When you consider how his life began, as John Lee does in forensic detail in The First Black Archaeologist, it is almost beyond belief that John Wesley Gilbert became the urbane, highly educated man we see in this photograph.
Gilbert was born into slavery in 1863 while the American Civil War still raged over whether people like him should be freed. He never knew his father, and his philandering stepfather died only two years after marrying Sarah, Gilbert’s mother, in 1873 – a year of economic crisis that was met by a rise in racist support for the so-called ‘Lost Cause of the Confederacy’. Not yet in his teens, Gilbert laboured to support his family: ‘six months of the year I ploughed, hoed, picked cotton, split rails,’ he wrote, ‘and spent the other six months in the public schools of Augusta.’
Unusually, Sarah was able to read – notwithstanding the anti-literacy laws enacted against enslaved people in many states – and her son also benefited from Augusta’s African-American schools. These were underfunded, but the teachers were formidably committed to their work (one of the first to teach Gilbert was herself only 17 years old). By such slender opportunities, the young Gilbert could pursue his talents – which proved considerable. He mastered French, German, modern Greek, the African languages Tshilubà and Otetela, as well as ancient Greek, Latin, and biblical Hebrew. It was said that, when he joined the faculty at Paine College in 1888, he was single-handedly ‘the best foreign language department in the Southeast’. Only the third African American to study at the elite Brown University, Gilbert became in 1891 the first there to secure an advanced degree.
For our purposes, though, it is Gilbert’s pioneering work with the American School of Classical Studies in Athens in 1890-1891 that is most significant. African-American students held ‘the classical liberal arts curriculum’ in high regard – an idea given some context by the South Carolina senator who remarked that ‘if he could find a Negro who knew the Greek syntax, he would then believe that the Negro was a human being and should be treated as a man.’ And Gilbert was one of the first Americans – of any ethnicity – to undertake archaeological work in Greece. There, he is likely to have met Heinrich Schliemann, rediscoverer of Troy, and certainly he did groundbreaking excavation work on the demes (neighbourhoods) of Athens, which were foundational in the development of democracy, and on ‘Aristotle’s Tomb’ in Eretria. ‘What you do,’ as Gilbert himself noted, ‘speaks so loud that I cannot hear what you say.’
John W I Lee’s The First Black Archaeologist: a life of John Wesley Gilbert was published in hardback in April 2022 (Oxford University Press, £26.99).