An African American Pioneer in Greece: John Wesley Gilbert and the American School of Classical Studies at Athens, 1890-1891.

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. Photo: Daniel W. Culp, Twentieth Century Negro Literature (1902)

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.” Read the rest of this entry »


The American Dream to Excavate Delphi or How the Oracle Vexed the Americans (1879-1891)

Delphi before the excavations, April 1891. Photo ASCSA Archives. Click to enlarge.

Delphi before the excavations, April 1891. Photo ASCSA Archives. Click to enlarge.

The story of how the French secured the excavation of Delphi has been told before. Pierre Amandry published an exemplary account (“Fouilles de Delphes et raisins de Corinthe”) of the negotiations between the French, Greeks, and Americans in La redécouverte de Delphes (1992). His work drew heavily on material in the archives of the French ministries of Public Instruction and Foreign Affairs and L’ Academie des Inscriptions et Belles Lettres to paint a detailed picture of the French side of the story. His account of the American side is much shorter because Amandry only had access to a handful of documents published in the History of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens, 1882-1942 (1947, pp. 58-62). The author of that volume, Louis Lord, included four letters either addressed to or written by Charles Eliot Norton, the President of the Archaeological Institute of America (AIA). Norton was not only the founding spirit of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens (ASCSA) but also the driving force behind the Institute’s unsuccessful campaign to dig at Delphi. In a brief essay from Excavating Our Past (2002), Phoebe Sheftel presented more records from the archives of the AIA that shed further light on the American side of the Delphi story without, however, making reference to the rich archival resources that Amandry had published in his long article. Sheftel’s story about Delphi is “the story that Norton wanted told” (Sheftel 2002, p. 106). Read the rest of this entry »