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Mifflin Wistar Gibbs came to Arkansas from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where he was born on April 17, 1823, the son of free Blacks. Gibbs was an impressive personality. He was both self-educated and wealthy by his own efforts. In his early years, Gibbs had participated in the convention movement focused around abolitionism in Philadelphia before leaving the state. He explored western New York state on a speaking tour with Frederick Douglass.
When gold was discovered in California, Gibbs headed west, but did not reach the gold fields. Instead, denied the chance to practice his building trade because of white discrimination, he and a partner made a fortune selling men’s clothing and boots in San Francisco. Gibbs is credited with beginning the first African-American newspaper in San Francisco – the Mirror of the Times – and joining with other Blacks in the fight against a proposed state poll tax.
The discovery of gold in British Columbia drew Gibbs north. He operated a store in Victoria that was very successful, and was elected to represent a wealthy district in the Common Council of Victoria. Gibbs “read law” with an attorney in British Columbia before attending the law department of Oberlin College about 1870 and receiving a degree. At this point, he married Mariah A. Alexander of Kentucky, with whom he had four children: Donald, Horace, Ida Alexander Hunt, and Harriet Gibbs Marshall. Three of his children, as well as his wife, graduated from Oberlin College. His family did not join him when he moved to Arkansas, but he kept close ties with his children.
Gibbs was recruited to Arkansas by two prominent African-Americans, Richard A. Dawson and J.H. Johnson, whom he met at a South Carolina convention in 1871. Gibbs arrived in Little Rock (Pulaski County), Arkansas, in early 1872 and was admitted to the Arkansas bar later that same year.
Mifflin Gibbs is known to have entered into brief partnerships with two other African-American lawyers. The first, with Black attorney Lloyd G. Wheeler in 1873-74, was brief. Wheeler & Gibbs represented African-Americans Richard A. Dawson, W. Hines Furbush (both state legislators), James R. Roland, and Wheeler himself in the only conviction under the Civil Rights Act of 1873. On June 2, 1873, they successfully sued a Little Rock barkeeper for refusing to serve the plaintiffs. The barkeeper was assessed fines and court costs of $46.80.
In 1876, Gibbs joined attorney Tabbs Gross in practice for about one year. Mifflin Gibbs does not appear in any official records of appellate court opinions during his career, nor was he listed as an attorney in city directories between 1891 and 1915. Newspapers in 1888, however, referred to Gibbs’ attendance at meetings of the Little Rock Bar Association and he speaks knowingly about the difficulties of practice in his autobiography.
Gibbs was primarily a politician. Shortly after his admission to the bar, Gibbs was appointed attorney for Pulaski County. He served in that role for several months, then was elected Municipal Judge of the city of Little Rock in 1873-74. A later publication hailed him as “the first elected black municipal police judge in the nation.” In 1877, Gibbs was appointed Register of the United States Land Office for the Little Rock District of Arkansas, a position he held until 1886.
After a brief practice interlude, during which he was a law partner with Roderick B. Thomas (see listing) for approximately two years, Gibbs was named Receiver of Public Moneys at Little Rock Land District in 1889. He held that position until 1897 when he was appointed American consul to Madagascar. After he resigned as consul in 1901, Gibbs returned to Little Rock, where he continued to be influential in the Republican Party until his death.
Gibbs was active in civil rights activities of the day. He used his positions as Register of the Little Rock Land Office and Receiver of Public Money to promote the acquisition of land by African-Americans. He also joined in local and national protests concerning the treatment of African-Americans and the lack of due process legal safeguards. In 1910, Gibbs joined with others in Washington, D.C. to protest against the slaughter of more than twenty Blacks in Anderson County, Texas. He was active in promoting products created by Arkansas Blacks and was appointed an Honorary Commissioner to promote the state’s goods at the 1885 Louisiana World’s Exposition.
Gibbs devoted significant energy to African-American education, serving as a member of the Board of Visitors of the Little Rock school system in the 1880s. A public school in Little Rock was named for him. He also was active in Booker T. Washington’s National Negro Business League, helping to create an Arkansas branch of the organization. Gibbs himself founded Arkansas’ second African-American-owned bank, the Capitol City Savings Bank, in 1903. It failed within a few years and he was sued by Scipio Jones (see listing) on behalf of shareholders. Despite this failure, at the time of his death in 1915, Gibbs owned stock valued at $30,000 in several corporations.
Sources: Mifflin W. Gibbs: Shadow and Light, and autobiography (reprinted 1968); Judith Kilpatrick, “(EXTRA)Ordinary Men: African-American Lawyers and Civil Rights in Arkansas Before 1950,” 53 Ark. Law Rev. 299, 302 n7, 304, 306 n31, 307, 309 n56, 310, 311 n64, 311 n71, 312 n76, 319 n129, 320, 322-24, 328, 330, 333, 336-38, 340-42, 345, 350, 352, 356. 357, 360, 371, 376-80, 383 (2000); The Colored Lawyers, Arkansas Gazette, 7/31/1901; http://bhcsbc.org/historical_gibbs.html (Black Historical and Cultural Society of British Columbia, visited 1/16/2006); William J. Simmons, Men of Mark, Eminent, Progressive and Rising 407-11 (1970; Jim Doyle, “Gold Rush Paved Way to Freedom, 7/18/1998, San Francisco Chronicle, A15; Frankie Hutton, The Early Black Press in America, 1827 to 1860, 47-48, 161, 162-63; W.D. Williams, “A Note on Mifflin Wistar Gibbs, 43 Ark. Hist. Q. 241 (1984); Who’s Who of the Colored Race 114-15 (1915); Eric Foner, Freedom’s Lawmakers 84-85 (1993); State Convention of the Colored Citizens of Pennsylvania 5 et seq, Harrisburg, December 13-14, 1848 (1849); Samuel S. Taylor, Survey of Negroes in Little Rock and North Little Rock 31 (1941); Goodspeed, Biographical & Historical Memoirs of Eastern Arkansas 796-97 (1890); Dictionary of American Negro Biography 258-59 (1982); 9-10 The Crisis, A Record of the Darker Races (NAACP) 214-15 (Nov 1914-Oct 1915, 1969); John Louis Hill, When Black Meets White 86-87 (1924); “Arkansas Diplomats,” 2/3/1915, Arkansas Gazette; Delilah L. Beasley, The Negro Trail Blazers of California 110-13 (1969); Kenneth G. Goode, California’ Black Pioneers, A Brief Historical Survey 72-73 (1974); E.M. Woods (ed.), Blue Book of Little Rock and Argenta, Arkansas 141-42 ( 1907); Afro-American Encyclopedia, vol. 4, p 1058-59 (1974); Obituary, 7/12/1915, Arkansas Democrat; African American Biographical Database, Profile, available at http://aabd.chadwyck.com/bbidx/full_rec (last visited 6/21/1999); Documents, 5 Pulaski County Hist. Rev. 48-49 (Sept 1957);
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