Isabella Gibbons: The African Woman Enslaved by Professors at the University of Virginia

Isabella Gibbons, born around 1836, holds a significant place in history as an African woman who endured the hardships of slavery while working as a cook at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. Her story sheds light on the resilience and strength displayed by those who were enslaved, as well as the profound impact of education and the pursuit of freedom.

Isabella Gibbons: The African Woman Enslaved by Professors at the University of Virginia
Isabella Gibbons, enslaved woman, University of Virginia

Details about Isabella Gibbons’ early life, including her birthplace and parentage, remain unknown. However, around 1850, she was purchased by William Barton Rogers, a professor of natural philosophy at the University of Virginia, to serve as a cook for his family. During her time with the Rogers family, Isabella had a unique opportunity to learn to read, thanks to Mrs. Rogers’ efforts. This newfound skill would prove invaluable in shaping Isabella’s future.

In the early 1850s, Isabella married William Gibbons, who was also an enslaved laborer owned by a university professor. Together, they faced the hardships and injustices of slavery while raising their four children. Isabella’s life took a turn in 1853 when Rogers was replaced as professor by Francis Henry Smith. Subsequently, she became the cook for Smith’s family and continued in this role until 1863.

During the turbulent years of the American Civil War, Isabella’s strength and compassion were demonstrated as she took on the additional responsibility of acting as a nurse at the Confederate military hospital established at the University of Virginia. Her commitment to caring for the wounded and sick was a testament to her resilience and humanity, even in the face of oppressive circumstances.

The course of Gibbons’ life changed dramatically in 1865 when Union troops reached Charlottesville, bringing with them the Emancipation Proclamation. It was on March 3 of that year that Isabella Gibbons and her husband were finally freed from the shackles of slavery. The long-awaited day of liberation had arrived, marking the end of their arduous journey and the beginning of a new chapter in their lives.

Isabella Gibbons: The African Woman Enslaved by Professors at the University of Virginia
Portrait of a female teacher standing in front of a classroom of African American children. Image: Virginia museum of history & culture

After gaining her freedom, Isabella Gibbons dedicated herself to education. She became a teacher at the Freedmen’s School, an institution established to educate newly freed African Americans. Today, the legacy of the Freedmen’s School lives on in the form of the Jefferson School, carrying forward Isabella’s commitment to education and the empowerment of marginalized communities.

Isabella Gibbons passed away on February 4, 1890, leaving behind a legacy of courage, resilience, and the unwavering pursuit of education.

One of the most powerful testaments to Isabella Gibbons’ enduring legacy is the inclusion of a quote from a letter she wrote, engraved on the University of Virginia’s Memorial to Enslaved Laborers. The words bear witness to the horrors of slavery, reminding us of the immense suffering endured by countless individuals:

Can we forget the crack of the whip, the cowhide, whipping-post, the auction-block, 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 that by those horrible cruelties, hundreds of our race have been killed? No, we have not, nor ever will.

These profound words serve as a powerful reminder of the atrocities committed against enslaved Africans and the resilience they demonstrated in the face of unimaginable adversity.

From her humble beginnings as an enslaved cook, Isabella Gibbons defied the limitations imposed upon her and emerged as a teacher, empowering others through knowledge. Her story highlights the profound impact that individuals can have on society, even in the face of adversity.

Talk Africana
Talk Africana
Fascinating Cultures and history of peoples of African origin in both Africa and the African diaspora



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