Clio Logo

Isabella Gibbons learned to read while enslaved by a University of Virginia professor and later educated hundreds of African Americans as a teacher in the freedmen's schools and public schools of Charlottesville. The University later named Gibbons House in honor of her and her husband.


  • Photograph courtesy of the Boston Public Library.
  • The Library of Virginia honored Isabella Gibbons as one of its Virginia Women in History in 2018.
  • The Virginia Women in History Digital Trail is made possible by the Library of Virginia and American Evolution: Virginia to America, 1619–2019.

Born enslaved during the 1830s, Isabella Gibbons (d. February 3, 1890) learned to read and write despite Virginia's laws that made it extremely difficult for enslaved people to do so. By the 1850s she was owned by a professor at the University of Virginia, where she met William Gibbons, an enslaved man owned by another faculty member. They married early in the 1850s, although their marriage was not recognized by law, and Isabella Gibbons ensured that their children also learned to read.                     

With the end of the Civil War, formerly enslaved men, women, and children quickly took advantage of the ability to gain an education, and Gibbons established a school for freed people in Charlottesville. A few months later she became an assistant to Anna Gardner, a representative of the New England Freedmen's Aid Society, who came to Charlottesville late in 1865 to open a free school. Gibbons attended Gardner's school while also assisting her and earned a diploma in 1867. An esteemed teacher at one of the society's schools, Gibbons joined the newly established public school system in 1870 and taught in the city's segregated schools for more than fifteen years. She and her husband, a Baptist minister, acquired property and were highly respected members of Charlottesville's African American community.                       

In 2015, the University of Virginia named its newest dormitory Gibbons House in recognition of the accomplishments of Isabella Gibbons and William Gibbons.                           

Reprinted by permission of the Library of Virginia.