Often, people will get out of life what they put into it. For Mifflin Gibbs, that meant traveling the world looking for new opportunity and working hard to push himself ahead. While some details of his life have been lost, it is clear that Gibbs lived a remarkable life of adventure and public service.
Mifflin Wistar Gibbs was born as a free man in 1823 in Philadelphia. His father was a respected minister. Tragically, his father died in 1831, leaving behind a wife and five children and little money. At the age of eight, Gibbs went to work, first as a carriage driver for a local doctor and later apprenticing himself to a carpenter.
Gibbs was an ambitious young man with a sharp mind. Though he had little formal education, at the age of 16, he joined a prominent African-American literary club known as the Philadelphia Library Company. Here, he was inspired by the city’s leading abolitionists to join the crusade to end slavery. He became active in the Underground Railroad, efforts to bring slaves to freedom across the Maryland and Delaware border into free Pennsylvania. In 1849, abolitionist Frederick Douglass, easily one of the most famous men in the country at the time, invited Gibbs to join him on his speaking tour.
Shortly afterward, Gibbs joined the throngs of people headed to California during the Gold Rush. After the long journey across the continent, he soon started a dry goods business in San Francisco, which became very successful. In 1855, he started a newspaper, The Mirror of the Times, which was the first newspaper owned by an African-American west of the Mississippi River.
Frustrated by the rising levels of racism in California, Gibbs and a group of African-American prospectors left for Canada in 1858. They ultimately settled in Victoria on Vancouver Island. Canada at that time was still a part of the British Empire. Though Britain had introduced slavery to the American colonies in the years before independence, Britain had already moved on to abolish slavery.
Gibbs and his group found success in Canada, and Gibbs himself eventually became a dual citizen of the U. S. and Canada alike. He invested heavily in a new dry goods business and a successful coal mine in the area. In 1866, he was elected to the Vitoria city council, becoming one of the first African-Americans elected to any office, either in Canada or the United States.
Gibbs returned to the United States in 1870, encouraged by the post-Civil War political climate, briefly working at Oberlin College in Ohio before moving to South Carolina. There, he chanced to meet Arkansas legislator William H. Gray, who convinced him to move to Arkansas.
In 1871, Gibbs arrived in Little Rock. He soon became a popular figure in the city and rose quickly in city politics. Gibbs passed the bar exam the next year and formed his own law firm. Little Rock voters elected him as a municipal judge in 1873, making Gibbs one of the first African-Americans elected as a judge in the United States. He stepped down from the position in 1875 and resumed his law practice and interest in investing in local real estate and businesses.
He received several presidential appointments in the ensuing years, including as director of the federal land office in Little Rock and as a public receiver. In 1897, President William McKinley appointed Gibbs as United States Consul to Madagascar, just as the African island kingdom was making the difficult transition to becoming a French colony. Gibbs would serve in this position for the next four years.
In 1901, he returned to Arkansas, and at the age of 78, embarked on yet another adventure as he served as president of Capital City Savings Bank, a bank designed to serve the African-American community. He died quietly at his home in Little Rock in 1915 at the age of 92.
Dr. Ken Bridges, a history professor at South Arkansas Community College in El Dorado, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. The South Arkansas Historical Preservation Society is dedicated to educating the public about the state’s rich history.