Behind Her Eyes: The Story of Isabella Gibbons


by Kellen Dunnavant

Isabella Gibbons standing with a long dress on, posing for a portrait.

Isabella Gibbons was born circa 1836; there is little confirmed information about her life before she lived and worked at the University of Virginia as a slave. Sometime between her birth and 1850, William Barton Rogers, a professor of natural philosophy and resident of Pavilion VI,   purchased Isabella and moved her to the University. During her time with the Rogers family, she was their primary cook; historians believe Mrs. Rogers helped teach Isabella to read, a skill she would pass on to her own children in secret, as Virginia law prohibited enslaved people from learning to read and write.

In the early 1850s, Isabella married William Gibbons, also an enslaved laborer owned by a university professor. Born on an Albemarle County plantation in 1825 or 1826, William was probably originally owned by Arthur Gibbons, a member of the Cabell family and a university student.  In the 1840s, Dr. Henry Howard, Gibbons’ professor of anatomy and surgery, purchased William and later hired him out as a butler to philosophy professor William McGuffey, who had married Dr. Howard’s daughter. William resided with the McGuffey family at Pavilion IX as an integral part of the household as the family’s butler while learning to read and write.

In 1853, Francis Smith became the new professor of natural philosophy and resident of Pavilion VI.  Isabella Gibbons remained at Pavilion VI as a cook for Smith’s family until 1863, when the Emancipation Proclamation allegedly freed Isabella, William, and their then-three children from slavery. The Gibbons family remained in Charlottesville post-emancipation and become prominent members of the newly freed African American community.

Isabella received a diploma from the newly founded New England Freedmen’s Aid Society’s Charlottesville Normal School in 1867.  The school had been founded in October of 1865 when the New England Freedmen’s Aid Society sent a representative, Anna Gardner, to Charlottesville to start a school for the newly freed black residents.  Shortly after Gardner’s arrival, Isabella Gibbons asked if she could help teach and work at the school and she was immediately hired by Gardner as a teacher’s aide and, after further instruction, as a full-fledged teacher.  Gibbons (as of 1866) and Paul Lewis, another formerly enslaved individual, taught at the two primary schools, first at the old Confederate General Hospital, but later from a schoolhouse built just south of the railroad near 7th Street Southwest.  The town’s public school system hired Gibbons and Lewis in 1871 when the Charlottesville Freedmen’s School became a public school (later the Jefferson School). It is believed Isabella taught at the school until her 1889 death. The Jefferson School remained Charlottesville’s African American school through segregation and now houses the Jefferson School African-American Heritage Center.

After 1863 William Gibbons became minister to the church congregation now known as First Baptist Church, the oldest Black church in Charlottesville, before moving to Washington, D.C. to pastor Zion Baptist Church in 1868. William passed away in July 1886, garnering a front-page obituary in the Washington Post, and more than ten thousand mourners at two funerals before his burial in the racially segregated section of Charlottesville’s Oakwood Cemetery. Isabella died three years later and is believed to be in an unmarked grave near her husband.

Isabella Gibbons published a powerful letter in the Freedman’s Record in 1867:

“Can we forget the crack of the whip, the cowhide, the whipping post, the auction block, the handcuffs, the spaniels, the iron collar, the negro-trader tearing the young child from its mother’s breast as a whelp from the lioness? Have we forgotten those horrible cruelties, hundreds of our race killed? No, we have not, nor ever will.” This quote will be installed on the Memorial to Enslaved Laborers:

Photo of quote referenced above installed on Memorial bench.

The sites where she and William lived and worked maintain significance to local and university history: the Academical Village, First Baptist Church, and the Jefferson School.  However, the University had long forgotten the story of the Gibbons’ lives and the importance of their contemporary impact and those of other enslaved individuals on the Charlottesville cultural landscape. This changed in March 2015 when the University of Virginia Board of Visitors adopted a resolution naming a new five-story Alderman Road first-year students’ residence hall in honor of Isabella and William Gibbons, in response in part to lobbying efforts by the President’s Commission on Slavery and the University. The resolution stated in part: “Whereas, as enslaved laborers, Mr. and Mrs. Gibbons were integral members of the Howard and Smith households in the Academical Village, and as freed persons gain significant recognition for their abilities and accomplishments.”

The Memorial to Enslaved Laborers features Isabella’s powerful words on a timeline of slavery at UVA, along with a photograph of her eyes carved in granite on the outer wall.  Her words and her eyes will serve as reminder that the University of Virginia had forgotten the horrible cruelties of slavery but makes a commitment to commemoration from this moment forward.

Works Cited

Bromley, Anne. “New U.Va. Residence Hall, Gibbons House, Named for Former Slave Couple.”
UVA Today, March 26, 2015. Online edition.
Jordan, Ervin L. Jr. “Blacks and the University of Virginia: An Overview 1819–2019.” Unpublished manuscript.
Schulman, Gayle M.  Slaves at the University of Virginia, 2004, Accession #13201, Small Special Collections Library, University of Virginia Library, Charlottesville, Va.
Nesbit, Scott. The Education of William Gibbons, 2004, Accession #13484, Small Special Collection Library, University of Virginia Library, Charlottesville, Va.
University of Virginia Gibbons House Final Panel.
First image courtesy of Boston Public Library. Second image courtesy of Sarita Herman.