Welcome to the publication, “Representations.” This is a project designed to bring the perspectives of a wider variety of groups to the forefront of the anthropology classroom. To celebrate Black History Month, we are covering the accomplishments of 28 Black anthropologists across 28 days. Learn more about our project; read on for the amazing accomplishments of John Wesley Gilbert.
John Wesley Gilbert was a trailblazer in a myriad of ways and his contributions to anthropology are immeasurable. Perhaps the pinnacle of his career was his participation in the discovery and first-ever mapping of the ancient Greek city, Eretria. Eretria was a central city of Ancient Greece in the 5th and 6th centuries and — without Gilbert’s research — we would not possess the knowledge of that city that we have today.
For his incredible achievements, Gilbert is commonly called “the first African American Anthropologist.” Gilbert was born in 1863 — in the middle of the American Civil War — in Georgia. Gilbert’s mother was enslaved and he faced incredible poverty as a child. As an adult, Gilbert broke down barrier after barrier and rose steadily in the ranks of academia and archeology — his achievements in the face of overwhelming obstacles are a testament to his talent and brilliance.
In fact, Gilbert’s life was full of firsts. He was the first African American to receive his Master's degree in the Spring of 1891 and he was the first African American professor hired at Paine Institute.
John Wesley Gilbert attended the American School of Classics in Athens Greece, studying linguistics, classical studies, and archeology; It was here in Greece where he professionally worked as an anthropologist. “Being one of only fifty people of any race or ethnicity to embark on Archeology work in Greece” (John W.Lee https://www.ascsa.edu. ). John Wesley Gilbert worked effortlessly as an educator for many years teaching English, German, Greek, Latin, and French. As well as for the advancement of Black people, Indigenous people, and people of color, arguing that the Euro-centric ideals taught in schools and written in textbooks did not reflect the full history of African American people.
In addition to his discoveries and achievements in Greece, Gilbert traveled to the Congo as a missionary and educator where he educated Patrice Lumumba (who would become the first Prime Minister of the Republic of the Congo).
At home in the United States, Gilbert vocally advocated for the social sciences to incorporate the voices of African Americans, because he recognized that different groups have different voices, histories, and perspectives. Gilbert brought these scholarly ideals in the form of a missionary to the Congo in Africa, teaching and inspiring Africans who may have never had the opportunity to learn otherwise. John Wesley Gilbert became ill and died November 19, 1923 but not without leaving a lasting legacy. Gilbert was an inspiration to African American anthropologists and archeologists, as well as the anthropology community as a whole.
John Wesley Gilbert’s determination and esteemed viewpoints on African American advancements inspired many people for generations to come. One of Gilbert’s students at Paine Institute where he later became the first African American Professor included John Hope. John Hope untimely became a founding member of the Niagara Movement and afterward the First African American to become President at Morehouse College, as well as many more. John Wesley Gilbert’s legacy lives on.
“An African American Pioneer in Greece: John Wesley Gilbert and the American School of Classical Studies at Athens, 1890–1891.” From the Archivist’s Notebook, 1 Oct. 2017, nataliavogeikoff.com/2017/08/01/an-african-american-pioneer-in-greece-john-wesley-gilbert-and-the-american-school-of-classical-studies-at-athens-1890–1891/.
Gordon, Laura. GILBERT, John Wesley, dbcs.rutgers.edu/all-scholars/9304-gilbert-john-wesley.
KentakePage. “John Wesley Gilbert: The First African-American Archaeologist.” Kentake Page, 16 Aug. 2020, kentakepage.com/john-wesley-gilbert-the-first-african-american-archaeologist.
Written by: Amanda Zunner-Keating and Ashley-Marie Hinds