Thomas W. Gibbs III

Interviewed by Karen H. Williams
January 4, 2010

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 [0:00] Karen H. Williams: We're here this afternoon with Dean Thomas Gibbs of the Cathedral Church of All Saints in St. Thomas, Virgin Islands. Uh, I've known the Dean for more years and neither one of us, uh, will admit. We both have a connection with the Islands. My mother's family was originally from here, and the Dean had been in other parishes when he started his ministry, but has been here in the Virgin Islands now for almost 50 years.

[0:36] Thomas W. Gibbs III: 50 years.

[0:37] Williams: But we're here today to talk about his experiences coming from Evanston, Illinois, to Amherst College in Amherst, Massachusetts. People might not think that that's a very long distance, but in many ways, it was. And I think that having known Tom now for a number of years, that this is something that has been very meaningful in his life and contributed to his successful education and his successful work within the church here in the Virgin Islands, as well as at a number of churches in the continental United States. So to start off, um, I’d like to ask Tom, how he actually got to Amherst and who may have encouraged him to apply.

[1:38] Gibbs: It all began with, uh, a visit by the Dean of Admissions at Amherst, Dean Eugene Wilson, uh, who made a foray from Amherst on the east coast to the west coast recruiting especially minority students and others who are not highly visible at Amherst at the time, and my homeroom teacher at Evanston Township High School suggested that I meet, quote, “this person,” and that was tantamount to a command in those days. And I had a visit with Dean Eugene Wilson and I decided that I would come to Amherst College. Um, as a matter of fact, I didn't apply at any other institution. So I don't know what would have happened had I not been admitted. But the fates favored me and [clears throat] I entered with the class of ‘51. So that means I went in, um, in September 1947, which now seems eons ago.

[2:54] Williams: [laughs]

[2:56] Gibbs:  And of course, I got involved in the whole fraternity, as some said, debacle, when I was asked to join Phi Kappa Psi and not knowing that I was supposed to say no. Uh, I said yes, I would go through the rushing process and I was pledged and then ensued nine months, of, um, will-you-won't-you or should-you-shouldn't-you or can-you-can’t-you. But in the end, most of the College and all of those pledged with me and most of the class of ‘51 stuck by me and, uh, I was pledged by what became Phi Alpha Psi because we were expelled by the national fraternity. And, of course, subsequently all fraternities were expelled from, from Amherst. But it was, you know, a traumatic experience because I came out of the Midwest, not blaming the Midwest for my inadequacies, uh, I just stepped into a world I'd never known and had a lot of learning to do, a lot of growing up to do, and Amherst made it possible.

[4:36] And I came out without the rancor and bitterness, I think, of some of my colleagues who felt that, felt a sense of betrayal that I joined the fraternity when I, as I said, I should have said no. Well, I jumped in feet first or head first and got involved as a matter of fact in everything in, in the fraternity. Uh, but, um, Professor Lumley thought I could run, so I got involved in cross country and then winter relay and then track in the spring and so I didn't have much time for intramural sports, but everything else that was going on in the fraternity, I did get involved in and, because I thought it was the thing to do. But studies were not neglected because at, um, the Phi Psi there was an emphasis on keeping up your grades, you know, and, um--

[5:52] But the whole Amherst atmosphere which we used to describe, you know, well, “the gentleman’s C,” you can get through, was no longer obtaining because of the new curriculum, which started, new at that time, which started with the class of ‘47. And it was a rigorous experience, one for which I was barely prepared, but you can learn a great deal in a short time if you have to. And, uh, in order to stay there, I had to. To the surprise of many, I did make magna cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa. Again, I wasn't supposed to. 

[6:40] Williams: [laughs] To what extent did you find that your perf--, your preparation in Evanston held you in good stead once you got to Amherst?

[6:54] Gibbs: As a matter of fact, some of my colleagues in high school always looked askance at me because I always had books and I was reading. But again, by getting good grades in high school, I think that helped me get into Amherst. But also because of my reading, love of reading, I was better prepared than some of my colleagues at Amherst who had gone to some of the better prep schools. You have to understand that the Fifth Ward, the Black community, you didn't have that emphasis on education, which they now have. And all too many were skating, they were getting by, they were passing. 

[7:50] And though it was the home of Northwestern University, it was also a segregated city; we had the white Y, the white YMCA, the black YMCA. We had, um, the white troops and such in boy scouting, we had black troop, we had the three white Episcopal churches--‘course I was a member of the AME church but because the Scoutmaster was a member of St. Andrew's church, I sort of came into the Anglican Church via the back door. Part, I think of my interest in the Virgin Islands stemmed from the fact that I came from a closed society, and, uh, there's a freedom in the Virgin Islands which I never enjoyed in Evanston.

