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Gibbs, Jonathan Clarkson(1828–1874) - Minister, politician, educator, Chronology, Serves as Secretary of State, Becomes Superintendent of Public Instruction

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Jonathan Clarkson Gibbs was a noted clergyman, missionary, politician, and educator. At the height of his influence during the Reconstruction Era, he made significant and lasting contributions to the Florida educational system. Gibbs High School in St. Petersburg, Florida, and the Gibbs Campus of St. Petersburg College are named in his honor and testify to his enduring achievements regarding the education of blacks and whites in the Sunshine State. An intellectual and a gifted speaker, Gibbs ranked among the leading black abolitionists of his day and achieved wide recognition for being Florida’s first black secretary of state during the Reconstruction Era.

Born a free black on October 28, 1828 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Jonathan C. Gibbs was the son of a Wes-leyan Methodist minister, Jonathan C. Gibbs, Sr. After his father died suddenly, Gibbs’ mother, Maria Jackson Gibbs, was left to rear the couple’s three sons, Jonathan, Mifflin, and Isaiah, in circumstances of dire poverty. The widow performed laundry work until it ruined her health. To subsidize the family’s meager income, Jonathan and Mifflin became apprentice carpenters for James Gibbons, a reputable black Philadelphia craftsman.

Although their father was a Methodist and their mother was a Baptist, Jonathan and Mifflin became Presbyterians in 1843 and joined the First African Presbyterian Church in their hometown. Gibbs shrewdly parlayed his newly acquired membership in a Presbyterian Church into an opportunity for a more lucrative future, by gaining sponsorship from its assembly to attend Dartmouth College.

As a part of his undergraduate experience, Gibbs was active in the abolitionist movement in which he associated with Frederick Douglass, Martin Delaney, and other leading advocates of the abolishment of slavery and enfranchisement for blacks. A gifted learner with an inquisitive mind, Gibbs studied Latin, Greek, math, rhetoric, morals, and philosophy. When he finished his studies in 1852, Gibbs was only the third black to graduate from Dartmouth College.

Gibbs strengthened his preparation for the ministry by attending Princeton Theological Seminary from 1853 to 1855. He left Princeton to become the pastor of the Liberty Street Presbyterian Church, in Troy, New York. Under Gibbs’ guidance, the congregation increased, and the church became more financially stable. Along with his church work, Gibbs was tirelessly active in local and state organizations. In 1855, he attended the New York Colored Men’s State Convention, which focused on African American civil rights but opposed colonization, a plan to resettle former slaves and free blacks on the African continent.

As his ministerial career began to soar, Gibbs’s marriage to the former Anna Amelia Harris suffered from marital disharmony. The unhappy spouses had two children, Julia Pennington and Thomas Van Renssalaer. Matters came to a head and a pregnant Anna Gibbs left her husband in 1857. She subsequently gave birth to a daughter, Josephine, but the couple divorced. Both later remarried, with Anna gaining custody of the couple’s two daughters and Jonathan Gibbs retaining custody of their son.

Chronology

1828

Born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on October 28

1843

Joins the Presbyterian Church

1852

Graduates from Dartmouth College

1853–55

Studies at Princeton Theological Seminary

1855

Named pastor of Liberty Street Presbyterian Church, Troy, New York

1860

Named Pastor of First African Presbyterian Church, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

1865–66

Serves as missionary in North and South Carolina

1868

Serves as Florida’s secretary of state

1873

Serves as Florida’s superintendent of public instruction

1874

Dies in Tallahassee, Florida on August 14

In 1860, Gibbs accepted a post at his home church, the First African Presbyterian Church of Philadelphia. The church served as an underground railroad station for southern slaves fleeing to northern states and Canada. Gibbs signed the “Appeal from the Colored Men of Philadelphia to the President of the United States,” issued in 1862. This document spoke against colonization, argued for equal rights for blacks, and expressed confidence in Abraham Lincoln. During his four years at First African Presbyterian, Gibbs participated in the 1864 Colored People’s Convention that produced the National Equal Rights League, which protested against racial discrimination. Gibbs married his second wife, Elizabeth F. Gibbs, and fathered a third daughter, Anne, in 1866.

Gibbs decided to relinquish pastoring churches by 1865 and to become a missionary. In the aftermath of the Civil War, the Presbyterian Board of Missions for Freed-men sent him to North and South Carolina to work with former slaves. Gibbs was assigned to the Zion Presbyterian Church in Charleston, South Carolina, where he successfully started a school, but he annoyed white Carolinians by hosting a convention at the church which promoted more rights for the freedmen. The Presbyterian board exiled him to a smaller sphere of influence in Sumter County, South Carolina.

Serves as Secretary of State

Gibbs moved to Florida in 1866 and in an apparent effort to re-invent himself, abandoned missionary work altogether and entered politics. He was attracted to the radical wing of the Florida Republican Party, but thought it more prudent to ally himself with the moderate faction. This strategy proved wise because it led to his becoming one of eighteen blacks elected to the Florida Constitutional Convention of 1868. After much haggling and political infighting, the delegates emerged with a document that established the rights for male voting, free public education, and equal protection for African Americans under the law. W. E. B. Du Bois observed that Gibbs was the most cultured member of the convention’s black delegates, describing him as a tall, slender mulatto with a prominent forehead. Gibbs’s support for Harrison Reed as governor eventually positioned him for an appointment as Florida’s secretary of state.

Gibbs assumed the office of secretary of state on November 11, 1868. His duties included keeping the official records of the legislative and the executive branches; protecting the state seal, returning vetoed bills to the legislature, and evaluating applicants for state office. In addition to certain corrupt, inept, and disloyal officials, Gibbs had to deal with the attempted impeachment of the governor and a chaotic statewide election. He also had to face outbreaks of violence and lack of law enforcement across the state, mostly related to the heightened criminal conduct and activities of the Ku Klux Klan and other likeminded racist groups, who were intent on intimidating blacks.

According to one of his biographers, Learotha Williams Jr., Gibbs was the target of a failed assassination plot in Marianna, Florida in 1870. Many whites did not enjoy seeing a black man in such a coveted political office and effectively wielding power. He received death threats on a regular basis and kept his home armed. Yet Gibbs sometimes served as acting governor when Harrison Reed was away from the capitol.

Becomes Superintendent of Public Instruction

In 1872 Gibbs served concurrent terms as a Tallahassee city councilman and secretary of state. When Governor Reed was succeeded by Ossian B. Hart in 1873, Gibbs was appointed superintendent of public instruction. During Gibbs’s administration, Florida’s public schools suffered from a shortage of certified teachers, inadequate funding, and suitable school buildings. Gibbs required thorough reports from county superintendents, attempted to have uniform textbooks for elementary and secondary pupils, and published a list of recommended textbooks.

Gibbs attempted to find funding for Florida’s two schools designated for the freedman’s education, Florida Agricultural College and Cookman College. Gibbs’s improvements and innovations had a major impact and lasting legacy on public education in Florida. His life abruptly ended on August 14, 1874, when he suffered a stroke. The suddenness of his death, coupled with persistent death threats, fed unsubstantiated rumors that he had been poisoned.

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