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.
Alexander was intrigued enough by the Gibbs-Hunts' power-couple profile to write a full-fledged biography (Parallel Worlds: The Remarkable Gibbs-Hunts and the Enduring (In)significance of Melanin, University of Virginia Press, 2010). "You have this couple in a balance of power," says Alexander, who is a professor of history at George Washington University. Ida Alexander Gibbs, no relation to the historian or her husband, former Army Secretary Clifford Alexander, was a contemporary and friend of Mary Church Terrell, founder of the National Council of Negro Women, and of Anna Julia Cooper, one of the first black women to earn a Ph.D. "She was a major intellectual. I wasn't writing about a man with a little woman at home," says Alexander. Pulitzer Prize-winning historian David Levering Lewis praises the book. "This is a work of sui generis scholarship—family history as world history," he says.
Hunt and Gibbs lived on the precarious edge of racial prejudice. As light-skinned blacks in a relatively tolerant Europe, Africa and the Caribbean, they had respite from the daily indignities back home. But Hunt's career was also limited by race. Somehow he managed to survive President Woodrow Wilson's broad purge of African Americans from federal service from 1918 to 1920 and maintained his career for decades despite his wife's growing activism in radical black politics. When he could no longer escape the attention of his bosses, he was transferred to Guadeloupe, his first "black" posting in his 30 years of service. He finished out his career in the Azores and Liberia and retired in 1932. Both died peacefully in Washington, D.C.—Hunt in 1951, Gibbs in 1957.
Gibbs and Hunt led atypical lives, traveling the world, consorting with many important intellectuals, black and white, around the world, relatively sheltered from the hardships that most other African Americans endured. Although they were often frustrated by the racial limits, they managed to eke out exceptional lives, a feat we should not fail to commemorate.
In every generation, there are exceptional African Americans who transcend the barriers that are designed to limit their ambition and achievement. In our time, Barack Obama is the most visible example, a black man who rose to the presidency of the United States at a time when conventional wisdom said it was impossible.
But there are many others who never make headlines, and whose achievements are celebrated only via their obituaries or the truncated tropes of Black History Month. Many African Americans worry that success in the wider world has been acquired at a high moral cost, involving collaboration, compromise or surrender of some part of blackness. Alexander cites a different reason that many blacks are uncomfortable with any focus on the fabulous exceptions. "I've been asked, 'Are you, by looking at the exception, denying the experience of the majority?'" she says. "I long ago decided that adding complexity to what we know about the African-American family was something I wanted to do."
Joel Dreyfuss is managing editor of The Root. Follow him on Twitter.