Jonathan Gibbs was born a free man in Philadelphia on October 21, 1821, to Jonathan and Maria (Jackson) Gibbs, the oldest of four children. His father was a Wesleyan Methodist minister while his mother was a member of the Primitive Baptist Church. When their father suddenly died in 1831, Jonathan, at age 12, and his brother Mifflin left the local Free School and apprenticed themselves as carpenters in order to support their ailing and penniless mother. Both brothers converted to Presbyterianism and Jonathan, who had so impressed the Church Assembly, was sponsored by them to study at KUA under abolitionist Principal Cyrus Smith Richards. Gibbs was at KUA for two years.
Dartmouth President Nathan Lord, although a founding delegate of the American Anti-Slavery Society, was at one point converted to pro-slavery. Nevertheless, he accepted several African-Americans into Dartmouth including Gibbs who met three professors there who so influenced his thinking as a “missionary, educator and politician,” that he became a member of the abolitionist movement. He was the third African-American to graduate from Dartmouth, class of 1852, and the second to ever give a commencement address, “The Egyptian Obelisk in the Court of St. Peter”at a college in America.
After graduation, Gibbs enrolled in the Princeton Theological Seminary where he studied for two years. He was ordained in 1854 and “… begged Dr. Lord as a special favor to preach his ordination sermon, giving as a reason that his college was the only (one) which would endure his presence.” It is said that Dartmouth had accepted him after 18 other colleges refused him admission. President Lord gave the sermon.
In 1855, he became pastor of Liberty Street Presbyterian Church in Troy, NY, where he stayed until 1859. He married Anna Amelia Harris whose father was a successful African-American merchant in New York. They had three children. Gibbs became well known as an abolitionist minister, writer, and orator and because this work often took him away from home, and combined with the fact that his wife was use to a finer life than a minister could offer, the couple divorced in 1862.
Gibbs next served as pastor of the First African Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia, the church that had sent him to KUA, from 1860 to 1865. His continued abolitionist work made him a prominent contributor to the underground railroad and he served as vice president of the Pennsylvania State Equal Rights League during the Civil War. As soon as President Lincoln gave the Emancipation Proclamation, Gibbs gave a sermon called “Freedom’s Joyful Day” where he emphasized that “ … whites should crush their prejudices and that blacks should be allowed to fight in the Civil War.” Gibbs went South after the war to help rebuild “ … and to educate the ex-slaves and poor whites who were left destitute in the wake of the bloody ravages of war.” After he settled in Florida, Gibbs was elected a delegate to the Florida Constitutional Convention in January 1868. Because of his being an outstanding delegate and his excellent performance, Governor Harrison Reed, nominated Gibbs as Secretary of State in Florida, a position he held until 1873. He was also a member of the State Canvassing Board.
In 1873, the newly elected Governor Ossian Hart appointed Gibbs State Superintendent of Public Instruction. Records in Florida “ … indicate that he increased the number of Florida schools and pupils, adopted a uniform curriculum and textbook policy, made modest gains in school integration, and, in general improved the quality of education in the State.” Gibbs also served in the State Militia as a Lieutenant Colonel along with his government work. His son, Thomas Van Rensselaer Gibbs, was a member of the Florida Legislature and both men were “ … instrumental in the passage of the bill which established the State Normal College, now Florida Agricultural and Mechanical (A & M) University. Jonathan Gibbs served as president of the Board of Trustees.” There is a building on campus named in his honor. Gibbs High School, the first high school in St. Petersburg for black students and Gibbs Junior College, also in St. Petersburg, are both named for him.
There were many people who resented Jonathan Gibbs, an African American serving in government, especially as his state and national prominence grew. He was threatened by the Ku Klux Klan a few months before he was found dead on August 14, 1874. His brother believed he had died from a stroke, but there were rumors that he had been poisoned. His biographer, Joe M. Richardson, wrote, “The minister-educator-politician was a man of intelligence, integrity, and dedication.” A man Kimball Union can be proud to call an alumnus.
The 1868 Florida Constitution, signed by Jonathan Gibbs.
Next time: The Bryant Block