicks,” and “Uncle Toms.”26 Contemporaneous debates raged in the African-American community, perhaps most famously between Booker T. Washington and W. E. B. DuBois on the subject of education. Washington advocated for vocational education while DuBois had a more intellectual-oriented philosophy of education. Gilbert’s classical education certainly fell within DuBois’ ideal of liberal education. Indeed, when Gilbert was appointed to the faculty of Paine it was a landmark not just because of his race but also because of the subjects he taught. In the words of Paine professor George E. Clary, Jr., “this was to be a college, and to be a college, you had to teach Greek and Latin.”27 In all these ways, Gilbert and his opponents fit fairly neatly into the politics of his time.

What changed between 1891 and 1909 to so greatly affect The Appeal’s opinion of Gilbert? First, Gilbert became known as more than a symbol of black success. His writings and speeches communicated his embodiment of the Paine College ideal to even more people. Second, the political climate shifted as it became clear that Reconstruction had failed, Jim Crow laws were passed and reinforced, and divisions within the African-American community deepened. Gilbert’s political opinions, then, were what made him notable (and notorious to some) after the turn of the century. In short, what changed was that Gilbert was thrust into the fray of politics. As I argued earlier, I believe Gilbert still saw himself primarily as devoted to his religion. Yet for the public, Gilbert was now primarily a political being.

Modern legacy

So far, we have analyzed John Wesley Gilbert’s relationship with religion and politics. Yet these aspects of Gilbert’s character and legacy are inextricable from other parts of his identity, including his scholarship and his race. These latter elements are most highlighted today; in many ways, Gilbert is now an icon of black success in the academy, and particularly in archaeology. In this section, I reflect on some of the ways we represent Gilbert today. The shifts in his reception reveal our modern concerns with diversity, race, and academia – in short, Gilbert has been redefined in relation with our politics. We should recognize these elisions and occlusions in order to push towards a more reflexive and nuanced approach to John Wesley Gilbert.

The first example is this website, which has a picture of Gilbert in the top banner. The Society of Black Archaeologists thus explicitly claims Gilbert as “one of their own.” In this context, Gilbert is identified exclusively as a black archaeologist – not, say, as a religious leader or a political activist. A similar move is made by the Joukowsky Institute. In our publications, Gilbert is invariably identified as a Brown alumnus – he was the first African-American to receive an AM from Brown – and as an archaeologist. We end one of our Facebook posts with an intriguing statement: “we’re proud that archaeology at Brown has such an important place in history.” It is not Gilbert’s legacy per se that is important, it seems, but rather the role he plays in archaeology at Brown. I emphasize these points to demonstrate the reflexivity necessary no matter who tells the story of John Wesley Gilbert.

Similar representations of Gilbert – the man, the idea, and the legacy – can be found across academic and lay contexts today. Most sources do little research into Gilbert, too often neglecting his significant religious and political work. This is especially common among classicists, who often include Gilbert as one among many in a list of black scholars. A representative example can be found in a 2014 dissertation from Vanderbilt University by Nicole Adeyinka Spigner, where Gilbert is allotted the following two sentences: “Archeologist who studied Greek literature and archeology in Athens at the American School (1890-91). Helped excavate Eretria and drew the first map of Ancient Eretria.”28 In many ways, we have come full circle: like The Appeal in 1891, we too see Gilbert as an uncomplicated and convenient icon of black academic success.


Gilbert in 1902: the man and the symbol.

What, then, is our responsibility as modern-day biographers, scholars, and political beings? I believe that in our uses of Gilbert today we should emphasize reflexivity. We should recognize that we simplify and elide in every presentation of him. As in the case of the Society of Black Archaeologists, it is not necessarily bad to use Gilbert as a convenient icon, especially when counteracting systemic issues. Yet we should be aware that in so doing we neglect other parts of Gilbert’s self and past, some of which might even have been more important to him. We should remain attuned to the ways in which the archive occludes as well as reveals information. I bring up these points not to criticize past representations of Gilbert but rather to offer some suggestions for future research conducted by me, my colleagues, and others.

