Mifflin Wistar Gibbs (1823-1915)

Mifflin Wistar Gibbs was a prominent African American abolitionist, entrepreneur, politician, judge, and journalist, born free in Philadelphia on April 17, 1823.  His father died when Mifflin was only eight, so he went to work at an early age, eventually becoming a carpenter’s apprentice.  Around the age of 16, Mifflin joined the Philadelphia Library Company, which was an African American literary society, founded in 1833 to cultivate, promote and improve the intelligence of its members through literary pursuits.  Mifflin Gibbs eventually became deeply involved in the abolition movement, becoming a powerful writer, an outspoken advocate, and helping in the Underground Railroad.  In 1849, Frederick Douglass invited Mifflin, who was still in his 20's, to accompany him on a lecture tour through the state of New York, and Mifflin shared the stage with the most famous black anti-slavery orator in the world.

In 1850, Mifflin Gibbs career as an entrepreneur unfolded when he migrated to San Francisco during the California gold rush, saving his money from working as a bootblack and carpenter, he joined a clothing business, and quickly became a successful merchant as a partner importing fine boots and shoes in the firm of Lester and Gibbs.  He also founded a newspaper in San Francisco, the Mirror of the Times.  As a black businessman in San Francisco, Mifflin advocated equal rights for all citizens, and he and his partner, Peter Lester refused to pay the poll tax because they were not allowed to vote; Some of their goods were seized because of their defiance. The black community of San Francisco decided to migrate to find better opportunities so in 1858, Gibbs relocated to Victoria, British Columbia in Canada.

Continuing to succeed in business, Gibbs founded a mercantile company, and then became a property developer and contractor. In 1869, Gibbs developed a coal mine on the Queen Charlotte Islands, and with 50 men he built British Columbia’s first railroad!  In 1866, Gibbs became the second black elected official in Canadian history when he was elected to the Victoria City Council, serving two terms in office, and as chairman of the finance committee. Also as an elected delegate, Mifflin helped to frame the terms by which British Columbia entered the Canadian confederation.  Gibbs also helped form and organize the colony’s first militia, the Victoria Pioneer Rifle Corps, an all-black volunteer militia, known as the African Rifles, to protect the community from the threat of U.S. aggression toward British Columbia.

In 1869, Gibbs returned to the U.S. and by 1870, he was studying law in Oberlin Ohio. Gibbs was then hired by the law office of Benjamin and Barnes of Little Rock, Arkansas in 1871, and by the next year, Mifflin had formed his own law firm.  Mifflin Gibbs entered politics in Little Rock, Arkansas, and became the first black elected municipal judge in the United States. Then in 1897, Gibbs was appointed U.S. consul to Madagascar by President McKinley, serving in this position for four years.

In 1901 Gibbs returned to the United States at the age of 78, where he returned to Little Rock and became president of the Capital City Savings Bank, an African American institution. A true renaissance man and still wealthy, Mifflin Gibbs died in 1915.  In 1902 Mifflin Gibbs published his autobiography, Shadow and Light, chronicling his amazing life.

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