[8:48] Williams: To what extent did you find when you got to the Amherst campus that there, the other students and the faculty were welcoming to you and your classmates from Evanston, or was there a difficult social interaction or academic interaction because of race issues?

[9:14] Gibbs: Well, I did not notice it at the time and, um, part, of course, what I will be saying is reflection after the fact. But I plunged into the Amherst experience as socially inept; economically, not top-drawer; politically, not knowing very much. But I had the advantage of several faculty who were most helpful in helping me adjust to the new situation and some classmates who were, I think top notch, especially after the fraternity debacle started, but for me it was, uh, a learning experience which I never anticipated, never expected. And in a very real sense, I think, I learned as much in terms of social interaction as from the books at Amherst College.

[10:33] Williams: Well, Amherst at the time was certainly an all-male campus. Um, to what extent was there social interaction with some of the girls’ colleges in the valley?

[10:46] Gibbs: Well, that was every Friday and Saturday, either to Smith or Mount Holyoke. And of course, we had the parties and dances at Amherst College, we went to those at Smith or Mount Holyoke. I didn't realize, of course, at the time, that I was very limited in what I could do or what I should do. Because certain things were expected, which my colleagues--when say colleagues, I mean, the African Americans--didn't tell me until after I'd gotten an invitation to join a fraternity. And then they told me what I should have done when the invitation was extended. But, as I say, I was a bit unknowing, and I just plunged into everything Amherst had to offer at the time.

[11:39] Williams: Uh, I'd be interested in your perspective on social life, both at Amherst and at schools in the valley, were impacted by being a part of a well-respected fraternity?

[11:57] Gibbs: Well definitely at Amherst, social life revolved around the fraternities, no if, ands, or buts, which is why those who were not members of the fraternity, fraternities had the Lord Jeff Club. 

[12:10] Williams: Um hmm.

[12:11] Gibbs: But it wasn't quite the same, because there was a camaraderie and, uh, just a way of looking at things in the fraternity system, which did not obtain with the Lord Jeff Club-- [cross talk]

[12:25] Williams: Jeff Club.

[12:26] Gibbs: --and the independents, because some did not join the Lord Jeff Club. And you also had an entree to more social activities if you were a member of a fraternity when you went to the other schools.

[12:40] Williams: Um hmm.

[12:40] Gibbs: And for some reason, the dances sponsored by the fraternities--

[12:46] Williams: Right.

[12:46] Gibbs: --were the in-things.

[12:48] Williams: Have you kept up your relationship with any of your fraternity brothers?

[12:54] Gibbs: With, uh, with a good many. Uh, a few in the class of ‘51, more in the class of ‘50, and some, no, more in the class of ‘52 and some in the class of ‘53. But with the, uh, demise of the fraternity system at Amherst, we tended more to think in terms of the class--

[13:22] Williams: Um hmm. Right.

[13:22] Gibbs: --the class members with whom you were close, rather than fraternity members.

[13:27] Williams: I guess I'd be interested in, and I think our colleagues would be interested in, how you think the Amherst experience prepared you for your life's work in the church and in various communities in which you’ve served.

[13:44] Gibbs: Well, one thing they did was to, uh, I guess, make me something of a protagonist, because after Amherst, I didn't hesitate to plunge into anything I thought might be beneficial. And certainly because of my Amherst education, I considered myself the peer of anyone else. Even though it may not have been true.

[14:12] Williams: [laughs] Right.

[14:13] Gibbs: But by taking advantage of what was offered, and with the support, I must always add so many of my colleagues, especially in the class of ‘51, but I have to also say some of the upperclassmen, who at times when I wanted to give up, sort of talk me into staying with it, not as much for my sake as for the sake, as they put it, of Amherst College. And it was a learning process that I think has stood me in good stead even though, as a result, I've been sort of dictatorial and, uh--

[15:02] Williams: [laughs]

[15:03] Gibbs: Because of, you know, the Amherst education, which I, at the time, of course being young [said] was superior to all others.

[15:14] Williams: Understandably.

[15:15] Um, were there particular classmates or roommates that, with whom you interacted during those four years who have made a significant impression on you at that time? And to what extent have you continued interaction or relationships with your Amherst colleagues?

[15:38] Gibbs: Well, I think there were roughly 17 of us in the pledge class. And I had good relations for a good many years, I would say, with roughly half, if slightly under half. Um, other classmates, um, two in particular, one from Evanston. We've continued our relationship to the present.

[16:07] I sort of lost track of some of the older Amherst men, that class of ‘50 and ‘49. But they too made a distinct impression because they were in the forefront of the battle, at a time when pressures were on them and on the fraternity to withdraw the offer of a pledge to me.

