A new biography explores the extraordinary life of researcher John Wesley Gilbert |
By any measure, John Wesley Gilbert led an extraordinary life. Born into slavery, he became one of America’s great scholars – a classicist, linguist, archaeologist and educator. His drive, faith and commitment to education have taken him from the poverty of his native Georgia to Brown University, Greece, Africa and beyond.
And yet Gilbert, who was also an ardent defender of interracial cooperation, is little known to the general public. Now, a new biography aims to correct that oversight.
“The First Black Archaeologist: A Life of John Wesley Gilbert” (Oxford University Press, 2022) by John W.I. Lee, associate professor of history at UC Santa Barbara, meticulously traces the pioneering scholar’s rise to national notoriety at a time when African Americans often encountered obstacles in obtaining even an elementary education.
Lee, whose research typically focuses on ancient Greece and Persia, found a kinship with the man who was the first African American to attend the American School of Classical Studies in Athens (ASCSA or the American School) in 1890 and 1891. Lee was a student there. in 1996 and 1997.
“I literally walked in his footsteps when I visited the Acropolis, the battlefield of Marathon and other ancient sites he had seen during his time in Greece,” Lee said. “And in the American School library, I wrote my first scientific paper in the same room where he had written his master’s thesis a century before.
“It was this connection of place that prompted me to explore John Wesley Gilbert’s work in Greece, and then to tell the story of his extraordinary life in full.”
Gilbert—who was fluent in French, German, classical and modern Greek, Latin, and the African Otetela and Tshiluba languages—was among the first Americans of any ethnicity to do professional archaeological work in Greece, the Mediterranean, or the United States. Middle East.
Along with delving into the ancient city of Eretria, Gilbert wrote a thesis on ancient Athens that earned him a master’s degree from Brown — the first he’s awarded to an African American.
Indeed, Gilbert’s life was a study in breaking down barriers. He was among the first students of the Methodist-sponsored Paine Institute (now Paine College), an HBCU (Historically Black Colleges and Universities) in Augusta, Georgia.
Gilbert later became Paine’s first black instructor and taught there for more than 30 years. During this time he worked closely with the school’s white president, the Reverend George Williams Walker, who became a lifelong mentor and friend.
“Gilbert provides an inspiring example of an African-American pioneer who rose from slavery to reach the heights of American education and dedicated his life to service as an educator, community leader, and missionary,” said said Lee.
“His life also opens a window to appreciate the enormous flowering of African-American education during and after the American Civil War – these students and teachers deserve to be recognized as one of our country’s greatest generations,” said Lee.
Since his death in 1923, Gilbert is best known for his missionary work in the Belgian Congo in 1911 and 1912. He went there as a representative of the Colored Methodist Episcopal Church (now the Christian Episcopal Church) or CME . His mission partner was Walter Russell Lambuth, a white bishop in the Methodist Episcopal Church, Southern, or MECS.
The couple helped establish a mission at Wembo Nyama in central Congo that still exists today. The traditions of the CME and MECS (and now The United Methodist Church) have long revered Gilbert and Lambuth’s mission in the Congo as part of the shared history of their denominations.
Their partnership highlights Gilbert’s lifelong commitment to interracial cooperation, which was part of an important but sometimes overlooked common thread in 19th-century American history, Lee said.
“Gilbert’s beliefs were shaped by his own early experiences at Atlanta Baptist Seminary (the forerunner of Morehouse College), where he saw black and white teachers working for the common cause of black education, and by his career at Paine College, which opened in 1884 to educate black students as part of a cooperative Southern black and white Methodist enterprise,” Lee said.
For Lee, the years of researching and writing about Gilbert have been as much a labor of love as a labor of scholarship. Given this, it is not entirely surprising to learn that he will donate all royalties from the sale of the book to Paine College and the William Sanders Scarborough Scholarship at the American School of Classical Studies in Athens. .
“It’s just the right thing to do,” he said. “Professor Gilbert’s story belongs to Paine College, where he was the school’s first student, first graduate, and first black professor; I am only the messenger.
“Academic books don’t tend to sell in huge numbers, but maybe more people will buy a copy knowing they’re helping support Paine and also the Scarborough Fellowship, which the American school set up to honor Gilbert’s African-American colleague, who wanted to go to Greece in the 1880s but could not find funding.