February 28, 2020

Jonathan C. Gibbs: Black Pioneer Shaping Education for All Floridians

Black History Month is an important time for Floridians to reflect on the profound impact that Black trailblazers have had and continue to have on our political, cultural, and social history. One such figure, Jonathan C. Gibbs, significantly shaped the founding of Florida’s public education system.

Jonathan C. Gibbs, State Archives of Florida

The history of Florida’s present public education system dates to the Reconstruction Era, when divergent groups of Southern planters, Northern “carpetbaggers,” and the Black community engaged in complex political battles to influence Florida’s post-Civil War future, including shaping a new state constitution.

During this time, Jonathan C. Gibbs, Florida’s first Black Secretary of State (1868-1872) and Secretary of Public Instruction (1873-1874), played a key role in the establishment of free public schools for children of all races in Florida. He helped to include education as a civil right in the 1868 Constitution, influenced legislation establishing public schools, oversaw the early rapid expansion of the public education system, and instituted standard textbooks.[1]

A significant political figure during Florida’s Reconstruction period, Gibbs was also a well-respected elected delegate to the state’s 1868 Constitutional Convention. His Dartmouth and Princeton education and background as a preacher made him a force to reckon with during the convention debates. He was “an orator by nature . . .  the most talented man in the Convention.”[2] The resulting 1868 Constitution established education as a civil right “without distinction or preference” on the basis of race, making Florida one of the only states to do so. This was due not only to Gibbs, but also to a supportive political bloc of African Methodist Episcopal congregations.[3] In 1869, these same churches helped to pressure the Legislature to establish the state’s first functional statewide system of free “common,” or public, schools.[4]

Gibbs faced many challenges and malevolent actors opposed to progress. While fighting the nascent Ku Klux Klan as Secretary of State, Gibbs slept armed in the attic of his Tallahassee home for many months.[5] He faced strong opposition not only from Southern planter Democrats, but also from suspicious Northern “carpetbagger” Republican politicians.

On August 14, 1874, Gibbs died suddenly at the young age of 47, after a day in which he delivered a “powerful speech” at a political meeting. He was in general good health, and though officially thought to have died of “apoplexy,” many believed he was poisoned by political rivals or white supremacists.[6]

In 1885, Reconstruction ended, the federal government left Southern states to their own devices, and all former-Confederate states adopted new, highly discriminatory constitutions, including Florida. The 1885 Constitution encoded racially segregated schools, among other discriminatory policies, and was in effect until the 1968 Constitution was adopted.[7]

The post-Reconstruction Era shepherded in decades of discrimination and often terror for Black Floridians. All the while, Black communities, spurred by AME Churches and leaders like the late Jonathan C. Gibbs, mobilized around education as a bedrock civil right and rallying cry.[8] In his 1874 address to the National Education Association, Gibbs exclaimed: “God is on the side of the schoolhouse!”[9]

Famed sociologist and scholar W. E. B. Du Bois wrote of Gibbs: “He virtually established the public schools of the state as an orderly system.”[10] Indeed, his footprint is indelible to this day. This Black History Month, Florida Policy Institute honors the positive impact that Jonathan C. Gibbs had on Florida policy and on all future public school students of Florida.



[1] J. Richardson (1964), “Jonathan C.Gibbs: Florida's Only Negro Cabinet Member,” The Florida Historical Quarterly, 42(4), 366, www.jstor.org/stable/30140048.

[2]Ibid, 364

[3] Ernesto Cortes Jr., Lisa Delpit, Robert P. Moses, Theresa Perry and Joan T. Wynne, “Quality Education as a Constitutional Right: Creating a Grassroots Movement to Transform Public Schools,” Boston, Beacon Press.

[4] Ibid

[5] W.E.B. Du Bois (1966, c1935), Black Reconstruction in America; an essay toward a history of the part which black folk played in the attempt to reconstruct democracy in America, 1860-1880, New York, Russell & Russell, 521.

[6] Richardson, 367.

[7] Mary Adkins (2016), “Making Modern Florida: How the Spirit of Reform Shaped a New State Constitution,” Gainesville, University Press of Florida, 5-6.

[8] Cortes et al

[9] Ibid

[10] DuBois, 520.

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