[16:39] But also I have to say that several members of the faculty were most supportive. Um, Professor Beebe and Coach Lumley, just to name two, there were others of course, who were supportive of the house and what we were doing. I think most of the opposition, such as it was, and it really wasn't that strong at the College, came from upperclassmen who were afraid of what it might do in terms of their relationships with other Phi Kappa Psis and the business world. But we were able to get through all of that, I think in a very healthy way. Though, some of my African American colleagues registered their disappointment with me for joining the fraternity instead of joining the Lord Jeff Club.

[17:47] Williams: But I'd also like to talk with you a bit about who your roommates were and what impact you may have had on them and they on you.

[17:57] Gibbs: Well, my first roommate was Mercer Cook. We were the only two, well, we used to say “Blacks.” We were the only two Blacks who were there. [laughs] And, uh, we were roommates. In, uh, Morrow. No, that, well anyway--  [crosstalk]

[18:19] Williams: Right.

[18:19] Gibbs: I can’t recall the dorm we were in. But anyway, we, we got along very well. But Mercer was really a much more sophisticated youngster than I was--his father was a professor at Howard and, uh--

[18:34] William: He'd grown up in Washington.

[18:36] Gibbs: Right. And, uh, came out of a social ethos which was far superior to anything that I had experienced in Evanston. I think I grew and matured and I surpassed him eventually, but that's another story. [both laugh] But it was a, I had to play catch up. And, and I think sometimes in playing catch up I was not always sensitive to the feelings of others who wanted to be supportive of me and what I was going through.

[19:13] At times, I think, I was suspicious. And other times I just wanted to plain know why the offers of friendship and it took some learning on my part to come to the realization that I would have to deal with each person on his own terms vis-à-vis where I happened to be at the moment and that not everyone was an enemy, nor, conversely, everyone a friend. But when you are playing catch up and when you have to grow 10 or 11 or 12 years in four years, it's sometimes impossible not to make some mistakes. And some I've always regretted because they turned out to be wonderful human beings and, but I had rebuffed an offer of friendship early on and there was no retracing steps. Other offers which I accepted, I had made a poor choice but again, there was no retracing steps. [laughs]

[20:22] Williams: Within your college years though, did you have experiences that you feel have shaped your life as, as a member of a diverse community?

[20:42] Gibbs: Almost certainly. One I always remember when I spent the spring vacation, used to “vacation” as we used to call it with Professor Cook and was exposed to Washington, DC--

[21:00] Williams: [laughs]

[21:01] Gibbs: --socially in a way that Midwesterners don't always appreciate. Similarly, a couple of years later, with another roommate visiting in Maryland, just on the border of Washington, DC and again, being exposed to a social milieu that was completely foreign to me growing up in Evanston, and the ability to, same, visiting New York with another classmate. Taking advantage of all of these, I think helped me immeasurably.

[21:41] But also made me want to excel, for want of a better phrase, to be the equal of, and to prove that, and I guess I was really trying to prove it to myself more than anything else. But somewhere out of that whole welter, I did become, in the long run, who I am basically because of what started at Amherst College. And so much of the good I do attribute to Amherst College, some was not so good but for better for worse, I guess I am who I am and, and I can only blame God. 

[22:35] Williams: [laughs]

[22:35] Gibbs: He made the opportunities possible.

[22:37] Williams: Dean, have you been back to the Amherst campus in the last 10 years?

[22:44] Gibbs: No, no, I was last there on my 40th reunion. I've been intending to but always something comes up.

[22:59] Williams: Have you kept in touch with any of your classmates at all?

[23:03] Gibbs: Oh, yes. Oh yes, as I say, one Charlie Tritschler class of ‘51 keeps me informed. He's visited here several times, and when I've been in the States, I've seen Charlie and Dee, his wife. And others, sporadically, we correspond, talk about Amherst days.

[23:29] Williams: Um, was church a part of your experience at Amherst at all? ‘Cause Grace is right across the street from the Lord Jeff.

[23:38] Gibbs: Right.

[23:38] Williams: It's still there. [laughs]

[23:39] Gibbs: Oh, yes. Only in the sense that I went to chapel.

[23:42] Williams: Okay. [laughs]

[23:44] Gibbs: And I had another classmate who was, as I say, a Methodist-- 

[23:49] Williams: Um hmm.

[23:49] Gibbs: --Mr. Laird, and I went several times, but it wasn't a very large part of my Amherst experience. Only when I went home of course, then I had to go to church.

[24:00] Williams: [laughs] When you graduated from Amherst, did you go right on to graduate school? Or did you go back to your community?

