When the Rev. William Gibbons died in 1886, 10,000 people attended his funeral in Washington. A second service in Charlottesville stopped traffic and commerce as throngs of mourners from the black community rushed to the Baptist church.
Gibbons and his wife lived and died at a time of great change, from slavery – they were owned by professors at the University of Virginia — to emancipation, to leadership and great renown.
Now U-Va. is telling their stories, and naming a new dorm in their honor, as the university delves into the darker side of its storied past.
Gibbons House, a nearly $35 million project, will open to students in the fall, with photos of the couple and panels describing what slavery was like on Grounds. The University of North Carolina is the only other college that isn’t a historically black university with a dorm named after a slave — a famous poet at the time — according to Marcus Martin, who co-chairs the U-Va. president’s commission on slavery and the university.
Historians and others are finding new ways to acknowledge the university’s historic ties to slavery, to give a more complete picture of its foundation and early years, as the school approaches its bicentennial.
“If you go to the university Web site, it’s Jefferson, Jefferson, Jefferson,” said Kirt von Daacke, associate professor of history and assistant dean of the College of Arts & Sciences at U-Va., the other co-chair of the commission.
University leaders have always been proud to share the lofty ideas behind the founding of the public school by Thomas Jefferson, who envisioned and created a school of the Enlightenment. Less emphasized: His extensive slave ownership.
“If you walk the Grounds, it’s lovely,” von Daacke said. “But you don’t really get a sense of what the university was like in 1825 — who built it — who ran it and maintained it up until the Civil War.
“We’re starting to systematically re-inscribe the story of slavery and the lives of the enslaved back onto the landscape here,” so that students, visitors, historians, will have a more nuanced understanding of the place. Guided by people including local community leaders and others involved in similar efforts underway at other colleges, such as Brown, Emory and William & Mary, “We want to for the university to really tell that story in much more powerful ways.”
The initiative was started by students about eight years ago, who asked why the history seemed whitewashed. (Some recently designed a tour that takes people all the way to 2015 and the story of Martese Johnson, a black student whose bloody arrest this spring touched off protests; charges were recently dropped.)
From the iconic Rotunda one day soon, commission leaders hope, a heritage trail will lead visitors through the Grounds with an app to point out some forgotten history. At any point from 1825, when classes began, until 1865, there were scores of slaves, as many as 140, living and working on the Grounds.
Slaves graded the terraced lawn, dug the dirt for the bricks. The gardens, with their idyllic little paths, white benches and shady nooks, were once slave work yards, tilled by laborers raising vegetables and fruit for the kitchens. The basements below some of the historic student rooms on the Lawn were slave quarters. A slave cemetery — now restored and dedicated — had been forgotten under piles of mulch and maintenance equipment.
Isabella and William Gibbons were born into slavery and lived, like many married slaves of their time, in separate homes while they worked for slave masters on U-Va.’s symbolic Lawn. He served as a butler for a professor; she worked for a physics professor and was described as, “intelligent” and “a handsome, capable woman,” according to research by Scott Nesbit while a graduate student at U-Va. “All contemporaries of William Gibbons agreed that he was not only literate, but good looking, powerfully eloquent and charismatic, and deeply religious,” Nesbit wrote.
Against great odds, they had a family together, and learned to read and write.
William Gibbons’s literacy and charisma brought others to hear him teach the word of God as he became a preacher, a religious leader in his community. He later became the preacher of Zion Baptist Church in Washington, D.C., where the congregation grew dramatically during his ministry.
After emancipation, she too was a leader, a teacher praised for the magnetism that drew students to listen.
At the time of Ulysses S. Grant’s inauguration, they toured the Capitol, and in later years her drew tens of thousands to a revival meeting, baptizing converts in the Potomac. Late in life, he enrolled at Howard University as a part-time divinity student.
After their deaths, they were buried side by side in a Charlottesville cemetery.
The university, von Daacke, said, is also reaching out to the black community in and around Charlottesville. They can’t change relations overnight, he said, but they hope the ongoing efforts to present a more complete picture of the school’s history will make a difference. Many black people in the surrounding community, he said, still call the school “the big plantation.”