An African American Pioneer in Greece: John Wesley Gilbert and the American School of Classical Studies at Athens, 1890-1891.Posted: August 1, 2017
Posted by John W. I. Lee
John W. I. Lee, Professor of History at the University of California, Santa Barbara, here contributes an essay about John W. Gilbert, the first African-American student to participate in the Regular Program of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens (ASCSA) in 1890-1891. Lee is writing a book about John Wesley Gilbert, the early history of the ASCSA, and the development of archaeology in Greece.
In his official report to the Managing Committee of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens (ASCSA or the School hereafter) for academic year 1890-1891, Director Charles Waldstein praised students Carleton Brownson, Andrew Fossum, John Gilbert, and John Pickard, who had “proved themselves serious and enthusiastic” throughout the year. Waldstein went on to describe the School’s 1891 excavations at ancient Eretria on the island of Euboea. While Fossum and Brownson excavated Eretria’s theater, Pickard and Gilbert “undertook the survey and careful study of all the ancient walls of the city and acropolis, and will produce a plan and an account which… will be of great topographical and historical value.”
Waldstein’s report gives no indication that one of the students, John Gilbert, was African American—the first African American scholar to attend the ASCSA. With the passage of time, memory of Gilbert’s pioneering contribution was forgotten at the School, until Professor Michele Valerie Ronnick of Wayne State University searched for him in the ASCSA Archives in the early 2000s. Ronnick’s work on Gilbert, featured in the School’s Ákoue Newsletter, forms the foundation of my research.
John Wesley Gilbert was born about 1863 in rural Hephzibah, Georgia; his mother Sarah was enslaved. After Emancipation, Sarah took her young son to the nearby city of Augusta. From childhood Gilbert thirsted for learning. An 1871 Freedman’s Bank register bearing his signature gives his occupation as “go to school to Miss Chesnut.”
“Six months of the year,” Gilbert later recalled, “I ploughed, hoed, picked cotton, split rails, and spent the other six months in the public schools of Augusta.” After attending the Augusta Institute (forerunner of Morehouse College), Gilbert in 1884 enrolled as the first student of Paine Institute (today Paine College), a cooperative inter-racial endeavor of the Methodist Episcopal Church, South and the Colored Methodist Episcopal Church (now Christian Methodist Episcopal Church). Rev. George Williams Walker, Paine’s president from 1884-1910, would become Gilbert’s lifelong mentor and friend.
With Walker’s help, Gilbert in 1886 transferred to Brown University. There he studied classical languages, literature, and history with Professor Albert Harkness, one of the original members of the American School’s Managing Committee. Graduating in 1888, Gilbert returned home to become Paine Institute’s first Black faculty member while simultaneously reading for an MA in Greek under Harkness’ guidance.
Managing Committee records preserved in the ASCSA Archives in Athens suggest Harkness nominated Gilbert for the School as early as 1889. Despite the presence on the Managing Committee of Basil Gildersleeve, a Confederate apologist and opponent of racial equality, the School had previously welcomed two other African American scholars. Sadly, Wiley Lane of Howard University had died suddenly in 1885 before departing for Greece; William Sanders Scarborough, the preeminent Black Classicist of the day, planned to go in 1886 but could not find funding.
By January 1890, Gilbert secured a Brown fellowship for travel to Greece, earning nationwide attention in the African American press. In June, when Gilbert spoke at the commencement of Ware High School in Augusta—Georgia’s only publicly funded high school for Black students—more than five hundred people attended. Gilbert officially enrolled as a Brown University MA candidate for 1890-1891. Leaving behind his wife Osceola and their baby daughter Alma, he set off for Athens in September 1890.
1890-1891 was a momentous time for Greek archaeology. John Gilbert arrived in Athens amid high hopes that Americans would soon be digging at Delphi, only to see the French win the site (for the inside story, see Natalia Vogeikoff-Brogan’s essay “The American Dream to Excavate Delphi”). Gilbert may have met Heinrich Schliemann before the excavator of Troy left Athens for the last time in November. Gilbert certainly attended Schliemann’s funeral in January 1891 in Athens and the memorial conference held at the School a few days later, where he and his fellow students were probably introduced to King George and Queen Olga of Greece. Just two weeks after that, the British Museum unveiled the papyrus rolls of the Aristotelian Athenaîon Politeia, a long-lost treatise on Athenian government that the London Times hailed as a discovery “almost unprecedented in the whole history of classical learning.”
