portrait of Thomas V. R. Gibbs

Portrait of Thomas V. R. Gibbs

Thomas Van Renssalaer Gibbs followed in his uncle’s (Mifflin) and father’s (Jonathan Clarkson) footsteps, carving out a political career and working to secure education and civil rights for African Americans after the Civil War. He was born on September 16, 1855 in Troy, New York. He attended Howard University, West Point, and ultimately ended up at Oberlin College before he began his teaching career in Jacksonville, Florida, in 1875 [1].
Before he turned thirty, in 1884, Gibbs was elected to the Florida State Representative. By 1887 and 1888, Democrats had taken over electoral politics through intimidation, violence, and corruption, and Gibbs and Henry Chandler (representing Marion County) were the only remaining Black legislators. Rep. Gibbs served on the Committee of Judiciary, the Committee on Rules, and the Committee on Education. As Leedell Neyland argues, “his very presence (on the committees) was assurance that legislation affecting blacks’ interests would at least be discussed in the presence of a black representative” [2]. Most likely, Gibbs was acutely aware that the rights and well-being of Black Floridians would be increasingly marginalized in the coming years and that his tenure as a politician was coming to an end. In 1887, he introduced the bill that founded the Florida State Normal and Industrial School for Negroes [3]. In the legislature, Gibbs “spoke forcibly in favor of Jacksonville as the most suitable place for the colored normal school” [4]. Jacksonville had a thriving a Black community, and it was the seat of Duval County. However, the House chose Tallahassee as the school’s location.

Gibbs married his match Alice Menard, the daughter of poet, publisher, and the first Black person elected to the US Congress, J. Willis Menard. Together, they had six children.

The former Gibbs Hall was named in honor of Thomas V. R. Gibbs. Gibbs Hall, Florida State Normal Industrial School – Tallahassee, Florida. 20th century. State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory.


[1] Leedell W. Neyland. Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University, a Centennial History. Tallahassee: The Florida A&M University Foundation, 1983: 7.

[2] Ibid, 8.

[3] Florida State Normal and Industrial College. (1896). The Ninth Annual Catalogue of the Florida State Normal and Industrial College for Colored Students 1895-1896. Jacksonville, Florida, United States: DaCosta Printing and Publishing Company. Retrieved 2019.


Written by Rachel Nelson for ENGL/HIST 677, taught by P. Gabrielle Foreman, University of Delaware, Spring 2019, and Samantha de Vera, University of California, San Diego.

Edited by P. Gabrielle Foreman.

Acknowledgements: Michelle Byrnes for further edits, visualization contributions, and technical assistance.