Behind Her Eyes: The Story of Isabella Gibbons

Posted: December 9, 2019, 3:49pm


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 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.

Bridging the Gap: Students Welcome First-Gen High Schoolers Interested in UVA

Posted: December 3, 2019, 3:02pm


Jessenia Castillo is many things; a high school junior, an excellent student and a first-generation student, meaning she would be the first in her family to go to college. She is also a diehard Wahoo fan and wants nothing more than to come to the University of Virginia. 

A UVA student group, Hoos First Look, is helping. Castillo arrived at UVA in late October with 18 other high schoolers, most of whom would be first-generation students, for an all-expenses paid orientation visit funded by current UVA students who come from similar backgrounds. 

Hoos First Look raised thousands of dollars from the Jefferson Trust, the UVA Parent's Fund and the Office of President (Jim Ryan is also a first-gen student) to enable them to pay for the high school students' travel, lodging and food for a weekend packed with programming, including tips on how to fill out financial aid forms and write college essays. (READ MORE)

Source: UVA Today (Jane Kelly)

UVA Equity Center Up and Running With ‘FAFSA Parties’

Posted: November 18, 2019, 10:56am


The reason Alejandro Gonzalez made the 40-minute drive Wednesday night from his Greene County home to the Southwood Community Center, south of Charlottesville, was simple:  He dreams of seeing one of his three children go to a four-year college.

The college application process can pose many challenges. Inside a small room at the center, Gonzalez’s daughter, Cindy, faced her biggest test: the college essay.

Gonzalez, a senior at William Monroe High School, came to the right place. As part of a program put on by the University of Virginia’s newly established Equity Center, Gonzalez and a number of other high school students in and around Charlottesville got tips from Valerie Gregory, UVA’s associate dean of undergraduate admission, on how to write an essay, as well as the application process in general.

The evening also featured talks from associate professor of medicine Dr. Max Luna; Latino community members working in various fields; and UVA faculty members and students helped the high school students and their parents fill out Free Application for Federal Student Aid forms, better known as the dreaded “FAFSA.” (READ MORE)

Source: UVA Today (Whitelaw Reid)

On a Mission, Fourth-Year Student Aims to Bring Disability to the Forefront

Posted: November 6, 2019, 2:01pm


Ashley Heuser has been living with migraines since she was a young girl, but they got much worse shortly after she arrived at the University of Virginia. As a first-year student, she suffered stroke-like symptoms and was rushed to the emergency room. After recovering, Heuser eventually was diagnosed with sporadic hemiplegic migraines, a rare disease involving weakness of the face, arm or leg on one side of the body that can be accompanied by numbness or a pins-and-needles feeling. As you would expect, Heuser’s world was – in a flash – turned upside-down.

Fortunately, it wasn’t long before she connected with a student-run organization on Grounds that is now called Chronically Ill and Disabled Cavaliers. “That’s when I really started to find my community,” Heuser said. “It really helped with claiming my identity as a disabled woman. “It was no longer myself against my body. It was just, ‘My body is what it is’ – and there’s a lot of power in recognizing that.” Now a fourth-year student, Heuser is president of the organization. In addition, she serves on UVA’s Disability Advocacy and Action Committee and is the student administrator for the Disability Studies Initiative. (READ MORE)

Source: UVA Today (Whitelaw Reid)

UVA Announces Living Wage for Contracted Employees

Posted: October 25, 2019, 11:10am


University of Virginia President Jim Ryan today announced that the University’s major contractors, working in partnership with UVA, are raising the wages of their full-time employees to at least $15 an hour, effective Jan. 1. 

The news follows the announcement in March that the University would begin paying all its full-time, benefits-eligible employees a living wage of at least $15 an hour in January. At the time of that announcement, Ryan promised that University leaders would work on a plan to extend the same commitment to contracted employees who work at UVA.

After months of extensive analysis and discussion with contractors, Ryan announced today that the change will increase the wages of more than 800 full-time contracted employees, which represents nearly 90% of full-time contracted employees who work regularly on our Grounds and currently earn less than $15 an hour. When combined with earlier-announced raises to full-time employees of the University, this means that roughly 96% of the University’s full-time and contracted full-time employees will earn at least $15 per hour as of Jan. 1. (READ MORE)

Source: UVA Today (Wesley Hester)