The First Black Archaeologist

I’ve been meaning to plug a book I finished reading last week: The First Black Archaeologist: A Life of John Wesley Gilbert, by John W. I. Lee.

Gilbert, who studied at Paine College and Brown University and was on the Paine faculty for most of his career, was the first African-American to attend the American School of Classical Studies in Athens, and very likely the first Black person to engage in archaeological fieldwork in Greece. In fact, the book is filled with his ‘firsts,’ which Lee unfurls in a narrative that is both alacritous and at times near microhistorical.

Two things in particular struck me about this book. First, it paints a vivid and detailed picture of the world of classical scholarship in the nineteenth century. For example, it took Gilbert weeks to travel from Augusta, Georgia, to Athens, Greece. Where details about Gilbert are lacking, Lee uses contemporary information to illustrate what Gilbert might have seen or experienced. Second, I had no idea how important a classical education was for Black Americans after the Civil War. What for me is my particular brand of nerdiness was for them a mark of equality. Indeed, Gilbert was not unique among Black Americans in his pursuit of classical scholarship, though his achievements were certainly outstanding.

All this is to say that there was a gulf in my knowledge of the history of classical scholarship, which I did not even know existed before I read this book. Accordingly I recommend it unreservedly, as both an intellectual exercise and as diversionary reading. Gilbert makes for a compelling protagonist, and he certainly deserves to be better known. Thanks to Lee’s biography, perhaps now he shall be.