William and Isabella Gibbons were married slaves who worked at the University up until the Civil War. Enslaved husbands and wives were often owned by different families — but fortunately, William and Isabella were sold to two different families that lived in adjacent Lawn pavilions. Their story shows that even in the midst of nearly universal mistreatment from students and professors alike, the strength of the human spirit can still prevail.
In Virginia at the time, it was illegal to teach another man’s slave how to read and socially unacceptable to teach your own slave. However, William and Isabella used discarded books and secretly listened in on lessons to teach themselves how to read. William also received help from the young daughter of the professor who owned him.
After the war, Isabella became a schoolteacher and William founded a church in Washington, D.C. Naming the first year dorm building after the Gibbons family is one small step in the right direction as we aim to memorialize enslaved laborers on grounds.