John Wesley Gilbert. Photo courtesy Lucy Craft Laney Museum of Black History.
John Wesley Gilbert. Photo courtesy Lucy Craft Laney Museum of Black History.

Historical marker to honor first African American archaeologist

The first African American archaeologist was born in the Augusta area and will be honored with a historical marker in front of a building bearing his last name.

Born enslaved around 1863 near Hephzibah, John Wesley Gilbert accomplished many things in his 60 years, and the Georgia Historical Society will dedicate the marker at 10:30 a.m. Thursday, May 2, at Paine College in front of the Gilbert-Lambuth Chapel, according to the Georgia Historical Society website.

Educated in Augusta’s segregated public schools, he would later study at Paine Institute (now Paine College), and at Brown University, where he focused on ancient Greek.

“He was the first American scholar of any race or ethnicity to write about the urban demes (neighborhoods or districts) of Classical Athens. His thesis, ‘The Demes of Attica,’ helped him win his AM degree in Greek from Brown University in 1891. He was one of the very first African Americans to receive an advanced degree in Classical Studies (including Archaeology),” according to the Archaeological Institute of America’s website.

“Gilbert took part in the American School’s 1891 excavations at the Greek site of Eretria. He was the first African American and one of the first fifty Americans of any race to do professional archaeological work in Greece. Gilbert did an archaeological-topographical survey of Eretria with his American School colleague John Pickard. This was among the very first such surveys that American archaeologists conducted anywhere in the Mediterranean,” the website continued.

In 1888, he became Paine’s first Black faculty member teaching humanities until 1919. In 1911-1912, he helped establish a Methodist mission in the Belgian Congo.

He died in 1923 and is buried in Cedar Grove Cemetery.

The Georgia Historical Society, the Lucy Craft Laney Museum of Black History, Paine College and the American School of Classical Studies at Athens are responsible for the installation of the marker.

The ceremony is open to the public.

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