[24:10] Gibbs: No, no, I went, I went to the University of Chicago Law School, because they had instituted what was called the Amherst College-University of Chicago Law School scholarship and I won that. So I went to law school for a year. And, uh, kind of, with all due respect, I opted out of that. [both laugh] But I really didn't know what I wanted to do, and I joined the Army and I spent three years in Counterintelligence Corps. I joined the Army to see the world and they stationed me in Washington DC because Washington had become predominantly Black and the Black population in Washington was not talking to white CIC agents and in, this is Korean Conflict time, and there I connected with the National Cathedral and John Burgess who later became Bishop of Massachusetts, influencing me then to go to Episcopal Theological School in Cambridge, Massachusetts. So, kind of a series of fortuitous events.

[25:29] Williams: I'm sure that the experience and dealing with the, with the military had its positive impacts as well. But you ultimately wound up going to the seminary in Cambridge. And then where was your first church after that?

[25:48] Gibbs: That was at, uh [clears throat], St. John's in Christiansted, ‘cause I, I spent a summer there in field, what we call fieldwork. And, uh, and after graduation, I had the opportunity to come to St. Thomas for what we call the curacy, three years under a senior priest, and I did that at All Saints because there was no place for me in the end. In those days, opportunities for Black clergy were, young Black clergy were limited.

[26:24] So I could get into the mission field because, which was the Virgin Islands. Prior to my coming here, no Blacks had been sent to any place other than Liberia. I came for the three years and then I was called up to the national headquarters in New York for five years. And then Bishop Mills made me come home again, back to a diocesan office and one year later, they elected me Rector of All Saints. And, uh, there I've been ever since. And I still haven't figured out why God is punishing me.

[27:09] Williams: Oh, no, no, no. What kinds of changes have you seen at All Saints, uh, say in the last 10 years?

[27:18] Gibbs: Well, I've seen it grow into a church that is reaching out. Now, we always had the school and that, I think we were kind of resting on our laurels. You know, well, this is our thrust into the community and content with that, but now we're getting more and more involved in the life of the community and things are taking place here that would have been unheard of 15, 20 years ago.

[27:53] I think our people were pretty much satisfied with their church. It was one of the foremost churches, hadn’t been for some years, but they didn't know that, but that was their attitude. It was the English church, the church on Garden Street, and we want to keep it that way. But we've branched out and involved in all kinds of things, especially, you know, trying to work with our younger people. Our scouting program has always been strong.

[28:23] Williams: To what extent have you continued to stay in touch with your colleagues from seminary?

[28:30] Gibbs: I think more from seminary than from college, though the college ties, of course, are longer. And we cover a multitude of sins. But you form closer, some closer relationships in seminary, I think, precisely because of the small size in class and the intensive, well, retreats and you know, this kind of thing which sort of pulled us together in a way that's not the norm at a college or university. But I value my college years really as strongly as I do my seminary years. Because without the Amherst experience, I don't think I would have gone on to seminary.

[29:27] Williams: To what extent have you found the students here in the cathedral schools actively engaged in academic learning?

[29:40] Gibbs: Oh, they’re, they’re very much engaged in that. Because, um, I don't say it threateningly, though they sometimes take it that way, because you see, if you come to the Cathedral School, it's shape-up-or-ship-out time. I try to impress upon them only because if you don't take full advantage of what is being offered, you're wasting your time. But you're also wasting our time, you're wasting your parents money. Um, and we really want students who are interested in learning. It's the next building block. Elementary school being the first, then high school experience being the next and building block. And you need those blocks to go on to graduate school or developing a skill or going into the military, you know, whatever you're going to do in the future. You need to be well grounded.

[30:41] Williams: Do you get a fair number of students coming from other islands to St. Thomas to attend the cathedral schools?

[30:51] Gibbs: Yes, a good many. We have Thomians, we have Crucians, we have some from St. John, but we have them also from, as we say, “down island,” from the continental United States. We have Muslims, we have, of course, the Jewish faith. We have all the denominations, we have some of no religious faith. The common denominator is, you know, seeking a good education. Of course, you have to go to chapel, but--

[31:37] Williams: [laughs] Do you have the resources that you need for the cathedral schools?

[31:44] Gibbs: No, no, not by any stretch of the imagination. We've instituted something that, it's caught on, it wasn't well received at first, but every second Sunday, we take up an extra collection to help with the maintenance of the school buildings. Any particular problem that arises unforeseen, the Cathedral tries to take care of it for the school because you can only stretch the tuition so far. And we've always got to keep in reserve enough to provide for the increases for our teachers the next year. So we're sometimes between a rock and a hard place but so far, God's been good and we're making it.

