By Glenn M. Stein, FRGS
As a young man, George Washington Gibbs Jr. ventured to the Earth's seventh continent: Antarctica. It is a place of unimaginable cold, stillness and quiet — at times not a sound can be heard — absolute silence.
On September 2, the Advisory Committee on Antarctic Names (U.S. Board on Geographic Names) confirmed a place name in Antarctica for the first black explorer who set foot on the Frozen Continent. Gibbs Point is a rock point forming the northwest entrance to Gaul Cove, on the northeast of Horseshoe Island, Marguerite Bay, Antarctic Peninsula (67°48'22”S, 067°09'38”W).
This is Mr. Gibbs' second posthumous honor within a year. As a result of his civic and business leadership, the George W. Gibbs Jr. Elementary School was approved last year by the school board of Rochester, Minnesota; the school's formal dedication will take place on October 11. In 2002, Rochester's West Soldiers Field Drive was renamed in Gibbs' honor.
Gibbs was born on Nov. 7, 1916, in Jacksonville, Florida, and raised in that port city, afterward spending many years of his life connected to the sea. Enlisting in the U.S. Navy in Macon, Georgia, in 1935, four years later Gibbs was chosen from of hundreds of applicants to join an expedition with the United States Antarctic Service (U.S.A.S.).
In 1939, Congress established U.S.A.S, and an expedition under veteran polar explorer Admiral Richard E. Byrd went south, "to consolidate previous American exploration and to examine more closely the land in the Pacific sector." Serving as a Mess Attendant 1st Class aboard the lead expedition ship, U.S.S. Bear, Gibbs earned official praise from Lieutenant Commander Richard H. Cruzen, before the vessel ever departed American shores:
Especially commended by the Commanding Officer at meritorious mast for his zeal, initiative, and untiring industry, entailing much personal sacrifice, during the period the U.S.S. BEAR was outfitting and preparing for duty with the U.S. Antarctic Service.
On the morning of Jan. 14, 1940, the Bear steamed into the Bay of Whales, an indentation in the massive Ross Ice Shelf, that stetches out into the Ross Sea — it was a special day for Gibbs, who recorded the events in his journal:
When the Bear came up to the ice close enough for me to get ashore, I was the first man aboard the ship to set foot in [Byrd's old base] Little America, and help tie her lines deep into the snow. I met Admiral Byrd; he shook my hand and welcomed me to Little America and for being the first Negro to set foot in Little America.
The expedition then began carrying out a wide range of scientific studies, with Gibbs helping to establish West Base (Little America III), near the Bay of Whales, and East Base on Stonington Island, Marguerite Bay, Antarctic Peninsula. He also made two round trips between the United States and Antarctica on the Bear. However, due to rising international tensions, both bases were evacuated by March 1941. At this time, Gibbs was rated an Officer's Cook 3rd Class, again receiving recognition from the Bear's commanding officer, in May 1941:
Commended at meritorious mast for his outstanding zeal and energy, and for the unusual spirit of loyalty and cooperation which he has invariably displayed under trying conditions encountered during the assignment of this vessel to duty with the U.S. Antarctic Service.
Though he never returned to Antarctica, America's entry into World War II was just around the corner, and Gibbs saw much combat in the South Pacific during the conflict. This included service on the cruiser U.S.S. Atlanta, when she was wrecked by gunfire from the Japanese battleship Hiei, and a torpedo from the destroyer Akatsuki, forcing the Atlanta to be scuttled off Guadalcanal on Nov. 13, 1942.
Rising to become Chief Petty Officer Gibbs, he left the Navy in 1959, having earned the Navy Good Conduct Medal and the silver U.S. Antarctic Service Expedition Medal 1939-41, among other service medals. Gibbs moved to Minneapolis, where he graduated from the University of Minnesota with a Bachelor of Science in Education. Gibbs then moved to Rochester in 1963 to work with IBM in the personnel department. While at IBM, he received various promotions, including housing administrator and international assignment representative, before retiring in 1982.
Over many years, the Rochester community benefited from Gibbs' civil rights activism (including co-founding the local branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People), as well as his civic and business leadership.
After his retirement from IBM, Gibbs started Technical Career Placement, Inc., and continued to operate the employment service until 1999. "He lived a long life of community service and never really retired," said his daughter Leilani Rashida Henry, who is currently researching for a book on her father's Antarctic adventures. "My father enjoyed life to the fullest and said that Antarctica was his best experience!"
On his 84th birthday, George W. Gibbs Jr. passed away of cancer on Nov. 7, 2000.
Contact: Glenn M. Stein, FRGS