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 »