[32:37] After the hurricane, you know, we just went computer, and I think it's been a good thing for us and now we envision opening classes for older people. Of course, we have the plans in the planning stage and raising money for the new campus and we’ll have to decide what to do with this campus. Because you can't destroy the buildings, just because you have other buildings. We now have a new outreach ministry.

[33:11] Williams: Given your Illinois connections, I have to ask you, if you ever envisioned seeing an African American in the White House?

[33:23] Gibbs: Uh, didn't envision it, hoped for it, said a few prayers, but never expected them to materialize. So it was a grand occasion to see him there in Grant Park. 

[33:36] Williams: Grant Park. 

[33:38] Gibbs: [laughs]

[33:38] Williams: I think all of us will, will remember that as being just an extraordinary experience. I had some colleagues from the law firm who got very involved in the campaign and were in Grant Park and they said it was, it was just amazing. The electricity and the camaraderie of those thousands of people in the park were really quite amazing. And I think that, I think that the country is really getting the benefit of an extraordinary team of people that he's put together. Um, government is never easy, and it certainly has not been easy for him. But I think it's, it's been a wonderful example, particularly to our young people--

[34:28] Gibbs: Right.

[34:29] Williams: --of, of what you can do, and that and the importance of integrity in what you do is as well--

[34:37] Gibbs: And cooperation, because--

[34:38] Williams: Yes.

[34:39] Gibbs: --this is really the, a rainbow coalition, which we only talked about with Jesse Jackson.

[34:44] Williams: Right.

[34:45] Gibbs: But I think we've now seen that it is possible. And I was amazed at the number of young people who registered and voted for the first time

[34:57] Williams: That was extraordinary. Um, and I think that it says a lot about the man and also about the issues that he brought to the forefront in terms of the integrity of his campaign. And I think it, it bodes well for, for our country. These are challenging times, there's no question about it, but I think that he's brought in a very strong group of men and women, people of color. And I think that he's taking advantage of all of the new media with, uh, you know, I'm, I'm glad that I can work my computer, but my kids are on Facebook and they're doing this and they're doing that and even my grandchildren have their own little, you know, baby computer. But that's the way the world is, and when you can communicate instantly with someone thousands of miles away from you, and have a conversation online, that's got to bring people together, it seems to me.

[36:13] Gibbs: Right. And, also, I see coming out of his experience, a new respect for government. I mean, that it's not, quote, “a bad thing,” close quote. And, uh, this whole concept of big government or the government being too large, the government's got to exist for the benefit of the people and need will dictate the size.

[36:42] Williams: Right.

[36:43] Gibbs: But also better respect for, I think it's important, and I think we're, some of that's going to be restored. I think we had some of it with John Kennedy, and then we sort of lost it. And I think it's coming back. But, then also, respect for authority, I think. We lost a great deal of it; now, I think it's coming back. The sense that discipline is important. 

[37:09] Williams: Right.

[38:10] Gibbs: It's got to start when we're young, I mean, we've got to learn self-discipline in order to be able to function effectively.

[37:20] Williams: And I think that gives Americans a real sense of pride that these are people who really care about their neighbors, who care about the people in their communities, and I think that sends a very positive message to our young people. I mean, the students at Amherst, the students here at the cathedral schools, many of them are doing public service, even as they're continuing to go to school. And I think that bodes well for the future. [crosstalk]

[37:47] Gibbs: Well, we sort of require it. [laughs] At the Cathedral it’s required. [crosstalk]

[37:49] Williams: Well, we should be requiring it! Well, I think it's fine to require it because that's really looking out for their best interest in terms of being contributing members of their communities, whether they ultimately are here in the Virgin Islands, or whether they're in Chicago or Evanston. Um, I think that, you know, I saw my parents getting involved in the communities where they were living. And, you know, I thought, well, that was the thing you were supposed to do. So I got involved in several nonprofits, I served on a school board for a number of, of years. And my brother has done that and my children have done that. And I feel very good about that. Because it helps their communities, it helps them build their knowledge base on issues related to education and service. And I think if more young people get engaged in their communities, that bodes well for them and it bodes well for the people they serve.

[38:54] Gibbs: Unless you do get involved and serve your community, you really don't get to know that community, and if you don't know it, you really can't respect it and you'll drift elsewhere.

[38:07] Williams: Right.

[39:08] Gibbs: But also, you know, I, ‘cause I've been fighting this battle of education for almost half a century now, but we've got to have some drastic changes in our approach to education. I'm hoping a lot of this will, you know, be spearheaded by Washington--

[39:30] Williams: Um hmm.

[39:31] Gibbs:  --but I think that the church can play a great part in it. Because what I've noticed is that we are leaving education to the schools. And education has got to start with the family. 

