Stanford’s James L. Gibbs recognized for a lifetime of firsts

The New York Times got it right. JAMES L. GIBBS, professor emeritus of anthropological sciences, was the first tenured African American professor at Stanford. But there are so many more firsts in his life.

James L. Gibbs
James L. Gibbs

During his Stanford years, Gibbs became the first African American dean of undergraduate studies. He led the effort that resulted in the Program in African and African American Studies becoming a degree-granting program and the first of such programs at a private university.

In 1996, Gibbs, the Martin Luther King Jr. Centennial Professor, was awarded Stanford’s Allan V. Cox Medal for Faculty Excellence in Fostering Undergraduate Research. An endowed research fund was established in his name.

But the New York Times didn’t focus its spotlight on Gibbs for these, and so many more, Stanford accomplishments.

No, the Times turned attention to another first for Gibbs and his wife, Jewelle Taylor Gibbs, because in 1956 they “became one of the earliest African American couples to appear in the [New York Times] wedding announcements as we know them today,” according to the Times.

Jewelle Taylor Gibbs has her own long list of accomplishments as “the first.” She is professor

Stanford alumna Valerie Jarrett with James L. Gibbs and Jewelle Taylor Gibbs
Alumna Valerie Jarrett (center), senior adviser to President Obama, stands with James Gibbs Jr., and his wife, Jewelle Taylor Gibbs, after delivering the 2010 St. Clair Drake Memorial Lecture. (Photo: Linda A. Cicero / Stanford News Service)

emerita at the School of Social Welfare at the University of California, Berkeley. After graduating from Berkeley Social Welfare’s MSW program in 1970, she served as a clinical social worker at Stanford before returning to Cal to earn her PhD in psychology.

She eventually became the first African American professor appointed to an endowed chair in the University of California system.

Being the first, and sometimes the one and only, is often exhilarating and bittersweet.

“The ‘first black’ designation was a mixed blessing,” Jewelle Taylor Gibbs wrote in her 2014 autobiography Destiny’s Child: Memoirs of a Preacher’s Daughter. “You are expected to represent the whole race, you are always under the microscope and you can’t afford to fail.”

One of James Gibbs favorite quotes is: “You have to work twice as hard to get half as far.”