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Making history

Gibbs first person of African descent to set foot on Antarctic continent


“When the Bear came up to the ice close enough for me to get ashore, I was the first man aboard the ship to set foot in Little America and help tie her lines deep into the snow. I met Admiral Byrd; he shook my hand and welcomed me to Little America and for being the first Negro to set foot in Little America.”

So reads an entry in the journal of George Gibbs Jr., a 23-year-old Navy mess attendant who served in the galley aboard the USS Bear on Jan. 15, 1940, during Adm. Richard E. Byrd’s third expedition to Antarctica.

It’s a special moment in Antarctic history, one few people know about — the first person of African descent to step foot on the continent proper.

Leilani Henry, Gibbs’ daughter, wants to change that historical omission — and tell the world about a man from humble beginnings who worked to help change the world for the better his whole life.

For nearly 10 years, Henry has endeavored to bring her father’s story to print after he passed away on Nov. 7, 2000, at the age of 84. It was a project her father had attempted, though he had expressed doubts about ever finishing because he didn’t have enough information.

No historian, Henry had her own doubts about taking up the memoir on behalf of her father. “I thought, ‘If you don’t have enough information, then what am I going to do?’”

That changed a few months after his death when her mother discovered Gibbs’ lost journals from his Antarctic adventure hidden behind their bedroom dresser. Henry read through the slender notebooks and transcribed the journal. A long road of research began.

“My father wanted to write a bestseller. He didn’t want to just publish his journals. My challenge is who is going to care about this story the most,” she says, echoing the dilemma of many an author.

The narrative is still coming together — gaining steam in recent months as new sources turn up — but the lesson of the book is already clear to her.

“You can make something of your life no matter where you came from or what happened to you. When you make something of your life, it can make a huge difference in the lives of many, many people,” says Henry, who lives in one of the many foothill communities just west of Denver, Colo.

“It’s a human story about somebody making a difference,” adds Henry, a tall, lean woman with sharp and ageless features.

Making history

Gibbs was born on Nov. 7, 1916, in Jacksonville, Fla. He enlisted in the U.S. Navy in Macon, Ga., in 1935 and re-enlisted after his first four-year stint following some debate on what he wanted to do next with his life, according to Henry.

Gibbs originally desired an assignment in Spain. Instead, he was encouraged to volunteer for an expedition with the U. S. Antarctic Service (USAS). An expedition jointly sponsored by the Navy, State Department, and Departments of the Interior and the Treasury, the adventure would more commonly be referred to as Byrd’s third Antarctic expedition.

The mission was to establish two bases for scientific research. And that’s exactly what Gibbs and the other 124 men on the expedition did. West Base was established on the Ross Ice Shelf, near the Bay of Whales, and would more popularly be known as Little America III after Byrd’s first two bases in the area. They also built East Base on Stonington Island off the Antarctic Peninsula.

Two ships were used for the expedition — the USS Bear and the USMS North Star. The former was a 68-year-old wooden vessel originally commissioned for sealing — a precursor to today’s modern icebreakers. Its hull was reinforced with steel and a diesel engine installed for the Antarctic expedition.

Every day from November 1939 to May 1940, Mess Attendant 1st Class Gibbs recorded the literal ups and downs of life aboard the refurbished Bear. Henry reads one entry during an interview with The Antarctic Sun that makes her smile:

“Seamen of yester year often told me that in the old days they had wooden ships and iron men and that today they have paper men and iron ships. I had taken it as a joke, but after last night on the USS Bear, I was convinced that they were right. Everyone lost his food. Even I lost mine.”

Gibbs worked long hours as the lowest rank aboard the ship. But his work ethic garnered commendations from his commanding office — not to mention the special attention of Adm. Byrd. He made two round trips to Antarctica before World War II interrupted and ended the polar adventure.

“To be a part of history was very important for him,” Henry says. “It’s important history. It’s exciting. … I didn’t realize how important this was. I didn’t realize how many other people this story is connected to.”

Making connections

In the 10 years since she took over the project from a St. Paul Pioneer Press reporter who had originally agreed to pen the memoir, Henry has learned much about her father’s passion and past from unexpected places.

She tracked down the family of Harrison H. Richardson, a dogsled handler on Byrd’s third expedition and a friend to Gibbs, which offered her new information about her own father.

