In a recent search for a portrait of a different judge in the C. M. Bell Studio collection, reference librarian Jon Eaker came upon an image with the title “Gibbs, Judge M.W.” Struck by the man’s image, and wanting to learn more about him, Jon did some reading and learned that Mifflin Wistar Gibbs was the first elected Black municipal judge in the United States. The C. M. Bell collection contains 5 portraits of Gibbs, including the two below.
In the catalog records for descriptions of negatives by the Washington, D.C.-based C. M. Bell Studio, researchers might see the following note: “unverified name of sitter or person who ordered the photograph, from handwritten label on negative sleeve or negative.” Because the title of a given image from the C. M. Bell collection could name the person who commissioned the photograph, it is often best not to assume it identifies the person depicted. Luckily, in the case of the Mifflin Wistar Gibbs portraits, the “Summary” text in the online catalog records confirms his identity. Ample published sources support the identification, including Gibbs’s 1902 autobiography, Shadow and Light, which appears to have included the first C. M. Bell portrait shown in this blog post.
Gibbs had a remarkable life. Born free in Philadelphia in 1823, he became active in abolitionist circles at a young age and was invited by Frederick Douglass to join him on a lecture tour after meeting him at the National Anti-Slavery Convention in Philadelphia in 1849. A photographic print of Douglass made by C. M. Bell is also represented in the collections.
Gibbs indicates in his autobiography that he met “several going and returning gold seekers, many giving dazzling accounts of immense deposits of gold in the new Eldorado” on the Douglass lecture tour, and, inspired by their stories, set sail for San Francisco himself the following year. Perhaps the view on his arrival resembled those provided in the Gold Rush-era images from the early 1850s below.
Disillusioned with racist policies he encountered in California, including the requirement to pay poll taxes on his business despite not being able to vote, Gibbs moved to Vancouver in 1858 along with hundreds of other African American families. In Canada Gibbs became a naturalized British citizen, and unlike in his country of birth, he could vote and run for public office. Gibbs was elected to the Victoria city council, which he served for multiple terms in the 1860s. In 2016 the City of Victoria established November 19 as “Mifflin Wistar Gibbs Day” to commemorate the day Gibbs was elected as the first Black public official in British Columbia.
Gibbs returned to the United States after the Civil War, passed the bar exam in the early 1870s, and became an attorney. He was elected as a municipal judge in Little Rock in 1873, attaining the title used in the C. M. Bell image titles. After further government service, Gibbs was appointed to serve as U.S. Consul to Madagascar in 1897. Ultimately settling in the United States, Gibbs remarked in his autobiography: “…I have a decided conviction, despite the crucial test to which he has been subjected in the past and the present disadvantages under which he labors, nowhere is the promise along all the lines of opportunity brighter for the American Negro than here in the land of his nativity.”
Jon’s discovery of the photographs of Judge Gibbs reminds us that the C. M. Bell collection brings to light many individuals whose biographies are not necessarily widely known but prove captivating upon exploration—and can sometimes lead us on further picture finds. Could this be one of Gibbs’s daughters, Harriet, who founded the Washington Conservatory of Music and School of Expression in 1903?
Given Harriet Gibbs’s residency in Washington D.C., where the C. M. Bell Studio was located during the same period, her success as a school founder, musician and teacher, and additional supporting evidence, we’re on another voyage of discovery inspired by the C. M. Bell Studio collection.
- Read more about the C. M. Bell collection in this collection overview. Explore the digitized C. M. Bell negatives by using bellcm in your keyword string when searching the Prints & Photographs Online Catalog. View all portraits of Mifflin Wistar Gibbs from the collection.
- View Shadow and Light: an Autobiography by Mifflin Wistar Gibbs (New York: Arno Press, 1968, reprint of the 1902 edition), available online through HathiTrust.
- Explore more daguerreotypes (like the above 1851 view of San Francisco harbor) in the Prints & Photographs Division’s collections and learn more about this early photographic format in this collection overview.
- Read another Picture This blog post about materials from the C. M. Bell Studio collection.
- Learn about Frederick Douglass’s views on photography in this Picture This blog post.