Mifflin Wistar Gibbs was a pioneer in many respects. After traveling west to take part in the California Gold Rush and being met with racism, Gibbs would later become the first Black elected municipal judge in the United States.
Gibbs was born April 17, 1823 in Philadelphia, Pa. As a young man, he learned the trade of carpentry and also became an abolitionist after joining a local Black literary society, gaining a great deal of knowledge and insight he wouldn’t have received in a classroom during the racially divided times. He traveled west in 1850 to San Francisco but was frozen out from potential riches due to the racist laws in the free state.
Undeterred, Gibbs found success as a retail merchant and activist for Black rights while also establishing the first Black-owned newspaper west of the Mississippi River, “The Mirror of the Times.” He then lead a contingent of other Black residents in the region to Victoria, now known as British Columbia, in 1858. While there, the group established themselves in the North with Gibbs becoming a politician, activist, and respected community leader.
After a decade in Canada, Gibbs returned to the United States and began studying law at Oberlin College but moved further south to Little Rock, Ark. and put down roots there. Gibbs passed the bar examination in 1870, and after several prominent appointments at the local and government level, he ran on the Republican Party ticket and was elected as judge in 1873.
By now a wealthy lawyer and real estate investor, Gibbs was named the American consul for Madagascar in 1897. He stepped down in 1901 from the job due to health concerns and became a bank president in Little Rock. His 1902 autobiography, “Shadow and Light,” features his fantastic rise from carpentry apprentice to becoming a man of the law.
Mifflin Wistar Gibbs passed in July 1915.