[39:48] Williams: Absolutely. 

[39:49] Gibbs: It's got to start when we are young. And schools can help reinforce, the schools can provide certain technical and academic things, but the process, what our process it's going to be, it's got to begin at home. And in such a way that our kids want to learn. We always wanted to go to school, as much to get away from pops, but--

[40:18] Williams: [laughs]

[40:20] Gibbs: “If you aren't going to school, I have some things you can do,” you know--

[40:22] Williams: Right.

[40:23] Gibbs: --sort of thing. But we enjoyed school and all too many of our youngsters do not enjoy school, I'm sorry to say. It's a burden, they're going because their parents are forcing them, but just innate love of learning, of reading, of participating, of being with their classmates, that's absent in too many cases.

[40:45] Williams: That's true, and I think it has to start in the home, it has to start early. Um, you know, I read to my children, before they even understood the words that, that I was reading, and so, and, and I think that parents who really care about their children and realize that their children can make a difference in their, in their communities as they grow older, realize that education is really a key. And if they build the love of learning early, early on, it will make a huge difference. I mean, when children always have a book, you know, one of the rules in our house was, you always are working on a book. And if you're coming near the end of the book, you've got another book that you're going to, you're going to read. And of course, the internet has also opened up new areas for them to be able to explore an interest in the arts or an interest in geography, whatever it may be. Um, and now that computers are so readily available at relatively reasonable prices, um, cost shouldn't be an issue.

[41:54] Gibbs: Uh, but my problem is how to get those who are not involved in the Cathedral School interested in coming to the Cathedral to learn. And again, it's, they haven't had the push from home. And we've got to find some mechanism that is, the church, so that we can motivate them to at least give it a shot, try it.

[42:28] Williams: Have you brought some children who are not at the cathedral schools into your summer programs, uh, here? 

[42:37] Gibbs: Well, uh, not enough. I mean that it's almost insignificant because it's mostly been remedial in order to pass in September [laughs], to the next highest grade. But what I'm talking about is a very meaningful educational experience. Not just for the summer, but after school closes, you see, since we have the facilities, and we can use them. I would prefer they be used 24 hours a day. I know that's not possible, but at least, let's use them for 10 or 12 hours a day in an effort to rescue some of these youngsters.

[43:22] Williams: Because a lot of them are actually quite smart. I mean, they get into trouble because they're so smart, can figure something out.

[43:28] Gibbs: That’s why they get in trouble.

[43:29] Williams: Right, exactly. But if you could channel that into learning experiences, it's certain, certainly would make a difference. And there are scholarships available for students who need them, um, at most of your private and public universities these days. 

[43:52] Gibbs: Right.

[43:53] Williams: So, cost of education should not be a debilitating aspect of a child's being able to move forward.

[44:02] Gibbs: And this is where I hope, you know, a school like Amherst could pioneer, and a year of service in the inner city before going to graduate school.

[44:17] Williams: There is a good bit of that--

[44:18] Gibbs: Right at home, you see. we don't have to go to Africa--

[44:20] Williams: Right, right.

[44:21] Gibbs: --you see, to do some rescuing, but we can do it right in the United States.

[44:26] Williams: And there are some very good programs in, in major cities, um, and even in some smaller communities, where youngsters who are, have the ability to be good communicators, who can teach children who are in the fourth or fifth grade, the basics of using a computer and how you can use a computer from an academic standpoint. And I think that, as you say, it's, it's encouraging students to get engaged with their communities, and to use talents that they have, that they're not even using at the, at the, at a particular point in time.

[45:11] Gibbs: Unless it's athletics, you see [laughs], we have this kind of program going on with, with our athletes and our would-be athletes. You see, unless you are an exceptional sports figure, you, you may have five or 10 years--

[45:25] Williams: Right.

[45:26] Gibbs: --and what are you gonna do after that, you see. And also the incidence of broken legs and broken arms and you know, careers cut short, then what do you do, you see, if you don't have an education,you see, behind you? A Dr. J can, okay, he can go to school after he's finished, he's accumulated, you know, but most of our youngsters aren't going to reach that plateau.

[45:53] Williams: Right.

[45:54] Gibbs: And it's difficult to help them understand that the funnel is very, very small at the end, a great number of athletes up here--

[46:04] Williams: Right.

[46:05] Gibbs: --but those who really are going to make their living that way, it's a very small number. And then what do you do?

