George Washington Gibbs Jr defied the odds – risk and racism – to become the first African-American expedition member to set foot on the Antarctic continent on the Antarctic Peninsula.
Born today in history, Gibbs was a civil rights leader who integrated the Elks Club at Rochester and several service clubs and helped organize the Rochester Chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).
He was also a civic leader who was president of the Rochester Kiwanis and the Rochester chapter of the University of Minnesota Alumni Association and was involved in several charitable organizations.
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Described as a man determined to push through obstacles, Gibbs left the racism he faced in Jacksonville, Florida, as advised by his father and worked his way to a recruiting station in Georgia.
He was selected from many candidates to join famed explorer Admiral Richard Byrd’s third expedition to Antarctica where he achieved a historic first when they arrived on the Ross Ice Shelf on January 14, 1940, becoming the first African-American to set foot on the frozen continent.
Reportedly Gibbs joined an expedition fueled by high expectations from President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who believed in expanding research facilities for the United States and allotted funding accordingly.
Antarctic exploration, according to reports, had expanded significantly in the decades before and was about more than strictly scientific and geographic knowledge. “There’s a huge national prestige factor going there. The La Crosse Tribune noted at the time as the USS Bear set sail that “Uncle Sam is paying the bill and expects a return in terms of stronger claims to the frozen lands,” said polar and maritime historian Glenn Stein.
“It was considered a particular honor to be able to go,” says Stein. At that time “very, very few people, few human beings would ever be able to be in a place like Antarctica.”
The then 23-year-old seaman had joined the expedition as a mess attendant because at the time it was the only position in the Navy that was open to African-Americans.
Notwithstanding rough sailing and chilly winds and temperatures, aboard the USS Bear George Washington, Gibbs Jr. put in long days to provide meals for the crew and fought to launder and clean, despite a shortage of fresh or warm water.
Joyce Powell, whom he met in the Navy community of Portsmouth, in 1953 and married later found Gibbs’ diary, which recounts his perils that went unread for decades until after his death.
“I think that going to Antarctica was a momentous event, a very special event and he knew that it was special so he wanted to record that,” his daughter Leilani
His diary read: “Who at times make this cruise very hard for me” and would have had him removed—if they could. Gibbs earned the respect of the leadership, who issued him two citations during his time aboard the Bear, the first for his preparations to ready the old, once-retired vessel for its journey, and a second at its conclusion, for “outstanding zeal and energy and for unusual spirit of loyalty and cooperation which he invariably displayed under trying conditions.”
Byrd’s expedition ended and they were affected by America’s entry into World War II. Serving aboard the USS Atlanta during the Battle, Gibbs fought in many battles and when his days of combat and navigating frozen seas were over, he fought in different battles of all sort as a civilian.
Gibbs enrolled in college and earned a degree from the University of Minnesota after his retirement from the Navy in 1959 as a chief petty officer bagging medal of merits. Gibbs spent the next three decades working as a personnel for IBM, according to Smithsonianmag.com.
Following his death at the age of 84 on November 7, 2000, the Rochester NAACP, which he helped establish, created an award in his name and a Rochester, Minnesota, elementary school was named after him as well as a road in the city’s downtown.
In the south of snowy Rochester, a piece of the continent is now designated in his hono