Rochester’s most famous African-American resident George Gibbs is the subject of a new book
Most of the people of Rochester are vaguely aware of his exploits if for no other reason his name is worn in the places where he had the most impact: in Rochester, where a school and a street are named after him. And in Antarctica, where Gibbs became the first African-American to set foot in the South Pole.
Now her daughter, Leilani Raashida Henry, has written a book for young adults, “The Call of Antarctica: Explore and Protect the Coldest Continent on Earth,” which delves into the life and explorations of Gibb.
Henry traveled the country interviewing the descendants of explorers. The hardcover book is due out October 5.
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Born and raised in Jacksonville, Florida, Gibbs grew up in a racially segregated society when Jim Crow was the law of the land. He enlisted and then re-enlisted in the Navy. Gibbs saw the Navy, if not an escape from racism, as an avenue of expanded opportunity. He was able to get his GED as well as a college degree under the GI Bill.
“I think he saw a bigger life for himself,” Henry recently told the Post-Bulletin. “When he was in elementary school he realized that there was a mission or a more important plan for him. He was very disturbed by Jim Crow and the way African Americans were treated in the States. -United.”
Gibbs was a third-class messenger, the lowest ranking on the ship, when Rear Admiral Richard Byrd embarked on his third Antarctic expedition. The ship was a huge 68 year old wooden ship. The crew had doubts about his seaworthiness, he was so old.
Gibbs rose through the ranks as the expedition progressed. The goal was to reach the magnetic South Pole and map and search the continent.
The ship was not free from racism, but it was a sign of Gibbs’ high regard that he had the honor of being the first crew to leave the ship when they reached the mainland , said Henry.
The expedition took place from 1939 to 1940, before the United States entered World War II. A second secret mission, Henry learned from his research, was to keep an eye out for the Nazis, who were trying to establish a presence in Antarctica.
Gibbs retired from the Navy in 1959 and arrived in Rochester in 1963 after graduating from the University of Minnesota.
He was hired by IBM, the first black family to be recruited in Rochester. He ended up shaking up the racist order established in Rochester. He joined the Elks Club and other service clubs. He founded the Rochester Chapter of the NAACP.
Henry said the Antarctic expedition likely took his father’s decision to put down roots in Rochester into account. After enduring the freezing temperatures of the South Pole, “the cold didn’t bother her,” she said.
Here are excerpts from an interview with Henri:
Why did you write the book?
My father was going to write a book. But he died (in 2000) before he wrote it. Before his death, I learned that he had spoken with a woman, a journalist, who had agreed to help him write his book. But in the end, she couldn’t do it because she said she was starting a family and wouldn’t have time. And so she gave me back all the documents they started on. This is how I inherited the project.
Why did you think it was important for the story to be told?
He thinks it was the adventure of his life. He felt that the expedition was an important thing to document and the fact that he was the first black person in the world to set foot on the continent. I also wanted to shed light on Antarctica as a continent to be protected.
Did your father tell stories about the expedition when you were a child?
He mostly talked about it outside the family. He was a loyal Toastmasters participant and he spoke a lot in public. And that was his subject. I heard the joke that when George’s name was on the show people laughed because they knew what he was going to talk about.
I understand that he was not only the first black man to set foot on the mainland, but also the first man to leave the ship?
In my research, I found that more than likely it was the plan, that he could be the first person to get off the ship. I believe Admiral Byrd and one of the other people on the ship allowed this to happen. In the military, it would be very unusual for the lower rank of the ship to go down when it wants.
Was your father aware of the historical importance of the mission?
No. He didn’t know anything about Antarctica. He had asked to go to Spain. The Spanish Civil War had just ended. And he thought that would be a way to help justice in that part of the world. He was told that he could not go to Spain, but that he could apply to go to Antarctica. And that’s how it came to be.
Did your research reveal anything about your father that you didn’t know?
I learned he was a great photographer. I don’t know how he learned to photograph. I don’t know how he knows where he got his first camera. But I discovered he was good at photography. I learned he was a writer. I didn’t know it was a passion. And I learned that he had girlfriends – more than one – during the expedition. This all happened before he got married. He had a lot of friends.
“The Antarctic Call” costs $ 37.32 and can be ordered from Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble. Its release is scheduled for October 5.