[46:12] Williams: Exactly. But you know, you have someone like a Tim Duncan who comes back every summer to St. Croix and comes over to St. Thomas. He is idolized by many of the young people, but he stresses education and the importance of being committed to academic learning--even if you think you're the best basketball player that ever existed, that you won't be able to care for yourself and be a positive role model in the community if you don't get engaged. And I think that's a very important message to send and it's certainly one that Amherst I think for years, for hundreds of years has really imbued in their students, service to their community and giving back. And I look at the young people coming out of school in the last 12 years and, um, they've done some extraordinary things. Um, and you know, whether it's going down into the, the Deep South, which is still very Southern, or it's going to Indonesia, or it's going behind the former Iron Curtain, young people really want to give back and want to help. And I think to the extent that we can take advantage of that, it's good for the school, it's good for the community. Um, I worry about the heightened level of violence in the Virgin Islands these days. It was never like that when I was here during the summers when I was in elementary school and in high school, but things have changed. 

[47:52] Gibbs: Oh, yes.

[47:53] Williams: And unfortunately not for the better.

[47:56] Gibbs: There was discipline. 

[47:57] Williams: Right. 

[47:57] Gibbs: Well, it was the whole community disciplining--

[47:59] Williams: Right.

[47:59] Gibbs: --any one child.

[48:00] Williams: Exactly. It wasn't your mother, if the next door neighbor saw you doing something before you got home, your mother or your father, your caretaker had been told. [crosstalk]

[48:09] Gibbs: Right, right. But we took responsibility for--

[48:11] Williams: Right, right. 

[48:13] Gibbs: --eachother. [crosstalk]

[48:13] Williams: We got someone out of that, whatever the situation was, but you don't see that happening today.

[48:20] Gibbs: Well, you know, growth and individual rights and without a commensurate emphasis on responsibilities, then you can't separate them.

[48:34] Williams: Right.

[48:35] Gibbs: Or you do at your peril. But, um, somehow we've got to reintegrate because we no longer have the yards, you see. With success, financial success, people built their homes, they went to the countryside. We had built in babysitters, we had built in older people to help with homework when people live in close--

[49:00] Williams: Right. In communities.

[49:01] Gibbs: --in the close yard community. And so we've got to find a substitute for that, especially with more parents, both parents working, you see. After school, learning after school, homework, let's use some of these rooms for that. But even that won't, you know, solve our problem completely here in the Virgin Islands because we have to have a new understanding of what the community is. And at this point, our community is fractured. Now we like to say, “well, it's because of the aliens, people who have come in here.” But I see a lot of this coming from people who were born right here--

[49:51] Williams: Right here.

[49:51] Gibbs: --‘cause I baptized them. And they've strayed. I won't blame it on my baptism, but--

[49:58] Williams: [laughs]

[49:59] Gibbs: The pressure, peer pressure, you know, it's something we've never seriously dealt with here in the Islands.

[50:08] Williams: Do you think the legislature will take an active role in trying to address this?

[50:15] Gibbs: No, that would be doing the right thing for the right reason and the legislature doesn't work that way, I’m afraid. [both laugh] But we got to get a handle on it somehow. Because, you see, one third of our budget goes into the Department of Education. And this is where our great failure is.

[50:32] Williams: Um hmm.

[50:33] Gibbs: You know, we like to say, well, we have, you know, we built new schools, we’re paying our teachers more, but-- 

[50:42] My teachers don't like it, but I've substituted “you get here two weeks early, and we do all of our workshops before you start school so that you will know what to do while you're teaching school.” But to keep interrupting the school year, you see with these days off and this business of interrupting the school day and go to the radio and tell parents to come and get their youngsters, you see, not all parents can do that. But also, what's the message to the child?

[51:16] Williams: No, I think, I think education is, it's, it's a very challenging issue, but it's, it's, it is the issue that will make a difference in the community. 

[51:24] Gibbs: Right.

[51:25] Williams: And if you get the, the parents, and they don't have to be wealthy parents, I mean, if, if it's a parent who really cares about the child, who recognizes that education is really the key to their ability to go on to higher education and to graduate work and be productive members of their community, I think most parents want that for their children.

[51:49] Gibbs: Or even to go on to what we, what we call vocational education. We consider it second class, but it really isn't, because we need, we’ll always need, plumbers and electricians and masons, and you name it. There's a whole gamut out there where we are failing our youngsters-- [crosstalk]

[52:11] Williams: The skills, yeah.

[52:11] Gibbs: The skills, you see, we need those skills. We're bringing in new factories. We need skilled workers, but you can't be a skilled worker if you can't read. You can't be an electrician if you can't compute. You can't be a plumber unless you know one quarter of an inch, to thread within one quarter of an inch, you know, all kinds of things which require basic academic preparation. I don't care if you're going to go into a skill or you're going to go to law school or medical school. The only place you can probably skate is if you go to seminary, but, uh-- [both laugh]

[52:48] Williams: I don't think you can skate there these days, though. 

