Virginia Changemakers
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Isabella Gibbons ( - 1890)







Born enslaved during the 1830s, Isabella Gibbons (d. February 3, 1890) learned to read and write despite Virginia's laws that made it extremely difficult for enslaved people to do so. By the 1850s she was owned by a professor at the University of Virginia, where she met William Gibbons, an enslaved man owned by another faculty member. They married early in the 1850s, although their marriage was not recognized by law, and Isabella Gibbons ensured that their children also learned to read.

With the end of the Civil War, formerly enslaved men, women, and children quickly took advantage of the ability to gain an education, and Gibbons established a school for freed people in Charlottesville. A few months later she became an assistant to Anna Gardner, a representative of the New England Freedmen's Aid Society, who came to Charlottesville late in 1865 to open a free school. Gibbons attended Gardner's school while also assisting her and earned a diploma in 1867. An esteemed teacher at one of the society's schools, Gibbons joined the newly established public school system in 1870 and taught in the city's segregated schools for more than fifteen years. She and her husband, a Baptist minister, acquired property and were highly respected members of Charlottesville's African American community.

In 2015, the University of Virginia named its newest dormitory Gibbons House in recognition of the accomplishments of Isabella Gibbons and William Gibbons.

2018 Virginia Women in History honoree, Library of Virginia.

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Image Courtesy of the Boston Public Library.