Gilbert’s year in Greece was also pivotal for the fledgling American School. Since its foundation in 1881 the School had chosen a new director annually, hampering the development of a coherent program. The 1888 appointment of Cambridge’s Charles Waldstein as Permanent Director promised stability. But, Waldstein was only in Greece from late December to mid-April at most, so the School continued selecting Annual Directors. This awkward arrangement had worked poorly in 1889-90 and the stakes were high for 1890-91.
Fortunately, the new Annual Director, Rufus Richardson of Dartmouth, developed good relations with Waldstein. Richardson’s wife Alice and their three young children accompanied him to Greece. Alice Richardson’s father Henry Chandler Bowen had helped found The Independent, a widely-read New York weekly. Thanks to this family connection, The Independent published no less than eighteen American School-related items during 1890-91, including an article by John Gilbert.
Three other students joined Gilbert for the year. Yale PhD student Carleton Brownson was from a Connecticut family of physicians and ministers. Andrew Fossum of Iowa, son of Norwegian immigrant farmers, had earned his PhD from Johns Hopkins in 1887. John Pickard of New Hampshire, an 1883 Dartmouth graduate, had taught high school before going to study in Germany in 1889. Along with Pickard came his wife Jeanie, her mother Caroline Gerrish, Jeanie’s cousin Edith Harris, and their friend Emma Potter. Edith and Emma attended many School activities, garnering them a brief mention in the School’s official report.
While Brownson, Fossum, and Gilbert took rooms in the School’s new building, Pickard and the four American women lived with Presbyterian minister M.D. Kalopothakes and his American second wife, Margaret Kyle. The Kalopothakes house and church lay just across from the Arch of Hadrian, where the Greek Evangelical Church is still located today. John Gilbert probably attended some of Rev. Kalopothakes’ Sunday services, conducted in Greek.
Previous Annual Directors had deemed archaeological “excursions” secondary to classroom study, but Richardson led Gilbert and his fellows through an intensive fall program of site visits and trips that would set the School’s pattern for decades to come.
In Athens, the group relied on Jane Harrison and Margaret Verrall’s just-published Pausanias text and commentary, Mythology and Monuments of Ancient Athens. Edith Harris wrote in a letter home: “There is a good deal of joking about [Harrison] and her books. The students go out to walk with ‘Jane.” At present, we have her [i.e. the School’s copy] in the house and often you hear the cry, ‘Where’s Jane?’ ‘Have you got Jane?’”
Where most foreign travelers in Greece hired horses, John Gilbert and his fellows walked. “Professor Richardson was fond of hikes,” Andrew Fossum later wrote. In Attica the group followed routes German topographer Arthur Milchhöfer had recently explored for the Karten von Attika, including a three-day loop of some 75 miles from Athens via Kifissia to Marathon, Rhamnous, and the Amphiareion. A ten-day, 250-mile slog in the November rain took them from Delphi through Phocis to Thermopylae and back through Boeotia to Athens. Caroline Gerrish describes her son-in-law John Pickard returning “like a veritable tramp, splashed with mud from head to foot, and literally dirty as a pig…. They slept in all kinds of places, from a barn to a church, and they were invaded by bed bugs, which they very cutely named the Persians.”
Gilbert and the other students spent the winter attending site and museum lectures—including two-hour-long talks in German by Schliemann’s protegé, the architect Wilhelm Dörpfeld—and working in the School’s library. It was the coldest winter Athens had seen in decades, with several heavy snowfalls. During this time Gilbert wrote his MA thesis, entitled “The Demes of Athens” according to a letter he sent from Athens to William Sanders Scarborough. While no known copy of his thesis survives, Gilbert’s research set him squarely in the midst of contemporary debates about Athenian topography and political organization.
DIGGING AT ERETRIA
The School’s focus now shifted to the ancient site of Eretria on the island of Euboea. By early February of 1891, Fossum was excavating Eretria’s theater. Brownson, Richardson, Waldstein, and the School’s “cook and master of all trades” Nikolaki arrived by the middle of the month. After finishing their library work, Gilbert and Pickard arrived on February 26 and soon began a survey of Eretria’s topography.
