The first black explorer to set foot on the Antarctic ice shelf garnered a posthumous honor August 5, when the school board of Rochester, Minnesota, confirmed the name of the George W. Gibbs Jr. Elementary School.
George Washington Gibbs Jr. was born on Nov. 7, 1916, in Jacksonville, Florida. He was also raised in that port city and many years of his life were connected with service at sea.
Enlisting in Macon, Georgia, in 1935, four years later Gibbs was chosen from of hundreds of applicants for the 1939-41 US Antarctic Expedition. Serving as a Mess Attendant 1st Class aboard the Bear, Gibbs attracted official attention before the ship 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 dropped anchor in the Bay of Whales — it was a special day for Gibbs, and he recorded the events in his journal:
I was the first man aboard the ship to set foot in 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.
By the conclusion of the expedition, Gibbs was rated an Officer's Cook 3rd Class, and again received recognition from the Bear's commanding officer, Lieut. Cmdr. Richard H. Cruzen, 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 WWII was just around the corner, and Gibbs saw much action in the South Pacific during the conflict. This included service on the cruiser USS Atlanta, when she was wrecked by gunfire from the Japanese battleship Hiei and a torpedo from the destroyer Akatsuki, and was scuttled off Guadalcanal on Nov. 13, 1942.
Gibbs eventually left the Navy as a chief petty officer in 1959, and moved to Minneapolis, where he graduated from the University of Minnesota with a BS in Education.
He moved to Rochester in 1963 to work with IBM in the personnel department. While at IBM, Gibbs received various promotions including housing administrator and international assignment representative. He retired from IBM in 1982. Over many years, the Rochester community benefited from Gibbs' civil rights activism, as well as his civic and business leadership.
After retiring 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 R. Henry. "My father enjoyed life to the fullest and said that Antarctica was his best experience!"
On his 84th birthday, George W. Gibbs passed away of cancer on Nov. 7, 2000.
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Thursday, 21 August 2008 14:10
School Named after Black American Antarctic Explorer George W. Gibbs Jr.Written by Glenn Stein
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