Most Rochester people are vaguely aware of his exploits if for no other reason than his name is borne in places where he made the most impact: In Rochester, where a school and street are named after him. And in Antarctica, where Gibbs became the first African American to set foot on the South Pole.
Now, his daughter, Leilani Raashida Henry, has written a book for young adults, “The Call of Antarctica: Exploring and Protecting Earth’s Coldest Continent,” that delves into Gibb’s life and explorations.
Henry traveled the country interviewing descendants of the explorers. The hardcover book is set for release on Oct. 5.
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Born and raised in Jacksonville, Fla., 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 opportunities. He was able to earn 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 there was a bigger mission or plan for him. He was very disturbed by Jim Crow and the way African Americans were treated in the U.S.”
Gibbs was a third-class mess attendant, the lowest rank on the ship, when Rear Admiral Richard Byrd set sail on his third expedition to Antarctica. The ship was a massive, 68-year-old wooden ship. Crew members harbored doubts about its seaworthiness, it was so old.
Gibbs moved his way up the ranks as the expedition progressed. The goal was to reach the magnetic South Pole and map and research the continent.
The ship wasn’t free from racism, but it was a sign of how highly Gibbs was regarded that he was given the honor of being the first crew member off the ship when they reached the continent, Henry said.
The expedition took place from 1939 to 1940, prior to U.S. entry into World War II. A second secret mission, Henry learned from her research, was to keep an eye on the Nazis, who were attempting 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 to Rochester. He ended up shaking up the established racist order in Rochester. He integrated the Elks Club and other service clubs. He founded the Rochester chapter of the NAACP.
Henry said the Antarctic expedition likely factored in her dad’s decision to set roots in Rochester. After enduring the bone-chilling temps of the South Pole, “the cold did not bother him,” she said.
Here are excerpts from an interview with Henry:
Why did you write the book?
My father was going to write a book. But he died (in 2000) before he wrote it. Before he died, I learned that he had spoken with a woman, a news reporter, who had agreed to help him write his book. But in the end, she wasn’t able to do it, because she said she was starting a family and wouldn’t have the time. And so she handed me back all the materials that they had started on. So that’s how I inherited the project.
Why did you think it was important the story be told?
It think it was the adventure of his life. He felt 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 bring light to Antarctica as a continent to protect.
Did your dad tell stories about the expedition when you were a kid?
He talked about it mostly outside the family. He was a faithful Toastmasters participant, and he did a lot of public speaking. And that was his topic. I heard the joke that when George’s name was on the program, people laughed because they knew what he was going to talk about.
I understand that he wasn’t only the first black man to set foot on the continent, but was also the first man off the ship?
In my research, I found that was more than likely the plan, that he was able to be the first person off the ship. I believe that Admiral Byrd and one of the other people on the ship were part of allowing this to happen. In the military, it would be highly unusual for the lowest rank on the ship to just hop off whenever he wanted to.
Was your dad aware of the historical significance of the mission?
No. He knew nothing about Antarctica. He had asked to go to Spain. The Spanish Civil War was just ending. And he thought that would be a way to help with justice in that area of the world. He was told he couldn’t go to Spain, but he could apply to go to Antarctica. And that’s how he got there.
Did your research reveal things about your dad you didn’t know?
I learned he was a great photographer. I don’t know how he learned photography. I don’t how he know where he got his first camera. But I found out that photography was something he was good at. I learned that he was writer. I never knew that was a passion. And I learned that he had girlfriends — more than one — during the expedition. This all happened before he was married. He had a lot of friends.
“The Call of Antarctica” costs $37.32 and can be ordered through Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble. It is set for release Oct. 5.
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