You are here

Parallel Worlds

The Remarkable Gibbs-Hunts and the Enduring (In)significance of Melanin
Adele L. Alexander

BUY Cloth · 416 pp. · 6.125 × 9.25 · ISBN 9780813928876 · $29.95 · Mar 2010
BUY Paper · 416 pp. · 6.125 × 9.25 · ISBN 9780813932453 · $19.95 · Feb 2012
BUY Ebook · 416 pp. · ISBN 9780813929781 · $19.95 · Feb 2012

When William Henry Hunt married Ida Alexander Gibbs in the spring of 1904, their wedding was a dazzling Washington social event that joined an Oberlin-educated diplomat's daughter and a Wall Street veteran who could trace his lineage to Jamestown. Their union took place in a world of refinement and privilege, but both William and Ida had mixed-race backgrounds, and their country therefore placed severe restrictions on their lives because at that time, "one drop of colored blood" classified anyone as a Negro. This "stain" of melanin pushed the couple's achievements to the margins of American society. Nonetheless, as William followed a career in the foreign service, Ida (whose grandfather was probably Richard Malcolm Johnson, a vice president of the United States) moved in intellectual and political circles that included the likes of Frederick Douglass, J. Pierpont Morgan, Booker T. Washington, Paul Laurence Dunbar, and Mary Church Terrell.

Born into slavery, William had an adventurous youth, including a brief career as a jockey and an interlude at Williams College; ultimately he succeeded Ida's father as consul. The diplomat's "expatriate" life provided him with a distinguished career and a stage on which to showcase his talents throughout the world, as well as an escape from racial stigmas back home. Free of the diplomatic hindrances her husband faced, Ida advocated openly against race and gender inequities, and was a major participant in W. E. B. Du Bois's post-World-War I Pan-African Congresses which took her to stimulating European capitals that were largely free of racial oppression.

In this, William and Ida's unique dual biography, Adele Logan Alexander gracefully traces an extraordinary partnership with a historian's skills and insights. She also presents a nuanced account of the complex impact of race in the early twentieth-century world.


Adele Alexander’s extraordinary gift, Parallel Lives, reanimates the ‘problem of the 20th century’ as her privileged protagonists intimately experienced it on three continents. To her credit, this distinguished historian balances genealogical indulgence with sociologically informed appreciation for the large and lamentable significance given melanin by the world Europeans made. This is a work of sui generis scholarship—family history as world history.

David Levering Lewis, New York University · Pulitzer Prize–winning biographer of W. E. B. Du Bois

Alexander, a distant cousin of Gibbs-Hunt and married to Clifford Alexander, the first African American secretary of the army, offers a thoroughly fascinating look at the long but little-known history of blacks in the U.S. foreign service, as well as an intimate look at a prominent family ensconced in W. E. B. Du Bois’s Talented Tenth. In fact, Du Bois is among the stellar cast of acquaintances in the glittering and intellectual world of Hunt and Gibbs-Hunt, including Anna Julia Cooper, Mary Church Terrell, Frederick Douglass, and Paul Laurence Dunbar.

Starred Review · BOOKLIST

Adele Alexander, in this brilliant, illuminating story of two remarkable individuals, reminds us why we must look to the past to grasp the profound depths and irrationality of racism and sexist discrimination in America and how their pernicious legacies linger to this day. This is an inspirational story of the triumph of the spirit over seemingly impossible odds.

A. Janet Langhart Cohen and William S. Cohen, coauthors of Love in Black and White: A Memoir of Race, Religion, and Romance

"This deeply researched and rich work tells a fascinating story of two families' negotiation of America's treacherous racial landscape from slavery through the twentieth century. Alexander's vivid portrayal illuminates both the individual lives of her subjects and the times in which they lived."

Annette Gordon-Reed, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family

"[Ida] Gibbs came from African American aristocracy.... [William Henry] Hunt's story as a self-made man is as improbable as Gibbs's family background. Born into slavery in Tennessee in 1863, Hunt told fantastic tales about his hard-knocks youth. But the truth was amazing enough.

The Washington Post

About the Author(s): 

Adele Logan Alexander, Research Professor at George Washington University, was appointed by President Obama to serve on the National Council on the Humanities. She is the author of Ambiguous Lives: Free Women of Color in Rural Georgia, 1789-1879 and Homelands and Waterways: The American Journey of the Bond Family, 1846-1926 and numerous articles and essays. Born and raised in New York City, she and her husband, Clifford Alexander, have two children, five grandchildren, and live in Washington, D. C.

Interested in this topic?
Stay updated with our newsletters:

Related Books