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Gilbert, John Wesley(1864–1923) - Archaeologist, minister, college president, Chronology, Helps Lead Mission to Africa

blacks church cme augusta

John Wesley Gilbert was a black archaeologist and a classical scholar. His work as an archaeologist made him unique among African Americans of his era. After studying at one of the nation’s leading universities and studying and traveling widely abroad, he made his mark at historically black Payne College in Augusta, Georgia. His most enduring contribution may be as teacher and preacher in the South, where his students and the community benefited from his scholarship and lectures. Of equal importance is his call for blacks to write and publish their own histories and to broadcast their stories before wide audiences.

Born in Hephzibah, Georgia, on July 6, 1864, John W. Gilbert was the son of Gabriel and Sarah Gilbert. While John was still very young, his father Gabriel died, and he was raised by his mother and his uncle John, for whom he was named. As a young child, he spent half of the year on a farm and the other half in the public schools of Augusta, Georgia. It was not uncommon for blacks in rural areas to divide their time in this manner, for they were needed as a source of labor on the farm during planting and harvesting time. Sources differ on the course of his education after he completed grammar school. Some claim that Gilbert studied next at Atlanta Baptist Seminary, which became the Theological Department of Morehouse College in Atlanta; others report that he became interested in Payne College, the new institution that opened in Augusta around that time and was the first student to enroll. The earnest, studious, and capable young Gilbert completed the normal course that the school offered and his performance attracted the attention of the college’s president, who paid his expenses to Brown University in Rhode Island. Whatever the course of his early college years, he did, in fact, enroll in Brown.

Gilbert was specially gifted in learning languages and achieved distinction as a classical scholar adept in Greek. He won the university-offered Athens scholarship and was able to live in Athens and study classics there at the American School, during the academic year 1890–91. He was that school’s first African American student. To help support his study, Gilbert worked as a tourist guide.

Gilbert traveled widely during that year; his interests and work took him on excavations throughout Greece and the Mediterranean islands. He was interested in archaeology, gaining recognition as one of the first African American archaeologists. After finding Eretria’s ancient pillars, gates, and walls, he traced the walls, located the structure’s towers, and then worked with his team to prepare a map of the ancient structure. He also spent a semester at the University of Berlin in 1891. After writing his thesis on the villages of Attica (or the demes) in 1891, Brown University awarded him the master’s of arts degree. He traveled a lot, visiting most European countries and later much of the United States.

Gilbert returned to the United States in the fall of 1891, with a keen interest in helping blacks and whites understand, love, and help each other. In 1891 he was named chairman of Greek and German at Payne. He was dean of theology for three years, probably in the late 1880s or early 1890s. He was a vital force at Payne.

By the mid-1890s Gilbert had become interested in preaching, and in 1895 he entered the ministry of the Colored Methodist Episcopal (CME) Church. In 1901, he represented the church at ecumenical conferences held in London in September.



Born in Hephzibah, Georgia on July 6


Studies at American School of Classics in Athens, Greece


Receives M.A. from Brown University; returns to United States and joins faculty at Payne College, Augusta, Georgia


Enters ministry of the Colored Methodist Episcopal (CME) Church


Represents CME Church at ecumenical conferences in London


Travels in Africa with Bishop W. R. Lambuth


Serves as president of Miles College, Birmingham, Alabama


Dies on November 19

Helps Lead Mission to Africa

Bishop W. R. Lambuth wanted the Methodist Episcopal Church, South and the CME Church to share in a visit to Africa, and he invited Gilbert to go along to help open a mission station there. The two men and their team of nearly sixty Americans went to London, on to Belgium, and from there they sailed to Dakar, arriving on October 24, 1911. After a short stop in Dakar, they went up the Congo River and landed in Luebo. They set out further, crossing rivers, swamps, passing through villages, and altogether traveled 750 miles and visited 200 villages. Gilbert provided an important service to Lambuth and their cause, as he translated materials into French and did some work with several dialects. When he returned to the United States, the CME Church was eager to begin its mission work in Africa, yet its zeal soon faded. At some point Gilbert was superintendent of African missions for the CME Church.

Gilbert was professionally active; he published articles on archaeology in the New York Independent and other scholarly journals. One of his essays “How Can the Negroes Be Induced to Rally More to Negro Enterprises and to Their Professional Men?” was published in 1902 in Culp’s Twentieth Century Negro Literature . There he questioned the training that blacks received to support their own enterprises and other black professionals. He raised questions about the textbooks blacks study and how they are written by whites and for whites. These works suppressed information, he asserted, and suggested that blacks have not contributed to history and literature. He called for a “thorough review of our system of education,” so that blacks would be encouraged to write and to discover their own worthiness.