The group found quarters in an abandoned house in the village of Nea Psara, with Gilbert and Pickard sharing one of the two bedrooms. Nikolaki converted another abandoned house into a kitchen and dining hall. Gilbert and Pickard’s original survey map, preserved in the ASCSA Archives, labels the houses as “dormitory” and “salle à manger”—details omitted from the professionally redrawn version published in AJA.
The ASCSA Archives also preserve the only two known photographs of John Gilbert in Greece. Both were taken at Eretria, almost certainly by Rufus Richardson. Many of Richardson’s other shots of the season failed to develop, so most of the published photos of the 1891 excavations were taken by J.W. Gordon Oswald, a wealthy Scottish archaeology enthusiast who visited Eretria several times, or by Dörpfeld during a visit on May 5.
One photo shows the American School excavating the so-called “Tomb of Aristotle” east of Eretria, possibly near modern Magoula according to ASCSA Mellon Professor Sylvian Fachard, who has surveyed the area. Waldstein never properly published this dig, but details emerge from an 1892 account he penned for Century Magazine, and from essays by Gilbert and Pickard that The Independent printed in April 1891. The June 1891 “Archaeological News” column of what was then called The American Journal of Archaeology and of the History of the Fine Arts reprinted large portions of Gilbert’s and Pickard’s essays verbatim. As was common practice at the time, the column omitted their names. John Gilbert thus became the first African American scholar to be published in AJA, albeit anonymously.
At far left we can identify Andrew Fossum holding a notebook (which is not preserved in the ASCSA Archives). In the center we see John Gilbert wearing a bowler hat and John Pickard wrapped in a shawl. A Greek woman stands at the right, and at the far right edge of the frame we glimpse a rifle butt, evidence of a guard’s presence. The snow-covered slopes of Mount Olympus (at left rear) and the Servouni ridge in the background testify to the unusually cold winter. Judging from the dry ground, this photo was taken on February 27, before the heavy snow that set in on March 1st. Waldstein describes workmen on the 27th “breaking up the huge blocks of poros which impeded our progress downward” and freshly broken fragments are visible in the left foreground.
After days of snow and rain the Greek workmen sensibly refused to dig, so on March 3 the professors and students hoisted picks, shovels, and baskets and “trotted off…in the rain, singing American college songs” to dig in the mud as locals marveled at “the crazy foreigners.” Waldstein recalled “the learned Professor Richardson picking away vigorously; while another bespectacled student [probably Pickard] filled the baskets which were handed from one to other.” The scene was less comical than the urbane Waldstein supposed, for Fossum, Gilbert, Pickard, and Richardson had all grown up doing farm labor.
On March 4 the weather cleared. The Greek workers, back on the job, uncovered a tomb with a marble slab inscribed [Β]ιότη [Ἀ]ριστοτέλου—Biote the daughter of Aristotle. Gilbert’s Independent essay, written in March while he was still on Euboea but not published until April 30, reflects what must have been Waldstein’s reasoning at the time: “In another grave, next to this one, and belonging to the same family, was found a gold pen, a symbol for what had been the dead person’s life work. Now when we remember that the pen was the symbol for a philosopher, that Chalkis, which is near Eretria, was the native home of Aristotle, the philosopher, that the relation between the two towns was generally that of friendly intimacy, and that Eretria, like the Cerameicus at Athens, was probably a burial place for celebrated persons, it does not seem improbable that the grave of Aristotle, the philosopher, was in Eretria, and that the present excavations have brought it to light.”
Waldstein and Richardson returned to Athens from March 9-16. On the 12th, the Athenian paper Nea Ephemeris announced that the German School (!) had discovered at Eretria a tomb with an inscription bearing the name Aristotle. News of “the Tomb of Aristotle” soon spread around the world, despite the cautionary notes Waldstein at first sounded. Later Waldstein grew more confident. As his 1892 Century article put it, “we do not claim that the attribution of this grave to the great philosopher is here proved beyond a doubt; but for the present we are justified in naming this grave, excavated at Eretria by the American School of Athens, the Tomb of Aristotle.” Others were less sanguine. French School director Théophile Homolle expressed “très grande scepticisme” in May 1891 and a journalist visiting Eretria in 1893 reports German archaeologists “smiled rather incredulously” at the notion.
