A Black Power Couple in the Early 20th Century

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When Adele Logan Alexander was doing research for her doctorate at Howard University, she stumbled on a remarkable and largely forgotten power couple who were born nearly 150 years ago: William Henry Hunt and Ida Alexander Gibbs. Hunt was the first African American to enjoy a full-fledged career in the U.S. State Department; he served as consul in Madagascar, in eastern France and Guadeloupe. His wife was one of the early black female internationalists, helping W.E.B. Du Bois organize the Pan-African conferences that crystallized many important intellectual and political concepts. Their accomplishments would be notable even today; they were practically miraculous in their time.

The Gibbs-Hunts, as they were called, have come to light because of a wave of new research in black history that is focused less on the grand figures of history and more on individuals who made their mark despite the huge obstacles they faced. This new focus reflects a broader trend toward a history of ordinary people and the insights they provide into daily life.

William Hunt's mother was probably sired by a vice president of the United States who traced his own roots to the Jamestown colony--and fathered a number of children with his slave women. Ida's father was the second son of a black Presbyterian minister. The life of Mifflin Wistar Gibbs could nourish a dozen film plots. M.W. Gibbs was born in Philadelphia in 1823, joined the California gold rush in 1850, and started a newspaper to challenge racial injustice in 1856.

He led a migration of some 900 blacks from California to Vancouver, British Columbia in 1858 when California seriously considered banning all blacks from living there. Once settled in British Columbia, he was elected to a council seat in Vancouver. He became wealthy through real-estate investments, returned to the United States in 1869, and in 1873 won election in Arkansas as the first black judge elected anywhere in the United States. Decades later, in 1897, President William McKinley rewarded this loyal Republican with a consular post in Madagascar. Ida, raised in comfort and privilege, graduated from Oberlin College in 1884 and earned a master's degree at a time when very few white women went to college.

Her future husband's early years were a lot more difficult. William Henry Hunt was born into slavery in 1863, and his early life after Emancipation was marked by hardship and labor. His desire for an education was initially thwarted at age 10 by the need to help his illiterate mother support their family. Yet he later managed to find a sponsor to a New England prep school, then went on to Williams College, although he dropped out after a year. He met Ida in 1889, possibly at a concert given by her sister, a graduate of Oberlin's music conservatory. In 1897, with the support of Ida, he was able to snag a job as deputy to M.W. Gibbs at his Madagascar posting and later succeeded him as consul. When he married Ida in 1904, even Washington, D.C.'s white newspapers reported on the wedding....

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