John Wesley Gilbert: some clarifications

John Wesley Gilbert at an unknown date. Photo credit: Michigan State University.

Update: I gave the presentation I mentioned below in March 2018; the paper I delivered is available here.

I am currently preparing a presentation on John Wesley Gilbert, based off of a paper I wrote for a class in Fall 2017. Gilbert is not very well-known, so here’s some brief notes about him by John W. I. Lee, who wrote a piece on Gilbert’s work with the American School of Classical Studies at Athens:

Gilbert graduated from Paine College in Augusta, Georgia, then received his BA from Brown University in 1888. As a Brown MA student in 1890–1891 he became the first African American to study in Greece at the American School of Classical Studies at Athens (ASCSA). During his year in Greece, Gilbert participated in the American School’s excavations at the ancient site of Eretria on the island of Euboea.

Timeline

Chronology

Here, I would like to clarify the chronology of a few events in Gilbert’s life, specifically relating to his education and relationship with Paine College.

Gilbert was born in Hephzibah, Georgia on 6 July 1864 to Gabriel and Sarah Gilbert, farm hands born in slavery.1 He was named after his uncle; presumably, their namesake was John Wesley, the English theologian who co-founded Methodism.2 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. As a child in Augusta, Georgia, Gilbert “spent half the year on the farm and the other half in the public schools of the city of Augusta.”3 After completing grammar school, Gilbert spent twelve months (over two years, six months each year) at the Atlanta Baptist Seminary. This institute, known by a number of names, was a forerunner of Morehouse College.4

From January 1884, Gilbert studied at the Paine Institute (later College) for eighteen months — that is, “for six months in each of three years.”5 The president of Paine from 1884 to 1910 was George Williams Walker, who became a friend and mentor. When Gilbert graduated from Paine in June 1886, Walker helped Gilbert to secure funding from the Paine Institute for studies at Brown University. In September 1886, Gilbert moved to Providence, Rhode Island, and joined the junior class (i.e. third year) of Brown. He attended this institution full-time for the next two years, supplementing his income with “every opportunity to gain ‘an honest dollar.'”6 A report about Gilbert noted that his mother was “an old negro washerwoman in Georgia [who] denied herself and worked early and late to be able every Saturday to mail a crumpled dollar bill to her son at Brown University.”7

Gilbert graduated with an AB from Brown in June 1888, earning a scholarship to study at the American School of Classical Studies in Athens. He took up this scholarship in 1890-91, during which time he participated in excavations in Eretria which eventually led to a thesis entitled “The Demes of Attica.”8 Gilbert received a Master of Arts from Brown in 1891, becoming the first African American to get an advanced degree from Brown.9 Before returning to the United States, Gilbert also “took one semester of lectures in the University of Berlin.”10

In March 1889 (before he left for Greece) Gilbert married Osceola Pleasant, a graduate of Paine and Fisk University. Together, they had five children, four of whom survived to adulthood: Alma, John Jr, Sarah, and Mattie.11 Between his graduation from Brown and leaving for Greece, it seems Gilbert was also working at Paine. In May 1888 (that is, even before his graduation from Brown) the Board of Trustees of Paine College appointed Gilbert to the faculty — at the urging of Gilbert’s old mentor, President Walker. There were a number of objections from professors on the basis that a biracial faculty was “revolutionary in the light of Southern custom” (in the words of Professor C. H. Carson Jr., who later resigned in protest).12 This controversy may perhaps have contributed to Gilbert’s decision to go to Greece. Upon his return in 1891, he continued to work at Paine teaching Greek and German and later theology as an ordained minister of the Colored Methodist Episcopal Church.

I will not treat Gilbert’s later life here because this post is already long enough. I hope that this information has clarified the sometimes confusing chronology of Gilbert’s early life.

Footnotes

  1. John William Gibson and William Henry Crogman, Progress of a Race (Naperville, IL: J. L. Nichols & Co., 1912), 519.
  2. Daniel Wallace Culp, ed., Twentieth Century Negro Literature (Toronto: J. L. Nichols & Co., 1902), 190.
  3. Culp, Twentieth Century Negro Literature, 190.
  4. For details see Huff, “Morehouse College”. Note too that Brown alumni (including Joseph T. Robert and John Hope) played a very influential role in the early history of Morehouse.
  5. Gibson and Crogman, Progress of a Race, 520.
  6. Gibson and Crogman, Progress of a Race, 520. Among other things, Gilbert “shoveled snow … [and] taught pupils at night.”
  7. Quoted in Michele Valerie Ronnick, “John Wesley Gilbert ca. 1864-1923,” The Classical Outlook 78, no. 3 (2001): 114. (Behind a paywall; for access, contact me.)
  8. Unfortunately, it seems no copy of this thesis survives.
  9. See Mitchell, “African Americans.”
  10. Culp, Twentieth Century Negro Literature, 190.
  11. According to census records.
  12. Quoted in the 12 December 1982 edition of the Augusta Chronicle.

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