School teacher, Richmond County, GA, 1880-83; Prof. Greek, Latin, English, and other subjects, Paine Institute (from 1903 Paine College), 1888-1913; President, Miles Memorial College (Birmingham, AL), 1913-14; Prof. Greek, Hebrew, New Testament literature, and dean of divinity school, Paine College, ca. 1914-20.
“Did Bacon Write the Plays Known as Shakespeare’s?,” The Paine Institute Herald 1.3 (May 1887) 1; “The Excavations at Eretria,” The Independent (30 Apr 1891), 19 (partially reprinted in American Journal of Archaeology 7.1-2 (March-June 1891) 139-40); contributor to John Pickard, “A Topographical Study of Eretria,” AJA 7.4 (Dec 1891), 371-89. “How Can the Negroes Be Induced to Rally More to Negro Enterprises and to Their Professional Men?” in Twentieth Century Negro Literature (Toronto, Naperville, Atlanta: J.L. Nichols, 1902) 190-3; “The Necessity for High Moral Character in the Teacher” in The United Negro: His Problems and His Progress (Atlanta: D.E. Luther, 1902) 406-9;“The Problem of the Races:” A Reply to Hon. John Temple Graves (Augusta: Georgia Baptist Print, 1904); “A Voice from the Negro Race,” Methodist Review Quarterly 60.2 (April 1911), 717-30; “Pioneering in Africa,” The Missionary Voice 3.1 (1913), 35-7; “The Southern Negro’s Debt and Responsibility to Africa” in The New Voice in Race Adjustments (New York: Student Volunteer Movement, 1914) 129-33; “City Housing of Negroes in Relation to Health” in The New Chivalry—Health (Nashville: Southern Sociological Congress, 1915) 405-12.
Born into slavery in rural Georgia, John Wesley Gilbert rose to national prominence as a scholar, teacher, community leader, and missionary. The family of his mother, Sarah (ca. 1843-1911) can be traced in slaveowners’ documents as far back as the 1820s. His father's identity is unknown. Gilbert grew up in Augusta, Georgia, “nursed in the arms of poverty,” as he later recalled. His mother was a domestic servant and Gilbert did hard farm labor to earn money. Sarah was married from 1873 to 1875, but her husband died.
Young Gilbert received his early education in Augusta’s segregated public schools. There he encountered remarkable teachers, amongst them Lucy Craft Laney, Georgia’s most famous black woman educator. In the late 1870s, Gilbert served as a teacher’s assistant. Because Georgia had no public high schools for black students, he attended the Augusta Institute, a Baptist-sponsored academy for black ministers and teachers. Gilbert followed the school when it moved to become Atlanta Baptist Seminary (the predecessor of Morehouse College), but lack of money forced him to return to Augusta.
After several years working as a teacher, Gilbert enrolled as the first student of Augusta’s Paine Institute, a cooperative venture of the white Methodist Episcopal Church, South (MECS) and the Colored Methodist Episcopal (CME) Church (today Christian Methodist Episcopal Church). His mentor at Paine, MECS minister George Williams Walker, tutored Gilbert in Greek and helped him win admission to Brown University. At Brown, Gilbert studied with Albert Harkness, one of the foremost American classicists of the day. Gilbert was Brown’s third black graduate and one of only about forty African Americans to graduate from a northern college or university between 1885 and 1889.
In a move still judged “almost unbelievable” in the 1930s, Paine Institute’s biracial board of trustees hired Gilbert as the school’s first black professor over the objections of a white instructor. Gilbert was associated with Paine until the end of his life. He earned a reputation as “a linguist of pure distinction,” teaching French, German, Hebrew, Latin, and above all, Greek. Among his students at Paine were future NAACP leader Channing Tobias and John Hope, the first black president of Morehouse College and Atlanta University.
Gilbert was one of the first fifty scholars to attend the American School of Classical Studies at Athens. He was the American School’s first African American student. During his year in Greece, Gilbert traveled extensively, wrote a thesis on the demes of Athens, and took part in archaeological fieldwork at ancient Eretria including the excavation of the so-called “tomb of Aristotle.” With his fellow student John Pickard, Gilbert conducted a topographical survey of Eretria that remains valuable today. Gilbert’s work in Greece won him an A.M. degree from Brown—the first advanced degree that school awarded to an African American.
Gilbert was elected to membership in the American Philological Association in 1897 and remained a member until 1907. He studied at Gammon Theological Seminary in Atlanta, became a CME minister, and returned in to Europe in 1901 to attend an ecumenical Methodist conference in London. He also became increasingly active as an advocate for civil rights, black economic advancement, and interracial cooperation in Augusta and beyond.
In 1911-1912, Gilbert and MECS minister Walter Russell Lambuth undertook an arduous mission to establish a Methodist presence in the Belgian Congo. They traveled over a thousand miles by river and on foot. During the mission, Gilbert translated portions of the New Testament from Greek into the Bantu language Tetela. The trip took a toll on his health and he never fully recovered.
Following a brief stint as president of Miles Memorial College, Gilbert served as dean of theology for several years at Paine. During the First World War, he was active in charitable and patriotic efforts. He was asked to teach French to American troops in France but was unable to accept the invitation.
Gilbert and his wife Osceola Pleasant (ca. 1862-1922) may have met in childhood. Osceola Pleasant studied at Fisk University and Paine Institute. She worked as a teacher in Florida, South Carolina, and Georgia. The couple had four children, but no grandchildren. Their oldest daughter became a teacher. By 1921, John Wesley Gilbert was gravely ill. He died in Augusta and is buried in Cedar Grove Cemetery there.
John W.I. Lee, “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 August 2017. Accessed 28 September 2018; Michele Valerie Ronnick, “School Pioneer is Profiled,,” Akoue: Newsletter of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens (Winter, 2002) 15; Michele Valerie Ronnick, “John Wesley Gilbert, ca. 1864-1923.” The Classical Outlook 78, 3 (Spring 2001), 113-14; E. Clayton Calhoun, Of Men Who Ventured Much and Far: The Congo Quest of Dr. Gilbert and Bishop Lambuth (Atlanta: The Institute Press, 1961).
Image credit: D.W. Culp (ed.). Twentieth Century Negro Literature or a Cyclopedia of Thought on the Vital Topics Relating to the American Negro by One Hundred of America’s Greatest Negroes. J.L. Nichols & Co.: Toronto, Naperville (IL), and Atlanta, 1902.