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Gibbons House: A Story of Emancipation

GibbonsOn June 12th, the University of Virginia held a special dedication at its newest residence hall, Gibbons House, named in honor of former slaves William and Isabella Gibbons for their contributions to the university and “their example of perseverance and accomplishment throughout their lives.” The dorm will house about 200 first-year students starting this August.

Remarking that it was his last official act as rector of the Board of Visitors, George Keith Martin—the first African-American person to hold that position—said of the Gibbons: “Their lives are examples of the power of the human spirit to overcome adversity. Slavery did not keep them from learning to read. With the freedom that emancipation brought, they sought out and pursed professional employment opportunities and continued their education.”

Kirt von Daacke, author of Freedom Has a Face: Race, Identity, and Community in Jefferson’s Virginia, served as co-chair of the commission with Dr. Marcus Martin, vice president and chief officer for diversity and equity. As UVa Today reports, the two scholars “discussed the commission’s work as it involves related groups on Grounds and in the community, from Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello to the University and Community Action for Racial Equity, and as the commission prepares several educational activities.”

“This building represents an outstanding opportunity to educate many students and their families, staff and faculty and visitors about slavery and the contributions of the enslaved at the University for years to come,” Martin said.

Isabella became a teacher at the Freedman’s School—now the Jefferson School—and William became a minister at Charlottesville’s oldest black church, First Baptist, and several years later the Zion Baptist Church in Washington, D.C. When he died in June 1886, 10,000 mourners attended his funeral, the Washington Post reported in a front-page story.

The naming of Gibbons House is ‘one part of a broad, ongoing effort at U.Va.’ to investigate and propose ways to recognize the role of slavery in the University’s history, U.Va. President Teresa A. Sullivan said at the dedication.

In Freedom Has a Face, Von Daacke presents findings that argue against stereotypes of menacing free blacks that scholars have—until recently—taken as representative of white attitudes. Rather, he reveals the existence of a relatively easygoing interracial social order in Albemarle County from the Revolution to the mid-nineteenth century and beyond—despite fears engendered by Gabriel's Conspiracy and the Haitian Revolution.

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