The Book Tavern was bustling with academics, students and armchair historians on Saturday evening, at one of the downtown bookseller’s first events since its move to its current location in March.
“I have an overactive imagination,” said John W.I. Lee, Associate Professor of History at the University of California, Santa Barbara. “But I’m walking down from the Hyatt House towards here, and I see 21-year-old John Wesley Gilbert on the corner waiting for Paine Institute to open, and those rented rooms on Broad Street.”
Book Tavern owner David Hutchison invited Lee to speak on his book “The First Black Archaeologist: A Life of John Wesley Gilbert,” which was published January.
Born in Hephzibah in 1863, Gilbert was an educator, Methodist minister and missionary, the first graduate from, and the first African American faculty member at what is now Paine College. The Gilbert-Lambuth Memorial Chapel on Paine’s campus is named for him, alongside Methodist Episcopal Church bishop Walter Russell Lambuth, with whom Gilbert sojourned on a mission trip to the Congo.
And, as the title of Lee’s book indicates, Gilbert was also a pioneer in the science of archaeology. Besides the Congo, the polylingual scholar (he was fluent in Greek, Hebrew, Latin, French and German) also studied in Greece, conducting archaeological excavations and producing the first map of ancient Eritrea.
“Archeology was really in its infancy,” said Lee. “People still thought it was treasure hunting and digging up pretty stuff, not looking for scientific, accurate evidence about the past. And Gilbert is really at the forefront of that development.”
The speaking event had an audience, by Hutchison’s estimation, of about 15 or 20 people that included, among others, Corey Rogers, historian at the Lucy Craft Laney Museum of Black History; Darryl Nettles and Joyce Law, both on the board of directors the Georgia African American Historic Preservation Network.
At the end of the talk, before Lee sat down to sign books, Law presented him with a letter of appreciation for the book and the research that led to it.
“By pushing the achievements of Professor Gilbert to the limelight, you have also brought his mentors, peers, family and neighbors into the limelight,” said Law. “Your work undeniably advances African American historic preservation in many facets.”
Lee’s appearance is The Book Tavern’s third author event since opening at its new building. The first featured Karen White for a reading and signing of her novel “The Shop on Royal Street.” The second, during Masters Week, had “White Fang and Golden Bear” author Joe Wessel.
“There are a lot of different ways that you can benchmark the success of an event,” said Hutchison. “Of course, book sales is one, then level of attendees. Then there’s another: level of engagement. This one really hit on all three points.”
Lee says the impetus for conducting the research and ultimately writing a book about Gilbert was realizing he had followed the footsteps of the Augustan scholar in his own studies in Greece, and that he simply “wanted to know more” as his learned about Gilbert and Augusta. He is quick to note that his monograph is far from the last word on John Wesley Gilbert.
“This is a book that comes out of this community,” Lee said. “It comes out of researchers and archivists and librarians all around the world, and I hope that it brings attention both to Augusta as a place and all the fascinating things it has to offer in its complex, complex history.”
“The First Black Archaeologist” is available at The Book Tavern, which is located at 978 Broad Street.