African American Memoirs from the Civil War Era

Solomon_Northup_001I’m reading a lot of Civil War era histories and novels these days, trying to immerse myself in the period so that I can get a feel for the heavy politics of the time. When my mother said she was going to see the new film Twelve Years a Slave, I immediately ordered myself the e-book to read on my Kindle. The narrative was mesmerizing and while I was forced to put my Kindle down to work and sleep I found it hard to focus on my daily tasks – eager to know what happened to Solomon Northup. Two days later I read the final chapters sitting on my toilet whilst my three year old happily splashed in the bath with her toy fish. When I got to the scene where Solomon is found, working in the cotton fields, by a delegation of men who were there to liberate him, I cried out suddenly and my eyes welled with tears. My girl immediately asked what was wrong, and I reassured her but the scene was so powerful that I could barely speak. I highly recommend this book as a testament to the horrors of slavery and an example of a fine, exciting narrative.  I hear the movie is good too.

One of my missions in life is to understand the participation of African Americans with the Mechanics’ Institute’s various endeavors.  This is not an easy task as the Institute kept no demographic records of its members (and even the member lists we have are spotty). I have however been able to find a few instances of African Americans taking part in our industrial fairs. One such person was Mifflin Wistar Gibbs. Gibbs was born in Philadelphia 1823, the child of free parents and trained as a carpenter. He kept his finger on the pulse of the abolition movement and kept company with the literary and political movers and shakers of the day including Frederick Douglass. In 1850 he traveled to San Francisco where with money earned shining shoes, Gibbs along with his business partner Peter Lester, opened a successful shoe store, the Pioneer Boot and Shoe Company.

This company would exhibit at the Mechanics’ Institute’s first and second Industrial Expositions

Drawing of the first Pavilion of the Mechanics' Institute - the location of the 1857 and 1858 fairs.

Drawing of the first Pavilion of the Mechanics’ Institute – the location of the 1857 and 1858 fairs.

– winning a bronze medal for gentlemen’s shoes (1857) and a certificate of merit for a case of gentlemen’s and ladies boots and gaiters of fine quality (1858). Both of these expositions took place on the plot of land between Montgomery, Post, and Sutter – right where the open air shopping center, the Crocker Galleria now stands.

Gibbs was a literary fellow – he helped found one of San Francisco’s first libraries, the Athenaeum and Literary Association in 1853,  and he also was involved with two newspapers that catered to the African American community of San Francisco: the Mirror of the Times (1857) and the Alto California (1851). On top of that, and his business concerns, he served as a delegate to California’s Negro Conventions of 1854, 1855, and 1857.

Like many African Americans who lived in California during the build up to the Civil War, Gibbs moved to British Columbia in 1858 because there was less inherent racism there and more opportunity for black entrepreneurs. The gold that had been discovered on the Fraser River also was a major attraction!

Mifflin Wister Gibbs, entrepreneur, statesman, judge

Mifflin Wister Gibbs, entrepreneur, statesman, judge

Over the course of his life Gibbs was involved with the national Negro convention movement, the state of Arkansas’ Republican Party, and he later became the nation’s first black jurist and the U.S. Consul to Madagascar. For more information on the amazing life of Mifflin Gibbs, read his autobiography Shadow and Light – another short but well done memoir.

Finally, if you love first hand accounts of life from another time, I highly recommend browsing through the  Library of Congress‘s American Memory Project. There resides an excellent compilation of slave narratives – see Born in Slavery.


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  1. Lizette W.
    Dec 9, 2014

    I’ve read this entire post. Extremely interesting information. I may dig further into California’s Negro Conventions; I’m very interested in the history and doings of African Americans in the west, particularly in California. Right now I’m reading “African American Women of the Old West” by Tricia Martineau Wagner. Not the best writing, perhaps, but it’s full of information (and a little conjecture). I don’t know any other book with quite the same focus.

  2. Taryn
    Dec 19, 2014

    So glad you liked it and that it inspired you to read more! A seminal work is Blacks in Gold Rush California by Rudolph Lapp, also the older Negro Trail Blazers by Delilah Beaseley. I have the utmost respect for Lapp but he states that blacks were not allowed at either the Mercantile Association or the Mechanics’ Institute which was patently untrue. While I don’t know what it was like culturally at either institution back in the 19th century, there is nothing in their founding documents that prevents anyone from becoming a member and in fact, several blacks – both African Americans and West Indians participated in MI’s industrial expositions and other activities over the years. Cheers!

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