On Wednesday, October 28, 2015, the President’s Commission on Slavery and the University hosted a reception at Gibbons House, the new dormitory named after William and Isabella Gibbons, both of whom were enslaved at the University before the Civil War.
The event had multiple purposes—introduce Gibbons family descendants to the University, show them the building named after their ancestors, and also unveil the historical interpretive panels that were recently installed in the main entranceway’s seating area. Research Associate Kelley Deetz and current UVA students spent much of the day with the family, taking them on tours around Grounds (including the University Guides’ tour focusing on the history of slavery and African Americans at UVA).
All two hundred Gibbons House residents were also invited. Gibbons descendants in attendance included Suzanne E. Hunt, Kayden S. Hunt, Aaron M. Hunt, Dr. Lisa Anderson Wyman, Tatum Anderson, Dr. Barbara M. Tatum, Carole U. Carter, and Edward R. Carter, who are descendants of Isabella Gibbons.
(Isabella Gibbons’ descendants, L to R: Suzanne E. Hunt, Kayden S. Hunt, Aaron M. Hunt, Dr. Lisa Anderson Wyman, Tatum Anderson, Dr. Barbara M. Tatum, Carole U. Carter, Edward R. Carter)
We were also thrilled to have a representative, Connie Laws, from Zion DC Baptist Church (www.ziondc.org) attend. William Gibbons served as the pastor there for a number of years. Bringing together Zion DC Baptist Church, Gibbons family descendants, and the UVA community represented a wonderful moment of sharing and remembrance.
The interpretive panels seek to situate the life stories of Isabella and William Gibbons in the context of the lives and experiences of enslaved people living on Grounds from 1825 to 1865.
Here is the text of the interpretive panels:
Resilience and Resistance:
From the moment enslaved workers began clearing land for the Academical Village in 1817, enslaved African Americans labored in every aspect of its construction, from terracing the Lawn and making bricks, to carpentry and blacksmithing. With the start of the University’s first session in 1825, the work of enslaved laborers shifted to support daily life for faculty families and students: hauling firewood, water, and supplies; cooking, laundering, and cleaning; and maintaining the buildings and grounds.
The enslaved population at the University fluctuated between 100 and 150 for the years 1830 through 1860. Isabella and William Gibbons were among the several hundred enslaved individuals who toiled at University over the course of its first half-century.
In addition to long hours of backbreaking labor, enslaved workers faced a constant threat of violence. Slave-owning faculty families and hotelkeepers enforced rules with physical punishment. Students attacked enslaved people with some regularity. In 1829, a student, after receiving supposedly rancid butter while dining, clubbed the enslaved server over the head. A group of students in 1837 attacked the University’s bell ringer, an enslaved man named Lewis Commodore, in protest against the strict schedule. The following year, two students beat Fielding, an enslaved man owned by Professor Charles Bonnycastle, after Fielding tried to stop their attack on a group of free African Americans. Bonnycastle was beaten when he intervened “for the purpose of preventing his servant from being murdered.” He described the assault as “severe and inhuman.”
In 1856, a student beat a ten-year-old enslaved girl “so severely” that for a time she was “rendered insensible” and required medical attention. Her alleged crime was “impertinent language.” As another student explained, “correction of a [slave] for impertinence [was] not only tolerated by society but [also a] necessity of maintaining due subordination of this class.” It was in this climate that Isabella and William Gibbons struggled to lead lives that reclaimed what enslavement sought to deny them.
Struggling for Family and Freedom:
Born into slavery, Isabella and William Gibbons refused to be restricted by the laws and customs of that institution. They managed to build a family and educate themselves. In freedom, they built on the education they struggled to obtain and worked to lift up those in their community. Their lives are a testament to their steadfast resistance to enslavement.
William Gibbons was born on an Albemarle County plantation in 1825 or 1826. Isabella was born circa 1836, possibly in Charlottesville. The couple married in the early 1850s despite Virginia laws that did not recognize the marriages of enslaved individuals. They struggled to raise a family while laboring in different households. Isabella, owned by Physics professor Francis Smith, cooked in the kitchens of Pavilions V and VI from 1853 to 1863. In the 1850s, William worked as a butler for Moral Philosophy professor William McGuffey, who resided in Pavilion IX.
Rejecting prevailing notions about black inferiority, Isabella and William sought opportunities to educate themselves, and both learned to read and write. William’s education included reading books in the McGuffey household and paying attention to student conversations. Isabella secretly taught their children how to read and write.
Following the end of slavery, William and Isabella Gibbons worked hard to enjoy the fullest fruits of freedom. Isabella received a diploma from the New England Freedman’s Aid Society’s Charlottesville Normal School in May 1867 and became the first African-American teacher in that same school, which became the Charlottesville Freedmen’s school (now the Jefferson School). Regarded as “quick and bright” and “an excellent teacher,” she was admired by the school’s founders and her colleagues. She taught at the school through the late 1880s.
William Gibbons, noted for his “rich, sonorous voice and a wonderfully magnetic manner,” became minister to the congregation now known as the First Baptist Church, Charlottesville’s oldest black church. He later served as pastor of Zion Baptist Church in Washington, D.C. At the age of 59, William began his formal studies, enrolling at Howard University as a divinity student.
“[B]y their persevering industry,” the Gibbonses acquired “considerable property” in Charlottesville in the years after 1865. When William died in 1886, the Washington Post ran a front-page obituary. Ten thousand mourners reportedly attended his funeral in Washington, D.C. Another large funeral was held in Charlottesville before his burial in Oakwood Cemetery. Isabella died three years later and is believed to be buried in an unmarked grave near her husband.