Gilbert believed that blacks should promote their own work, particularly at conventions and national congresses. According to Culp, Gilbert said that “training in the school room, preaching in the pulpit, proclaiming in social and civic organizations, promulgation from the rostrum, and broadcast distribution of literature, all ending toward the same end” would serve well to educate blacks about their own work. He knew the importance of black business development and became an entrepreneur as well, as demonstrated by 1919, when his real estate holdings were valued at $15,000. He held several shares in a realty company in Augusta.

Whether he interrupted his tenure at Payne College is not known, but for one year, 1913–14, Gilbert was president of Miles College, a CME institution founded in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1905. Since many religious denominations used their own leaders to head the colleges that they supported, this would have been a logical transition for Gilbert, who possibly held the presidency until a permanent chief administrator could be placed.

Gilbert belonged to a number of professional and civic organizations, including the Archaeological Institute, Philological Association of America, the Masons, the Knights of Pythias (which he served as grand auditor), and the Odd Fellows.

Gilbert married Osceola Pleasant, an Augusta native, in the spring of 1899; they had four children. Gilbert’s health began to fail around 1920, and he died on November 19, 1923.

Gilbert, Walter [next] [back] Gilbert, Amy Margaret (1895–1980) - U.S. History

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about 5 years ago

Thank you for this article about Dr. Gilbert. My father was president of Paine College (not Payne College) from 1956 -1970 as the last white president of that great institution. In 1961 he wrote "Of Men Who Ventured Much and Far" to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the historic trip to establish the mission jointly sponsored by the Methodist Episcopal Church, south and the Colored (now Christian) Methodist Episcopal. They were NOT accompanied by 60 "Americans", but by 60 African Christians from the Beluba tribe form the Presbyterian mission at Luebo in the Congo. I have done a great deal of my own research on both Bishop Lambuth and Dr. Gilbert while serving as Research Archivist a the Southeastern Jurisdictional Heritage Center at Lake Junaluska, NC. Please correct your article to accurately represent the truth. Please correct "Payne" to "Paine" and sixty "Americans" to "Africans.
Also, there is no doubt that J.W> Gilbert was the first student to enroll at Paine Institute. That is well-documented in the records of Paine College. He was also the first African-American member of the Faculty invited by Dr. George Williams Walker who had been the president from the time of Gilbert's registration as a student. He personally tutored Gilbert and prepared him for entrance into Brown University. I will re-visit this site to see if these changes have been made. Unfortunately the same mistakes show up on Wikipedia and is wrongly quoted in a recent book on the history of Lake Junaluska Assembly entitled, "The Antechamber of Heaven", by Rev. Bill Lowry. I wrote to make these corrections a year ago and they are still in the article.
Ashley M. Calhoun

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almost 7 years ago

Having done considerable research on Dr. Gilbert and Bishop Walter R. Lambuth may I point out two errors in the body of this biography. First, the spelling of Payne is incorrect. It is Paine College in Augusta, GA. SEcondly, GIlbert and Lambuth did not go to the Congo with 60 Americans. They went alone. They did have sixty native Africans in their party, including carriers, an interpreter, and a cook.These men were supplied by the mission of the SOuthern Presbyterian Church from their mission at Luebo. Also they walked a total of 1500 miles, 750 in to reach the village of Chief Wembo Nyama and beyon and 750 out of the eastern central Congo back to Luebo.
Ashley M. Calhoun, Research ARchivist at the Southeastern Jurisdictional Heritage Center at Lake Junaluska, NC and portrayer of Bishop Lambuth.

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over 2 years ago

In general this article gives accurate information with at least three exceptions. First, there is no doubt that John Wesley Gilbert attended Paine (not Payne) College as the first student entering Paine Institute whose president was George Williams Walker. Secondly, JWG was credited in various sources as the first African-American archaeologist. Third, he and Bishop Walter Russell Lambuth were accompanied by 60 Africans not Americans as is wrongly written in Wikipedia. They were native volunteers from the Presbyterian mission at Luebo. Only Dr. Gilbert and Bishop Lambuth made the trip from America to the Congo.

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over 7 years ago

I think this is the most coolest article I have ever read in my life!

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almost 2 years ago

I am making a movie on him hope it good