Mifflin Wistar Gibbs
April 17, 1823 – July 11, 1915
Notable: Businessman / Politician
Mifflin Wistar Gibbs began his life in Philadelphia as the child of a minister who passed away shortly after his eighth birthday. Needing to help support his mother and family, Gibbs was sent off to work in a series of odd jobs. At the age of 16, Gibbs began apprenticing under a carpenter and assisted in the building of local Black churches. Having received limited formal schooling, Gibbs self-educated himself by reading independently and joining literary societies.
As a member of various Black literary groups, Mifflin Wistar Gibbs met and interacted with prominent Philadelphia abolitionists. These relationships resulted in Gibbs becoming an abolitionist and participant in the Underground Railroad. He rose to such prominence within the movement that at the age of 26, he was invited to join Frederick Douglass on a speaking tour.
The 1849 California Gold Rush drew prospectors West with the possibility of fortunes and increased freedoms for Black pioneers. In 1850, Gibbs headed West to San Francisco and initially earned a living with his carpentry skills. But, he was forced out of his job when the White carpenters refused to work alongside him. In what must have felt like an unfortunate return to his youth, Gibbs was again forced to support himself with various odd jobs.
After working for a while, Gibbs was able to save up to start a business with another Black businessman, Peter Lester. Their company, Lester and Gibbs, opened a store named the Pioneer Boot and Shoe Emporium which imported and sold boots, shoes, and clothing. Gibbs not only found success as a retailer but also established the Mirror of the Times, a local Black newspaper that focused on equal rights.
The companies and Gibbs experienced several years of success in California but Gibbs grew increasingly frustrated with living in the state. As more White pioneers continued to venture West from the East and South, discrimination against Black people increased. California was a free state but Southerners were allowed to bring slaves into the state and Black people were not allowed to vote or testify in court against a White person.
Gibbs’ business partner, Lester, was assaulted by a White customer and could not defend himself or seek justice. In a separate incident, because the pair were not allowed to vote, they refused to pay a poll tax and were punished by having some of their property seized and auctioned off.
An invitation was extended to the Black people of San Francisco when the governor of Victoria (now British Columbia) was seeking local non-Americans to live in the British colony. Gibbs and Peters were among several hundred Black people who migrated to Victoria to escape racism. Upon arriving in Victoria, Gibbs bought a house and immediately set about recreating his earlier retail success by re-establishing Peters and Gibbs. The company sold clothing and supplies to the Fraser River Gold Rush prospectors.
Mifflin Wistar Gibbs finally achieved the right to vote and became involved with local politics eventually becoming the second Black elected official in Canada. He contributed to the development of a coal mine which also resulted in Victoria’s first railroad. Gibbs was also an organizer of the African Rifles, an all-Black militia. Gibbs was a part of a delegation that negotiated the terms of British Columbia becoming a part of Canada.
Five years after the end of the Civil War, Gibbs closed his business in Canada and moved back to America where he studied law in Ohio. Settling in Little Rock, Arkansas, Gibbs again became involved with politics and government and was elected the first Black municipal judge in the United States as well as US Consul in Tamatave, Madagascar. After resigning for health reasons, Gibbs returned to Little Rock where he wrote an autobiography, launched a bank to serve the Black community, invested in an electric light company, and managed local real estate holdings.
Mifflin Wistar Gibbs died at the age of 92 a relatively wealthy and well-respected man despite having grown up poor and repeatedly experiencing discrimination.
- Edmunds-Flett, Sherry. 1998. “GIBBS, MIFFLIN WISTAR.” Dictionary of Canadian Biography, Vol. 14. University of Toronto. 1998. http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/gibbs_mifflin_wistar_14E.html.
- “Gibbs, Mifflin Wistar.” 2019. Encyclopedia.com. Encyclopedia.com. September 12, 2019. https://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/gibbs-mifflin-wistar.
- Kilian, Crawford. 2007. “Mifflin Wistar Gibbs (1823-1915).” BlackPast.org. BlackPast. November 10, 2007. https://www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/gibbs-mifflin-wistar-1823-1915.
- Kilian, Crawford. 2018. “Mifflin Gibbs.” The Canadian Encyclopedia. September 7, 2018. https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/mifflin-gibbs.
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