She recently located 95-year-old Anthony Wayne, the last living member of Byrd’s crew from the 1939-41 expedition, living in Schenectady, N.Y. Wayne referred to Gibbs as the “cook” during their conversation on the phone, Henry says.

“Here’s another perspective,” Henry says. “All of my life we were thinking he was the lowest rank on the ship, a lowly mess attendant. In the eyes of the other people, they didn’t know if he was chopping potatoes or making pie. That changed my whole outlook on this whole project — just that one piece.”

Henry has also found support from veteran polar scientist John Behrendt, who has worked in the Antarctic since the 1950s and wrote two books about his own experiences on the Ice.

Behrendt invited her to speak about her father at a meeting of the American Polar Society earlier this year in Boulder, Colo., where he is a senior research associate at the University of Colorado campus and fellow emeritus of the Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research (INSTAAR).

“I found his story interesting. … In my capacity as author of two Antarctic memoirs, I have been encouraging her to complete her book soon,” Behrendt says.

Transcending race

The 1920s and ’30s weren’t exactly a time of racial tolerance in the United States. Henry says the Antarctic expedition offered her father a way forward to a better life. He was motivated by the fact that there were so few opportunities for blacks in his day

There may have been some racial tensions aboard the ship, Henry says, but most of what she read from her father’s journals and other sources indicated that the Byrd expedition was fairly harmonious. Wayne, a seaman on the expedition, told her everyone had to work together to survive.

“Most of what happened transcended race,” she says.

Gibbs was one of several African-Americans aboard the Bear — but apparently the first to step upon the continent. Though he wasn’t the first black man to sail to the Antarctic.

That honor apparently goes to Peter Harvey of Philadelphia, who was a member of Capt. Nathaniel Palmer’s five-man crew during his 1820 voyage aboard the sloop Hero, according to an article in The Polar Times, the magazine of the American Polar Society. It’s also likely that many whaling and sealing vessels had black men among the crew.

“While sealers landed on many of the peri-Antarctic [close to the Antarctic] islands, I know of none who reached the continent,” wrote R.K. Headland, a senior associate at the Scott Polar Research Institute in the U.K. and author of the book, “A Chronology of Antarctic Exploration” (2009).

“Similarly sealers recruited Maori and other Polynesians, and even occasional indigenes from Tierra del Fuego — but again I have no records of any reaching Antarctica,” he added. “Likewise, there were Africans on some of the whaling stations in South Georgia, but I know of none who went farther south.

“If one keeps the details down to continental Antarctica then, as far as I have been able to find out … the earliest man of African descent to land on the continent was George Gibbs.”

Making a difference

Whether or not Gibbs was first seems secondary in light of what Gibbs accomplished throughout the rest of his life.

He gave 24 of those years to the Navy, including combat in the Pacific theater during World War II. He was on the USS Atlanta during the battle of Guadalcanal when it was destroyed by 49 shells and a torpedo. About a third of the 3,000 crewmembers died. Gibbs and the other survivors spent the night in the shark-infested waters before being rescued the next morning.

Gibbs retired from the Navy in 1959 after rising to the rank of chief petty officer. He moved to Minneapolis, where he graduated from the University of Minnesota with a Bachelor of Science in Education. Gibbs then moved to Rochester in 1963 to work in the personnel department at IBM, where he worked for 18 years.

After his second retirement, the tireless Gibbs founded his own employment company, Technical Career Placement, Inc., which he operated until about a year before his death.

During the 1960s, Gibbs was active in the civil rights movement, co-founding the local branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and participating in protests. Only about 50 of its 350 members were black, according to Henry.

“He’s very persuasive,” she notes.

Gibbs was also active in his community, using his natural people skills to recruit his neighbors and friends to various causes. He never stopped talking about his Antarctic experiences.

The community of Rochester honored his commitment to community by naming a school, street and scholarship in his name.In 2009, the Advisory Committee on Antarctic Names also recognized Gibbs’ accomplishments by naming a rock point on Horseshoe Island off the Antarctic Peninsula after him.

“The Antarctica trip was the background for him to understand that contribution was important no matter who you are and from what angle you’re doing it,” Henry says. “That’s what his life was about: Working for the community, getting people involved, looking at how everyone can make a difference.”

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Curator: Michael Lucibella, Antarctic Support Contract | NSF Official: Peter West, Division of Polar Programs