In this paper, I have attempted to deconstruct “John Wesley Gilbert” – the idea more than the man. Gilbert himself recognized his role in Methodism and, I believe, valued his contributions to religion above all else. His contemporaries reacted to his political views and statements, primarily on race relations in the South. Today, Gilbert is valued mainly for his role in archaeology and in black history – often neglecting his religious and political work. This is not to say that any of these things can be neatly separated from one another, nor is it to argue that considering one aspect of Gilbert must preclude another. Rather, I have attempted to push us towards a more reflexive and nuanced approach to John Wesley Gilbert – as a man and as a symbol. As I have demonstrated, Gilbert is a multifaceted and fascinating individual. We should recognize the ways in which tokenary discourses elide and erase particular narratives. I end with a glance to the future; whether writing a biography, participating in a symposium, or mounting an exhibition, we should remain reflexive and remember that in so doing all of us become part of the history of representation of John Wesley Gilbert.


  1. Reginald Hildebrand, The Times Were Strange and Stirring: Methodist Preachers and the Crisis of Emancipation (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1995), 21.
  2. Hildebrand, xxiv.
  3. For a perceptive discussion of these themes see Daniel Stowell, Rebuilding Zion: The Religious Reconstruction of the South, 1863–1877 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998).
  4. John William Gibson and William Henry Crogman, Progress of a Race, (Naperville, IL: J. L. Nichols & Co., 1912), 519.
  5. Daniel Wallace Culp, ed., Twentieth Century Negro Literature (Toronto: J. L. Nichols & Co., 1902), 190. It is interesting to compare Gilbert’s case with Martin Luther King, Jr, who was also named after a family member who was in turn named after a prominent Protestant theologian.
  6. Culp, 190.
  7. Gibson and Crogman, Progress of a Race, 520. notes that he attended Paine “for six months in each of three years.”
  8. Alandus Cordell Johnson, “The Growth of Paine College: A Successful Interracial Venture, 1903–1946” (University of Georgia, 1970), 2–3.
  9. Glenn T. Eskew, “Black Elitism and the Failure of Paternalism in Postbellum Georgia: The Case of Bishop Lucius Henry Holsey,” The Journal of Southern History 58, no. 4 (1992): 651.
  10. As one of the earliest Paine alumni – and a professor there from 1888 – John Wesley Gilbert embodied the Paine College ideal.10Raymond R. Sommerville, An Ex-Colored Church: Social Activism in the CME Church, 1870–1970 (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 2004), 55.
  11. Joseph C. Colclough, The Spirit of John Wesley Gilbert (Nashville, TN: Cokesbury Press, 1925), 29–30.
  12. Quoted in Michael O. Kasongo, “A Spirit of Cooperation in Mission: Professor John Wesley Gilbert and Bishop Walter Russell Lambuth,” Methodist History 36, no. 4 (1998): 262.
  13. Kasongo, 262.
  14. See Gilbert’s own “Report on African Mission.”
  15. Nancy Keever Andersen, “Cooperation for Social Betterment: Missions and Progressives in the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, 1894–1921” (Vanderbilt University, 1999), 107.
  16. Kasongo, “A Spirit of Cooperation in Mission,” 265.
  17. Jacobs, “African Missions,” 38.
  18. For explanation and numerous examples, see Ryan E. Tickle, “For Their Brethren across the Sea: The African-American Protest to Abuses in the Congo Free State, 1885–1908” (California State University, Fullerton, 2009).
  19. Adelaide Cromwell Hill and Martin Kilson, eds., Apropos of Africa: Sentiments of Negro American Leaders on Africa from the 1800s to the 1950s (London: Frank Cass & Co., 1969), 116. On Lumumba’s education see Georges Nzongola-Ntalaja, Patrice Lumumba (Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 2014), 15–18.
  20. See Gabriel Yemba Umba, “The United Methodist Mission in Eastern Congo,” New World Outlook, December 2014. See also
  21. See the excellent (though brief) record at the Library of Congress.
  22. From the January 24, 1891 edition of The Appeal.
  23. John W. I. Lee, “An African American Pioneer in Greece: John Wesley Gilbert and the American School of Classical Studies at Athens, 1890–1891,” From the Archivist’s Notebook (blog), August 1, 2017, para. 7. I have been unable to find other newspaper excerpts from this time that attest to the “nationwide attention” Lee describes.
  24. It seems that the piece was first published in the November 27, 1909 issue of The Appeal and then again a week later, on December 4, 1909.
  25. Hildebrand, The Times Were Strange and Stirring, 15.
  26. From “Paine’s 100-Year Story” in the Augusta Chronicle.
  27. Nicole Adeyinka Spigner, “Niobe Repeating: Black New Women Rewrite Ovid’s ‘Metamorphoses’” (Vanderbilt University, 2014), 27. In a similar vein, see Amy Schrepfer-Tarter, “African American Classicists,” accessed November 27, 2017.

Let me know what you think!