The second photo, possibly taken later on February 27, shows Gilbert and Pickard flanking an unknown Greek man. The weather has apparently warmed up, for Gilbert has turned down his coat and doffed his bowler. Sylvian Fachard identifies the location as the southeast corner of the city wall, where the two round towers whose remains are clearly visible in the image may have flanked a gate. Eretria’s fortifications received close attention in Gilbert and Pickard’s survey. While Pickard concentrated on architectural details, Gilbert handled length measurements, using a metric Gunter’s Chain or similar surveyor’s device. It is possible Gilbert had formal survey training, for Brown offered an elective course on the subject. Gilbert also had a clinometer, an instrument that enabled him to correct measurements for incline. Since chain-measuring requires two people, Gilbert must have had an assistant, perhaps the Greek man who appears in this photo. In his AJA publication, Pickard thanks Gilbert twice, placing his name in the acknowledgements ahead of Waldstein, Richardson, and even Dörpfeld. Gilbert and Pickard’s survey remains an important source of information on ancient Eretria, for some of the features they recorded in 1891 have since been built over or destroyed.
On March 19 the American School headed back to Athens. At the very end of the month, John Gilbert escorted Caroline Gerrish, Edith Harris, and Emma Potter to see Nafplio, Epidaurus, Tiryns, Argos, and Mycenae, then took his leave at Patras to begin his journey home. Back in the U.S., it would have been unheard of for an African American man to accompany three white women on such a trip.
Rufus Richardson, who would later direct the School from 1893-1903, closed his official report for 1890-91 by writing: “It may be predicted with absolute certainty that our four students will go back in due time to America, if not trained archaeologists, at least with an interest in the Greek lands, and the life and monuments of ancient Greece, which will make them infectious centres of interest wherever they pitch their tents.”
LIFE AFTER GREECE
Carleton Brownson (1866-1948) stayed on at the School for 1891-92. He and Emma Potter married in 1892. After completing his Yale PhD in 1897, Brownson taught at the City College of New York until 1936. Andrew Fossum (1860-1943) taught in Minnesota at St. Olaf College, Park Region Luther College, and Concordia College before retiring in 1923. John Pickard (1858-1937) took his PhD at Munich in 1892 then taught at the University of Missouri until his retirement in 1929.
John Gilbert returned to teach at Paine College. His students included Channing Tobias, a future leader of the NAACP. Gilbert was elected to the American Philological Association in 1897, becoming one of only two Black members at the time. Newspapers into the 1900s lauded Gilbert as “the ablest Greek scholar of the race,” but his life’s work stretched far beyond Classics. Even as segregation and racist violence tightened their grip on the U.S., Gilbert advocated tirelessly for interracial cooperation and harmony. He was an eloquent voice for Black education, economic advancement, and justice, often being mentioned alongside Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Dubois. As a minister of the Colored Methodist Episcopal Church, Gilbert in 1911-1912 joined W.R. Lambuth of the Methodist Episcopal Church, South on an arduous mission to the Belgian Congo. During this journey Gilbert contracted an illness from which he never fully recovered. He died in Augusta in 1923.
Today, Gilbert is recognized as a pioneering Black Classicist. Some consider him the first Black archaeologist for his work at Eretria. Gilbert-Lambuth Memorial Chapel at Paine College honors his legacy and Brown University’s Joukowsky Institute of Archaeology recently installed his photograph in a place of honor. No monument yet stands in Athens to celebrate this extraordinary scholar’s contribution to the American School of Classical Studies, but John Wesley Gilbert remains an inspiration to all who learn of him.
Andrew Fossum quotations are from his unpublished journal preserved in the Andrew Fossum Papers (P0541), Norwegian-American Historical Association. Northfield, Minnesota.
Caroline Gerrish’s and Edith Harris’ letters are preserved in the Harris Family Papers (MS078) and Gerrish Kimball Collection (MS121), Portsmouth Athenaeum, Portsmouth, New Hampshire.
Gilbert, J.W. 1891. “The Excavations at Eretria.” The Independent 43.2213 (April 30, 1891), p. 19 (643).
Pickard, J. 1891. “Excavations by the School at Eretria in 1891. VI. A Topographical Study of Eretria.” AJA 7.4, pp. 371-389.
Waldstein, C. 1892. “The Finding of the Tomb of Aristotle.” The Century Illustrated Monthly Magazine 44 (new series 22) (May-October 1892), pp. 414-426.