[52:52] And I think to the extent that the schools demonstrate that they really do have the children's best interest at heart and say to the parents, “if you want your child in this school, we need for you to be engaged with the schools as, as well. We think we educate your children very well, but there, there are going to be situations where we need you as a parent to get involved.” You know, you should look at homework, you should say, “well, are there any assignments that are outstanding? You don't have any homework in this class?” Unless you as a parent ask those questions, they're not going to volunteer that information to you. But it's part of your responsibility as a parent, you want your child to be successful. You want your child to go on and do advanced education. It's not gonna happen unless you're engaged.

[53:49] Gibbs: We'll always have a few--

[53:50] Williams: Right.

[53:50] Gibbs: --you know, parents involved or not, they're going to do well. But that's not the group I worry about. I worry about that second tier.

[53:57] Williams: Right. Where the parents aren’t involved.

[53:59] Gibbs: Those who could do well, if parents were involved, those who will not do well, if parents are not involved.

[54:06] Williams: Right. No, I think that's, I think that's absolutely right. And I think that if the parents get engaged to really raise up the level of performance of kids throughout high school, and helping them to get on to exercise college potential, that it's there. I mean, there's still a certain degree of panache about the Virgin Islands. And, you know, I saw it whenever the child was applying to Amherst, that, you know, if someone that I knew or knew the family, I'd always get a phone call or a letter, you know, “can you write a letter of recommendation for our child?” I said, “well, I'll have to meet the child and talk to them and see what their aspirations are.” And I can remember couple people who said “well, can't you just write a letter?” I said, “no, I'm not gonna write a letter, I value my name, I don't want my name, just simply used, I want to help a student if that student really wants to, to take advantage of what an Amherst education offers.”

[55:14] Gibbs: And is prepared.

[55:15] Williams: And is prepared to work hard. Because the thing is, if they're not prepared, you know, I'm not going to say, “take this child” or, you know, “look at this child more closely.” Because at the end of the day, I'm not helping that child. And I think that, you know, from my perspective, an Amherst education is something that is really incredibly valuable. And I want a child to take full advantage of that.

[55:43] Gibbs: Too many of our youngsters, you see, are dropping out the first and second year at the University of the Virgin Islands.

[55:48] Williams: Um hmm.

[55:49] Gibbs: The assumption being that if you have graduated from one of our high schools, you can go to the Virgin, the University of the Virgin Islands. Well, yes, you can enter, but it doesn't guarantee you will stay or graduate. And, uh--

[56:06] Williams: That's, that's very true. And we get a lot of children, students who come up from some of the other islands who don't even have the level of preparation the kids coming from Charlotte Amalie or coming from the cathedral schools have going into the classroom. I've only briefly met the new president of the University, but he seems to be very committed to a high quality of education and holding his staff and faculty accountable, as well as the students. And I'm hopeful that this is turning the corner, but we’ll, we'll have to see. Would you go back to Amherst again today?

[56:50] Gibbs: Oh, yes. I don't think I would be well prepared to enter Amherst today. [both laugh]

[56:56] Williams: You’re too modest.

[56:57] Gibbs: It was easy. I mean, what's required by the colleges and universities you see now, I would have to do some speedy catching up.

[57:11] Williams: [laughs] Well, thank you very much. This has really been, for me it's been a joy. I think that Amherst is very fortunate to count you as one of its graduates. Thank you. 

[Video closes with a montage of scenes from All Saints Anglican Church (St. Thomas Island) and All Saints School (Preschool through 12th Grade) followed by images of newsclippings from the late 1940s in Chicago Sun-Times and other publications about Gibbs and the Phi Kappa Psi/Phi Alpha Psi chapter at Amherst College.]


Thomas Gibbs, class of 1951, made national headlines when the AC chapter of Phi Kappa Psi planned to initiate him; he would have been the first African-American in the national fraternity. After the Amherst chapter refused to bow to pressure from national fraternity leaders and depledge Gibbs, Phi Kappa Psi revoked Amherst's charter and the local chapter became an independent fraternity, Phi Alpha Psi. Gibbs went on to study theology and served in positions of increasing responsibility in the Episcopal Church, becoming dean of Cathedral Church on All Saints on St. Thomas, Virgin Islands, from 1966 until his retirement.

Karen Hastie Williams is a graduate of Bates College and the Catholic University School of Law. She was a law clerk to Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall and Judge Spottswood W. Robinson II of the U.S. Court of Appeals for D.C. She also served as chief counsel to the U.S. Senate Committee on the Budget and as administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy in the Office of Management and Budget. She is currently a retired partner in the law firm of Crowell & Moring LP where she specializes in seeking compensation for victims of terrorism.

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