cover image The First Black Archaeologist: A Life of John Wesley Gilbert

The First Black Archaeologist: A Life of John Wesley Gilbert

John W.I. Lee. Oxford Univ., $34.95 (432p) ISBN 978-0-19-757899-5

Historian Lee (A Greek Army on the March) rescues a pioneering Black scholar from obscurity in this intriguing biography. Reconstructing the life of John Wesley Gilbert (1863–1923) from his birth to enslaved parents in Georgia to his missionary work in the Belgian Congo, Lee highlights the post–Civil War push for African American schooling and the debates between such educators as Booker T. Washington, who advocated industrial training for Black people, and those who promoted the kind of classical liberal arts curriculum that Gilbert studied at the Paine Institute (now Paine College) in Augusta, Ga. After graduating from Brown University in 1888, Gilbert received a scholarship to the American School of Classical Studies in Athens, Greece, where he studied the Greek language, conducted archaeological excavations, and helped create the first map of ancient Eretria. Back in the U.S., Gilbert became the first Black faculty member at Paine, where he taught French, German, Greek, and Latin. Later, he helped establish a Methodist mission in the Congo and spoke out against the “ ‘so-called civilization’ of colonialism, which exploited Africa’s land and people for money, leaving behind ruin.” Lee meticulously pieces together the fragmentary records of Gilbert’s life to highlight his extraordinary commitment to “interracial cooperation” at a time of worsening racism in the South. The result is an informative addition to the history of Black education in America. (Jan.)