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Judge Mifflin W. Gibbs

Mifflin Wistar Gibbs was a Little Rock, Arkansas businessman, politician, and the first elected African-American municipal judge in the United States.

Gibbs was born on April 17, 1823 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He learned carpentry through an apprenticeship. He read widely and attended debates at the Philadelphia Library Company of Colored Persons. He had a chance to practice his own oratory in the 1840s when Frederick Douglass invited him to help conduct an abolitionist lecture tour.

Journeying to California soon after the gold rush of 1849, he became a successful retail merchant and a leader of the growing black population in San Francisco. He was a founder of the first black newspaper west of the Mississippi River, The Mirror of the Times (1855). He left San Francisco in 1858 to escape growing racial prejudice on the California frontier.

Gibbs settled in Victoria, Vancouver Island, British Columbia. Once again, he found business opportunities and was soon among the colony’s black elite. In 1866, he became the first black man elected to the Victoria City Council. In 1870, he returned to the United States and settled in Oberlin, Ohio. However, in 1871 he headed south.

In Charleston, South Carolina he met William H. Grey, Arkansas’s state commissioner of immigration and lands, and at Grey’s urging, he set off for Arkansas. Gibbs arrived in Little Rock in May 1871. He liked the city and settled in quickly. He studied law and as soon as he passed the bar examination in 1872, he opened a partnership with Lloyd G. Wheeler, a well-known black attorney and leader in the Pulaski County Republican Committee. In October 1873, Gibbs won the election for the Little Rock police judge and served in this capacity from November 1874 to April 1875. He served for a decade as secretary of the state GOP central committee and was often a delegate to national conventions.

In 1877, President Rutherford B. Hayes named Gibbs registrar of the Little Rock district land office; President Benjamin Harrison named him receiver of public monies in Little Rock in 1889. Finally, President William McKinley named him U.S. consul to Tamatave, Madagascar in 1897. Gibbs never abandoned business despite his federal employment. He started a real estate agency in his law office in 1874, and he invested widely. In 1903, Gibbs, at age eighty, created the Capital City Savings Bank.

While little is known of Gibbs’ personal life, it is known that after a prolonged period of declining health, he died on July 11, 1915 at his home in Little Rock.