On Wednesday, March 25th, the UVa Board of Visitors announced their decision to name the new residence hall built on Alderman Rd., Gibbons House, in honor of the slave couple William and Isabella Gibbons.
According to the Slavery at University of Virginia Visitor’s Guide and a report from UVAToday, Mr. Gibbons was a slave for Professor Henry Howard in the 1840s, and later worked as a butler for Professor William H. McGuffey at the University of Virginia. Mrs. Gibbons was a servant in the home of Professor Francis Smith in Pavilion V and VI 1853 until 1863. The couple got married in the 1850s. Their marriage had no legal standing, and they were not allowed to live under the same roof. However, living near each other on grounds gave them the ability to be in the relationship and raise children while living in slavery at the University of Virginia.
Laws and society at the time restricted the couple to be able to get a formal education. William Gibbons learned to read by watching and listening to the white students around him. Evidence also suggests that the McGuffey family aided William to become literate, according to research administration assistant Leslie Walker in a summary about the Gibbonses for the Commission on Slavery and the University. Isabella Gibbons secretly taught her children to read during slavery.
After emancipation from the Civil War, Mr. Gibbons went on to be minister at First Baptist Church in Charlottesville, and then later moved to be a minister at Zion Baptist Church in Washington, D.C. Mrs. Gibbons and her children stayed in Charlottesville where he came and visited them. Mrs. Gibbons became the first person of color to teach at the Jefferson’s School, a Charlottesville freedman’s primary school, in 1865. Mr. Gibbons died from a stroke in 1886, two years after enrolling at Howard University as a part-time divinity student. Isabella died in 1889.
“One of the recommendations of the President’s Commission on Slavery and the University was to name one or more U.Va. buildings after enslaved persons who were connected to the life of the University,” said UVa President Teresa Sullivan. “This is part of a broad, ongoing effort to recognize the role of slavery in the University’s history and to educate the members of our community about the role of enslaved persons at UVa. as we approach our bicentennial.”
President Sullivan, and Vice President and Chief Officer for Diversity and Equity Dr. Martin Marcus, organized The Commission on Slavery and the University in 2013. The new dorm was seen as an opportunity for the commission. Dr. Marcus and Sullivan addressed the UVa Committee on Names with the idea of the Gibbonses couple. It was then approved as a resolution to the Board of Visitors.
By Brianna Hamblin, Staff Writer (P)