African American Centenarian Voter in 1891

Clipping from Dorsey’s Colored Centenarians scrapbook, no source given.

A Centenarian at the Polls.

A November 5, 1891 clipping in William Henry Dorsey’s scrapbook reports that John Gibson, a resident of the Philadelphia’s Home for Aged and Infirm Colored Persons, age 113 years, voted that week. “Mr. Gibson, who is known by the residents of the Home as “Father” Gibson, was taken to the poll in a carriage, and had to be lifted out to vote.”

William Henry Dorsey, the son of an escaped slave, was one of the most prolific scrapbook makers in the United States. He was born in 1837 in Philadelphia, where he made about 400 scrapbooks during the 1860s through about 1903, mostly about Black life and history, divided by subjects. In one small scrapbook, titled “Colored Centenarians,” he collected items beginning in the mid-1860s, about Black people who were over a hundred years old. John Gibson’s was the only achievement Dorsey commented on in the handwritten index he compiled for this scrapbook. Next to John Gibson’s name is the note “voter age 113.” He thought of it as an honor worth commemorating.

Index to Dorsey’s Colored Centenarians’ scrapbook hails John Gibson as a voter.

John Gibson appears in another article in the scrapbook, “Happily Over the Century Mark,” one of a set of patronizing interviews with elderly African Americans in the Home. There we learn that he was born free, though virtually enslaved as a child. He came from Maryland to Philadelphia in the early 1850s. Neither article mentions that the Pennsylvania Constitution had been amended in 1848, to say only white freemen could vote, so he would have been barred from voting until 1870, when the 15th Amendment to the US Constitution declared that the right to vote should not be denied based on race, color, or previous condition of servitude.


William H. Dorsey, custodian of documents, American Negro Historical Society


“Happily Over the Century Mark” gives John Gibson’s age as 119. If his age seemed flexible, longevity gave the weight of seriousness to Gibson’s dedication to voting and marked the importance of Black full citizenship.

Do you have more to tell about John Gibson? Please chime in!

(“Colored Centenarians” is Scrapbook No. 45 in Cheney University’s Dorsey Scrapbook Collection.)

(The intrepid researcher Reginald Pitts responded to my asking if anyone had more to tell about John Gibson by really digging in. He writes: “A  little more info, if you will–this clipping would have appeared in the Philadelphia “Public Ledger”, the ancestor of the Philadelphia “Inquirer.” The neighboring Wilmington (Del.) “Delaware Gazette and State Journal” for November 12, 1891, page 6, reprints the article and cites the “Ledger” as its source. And old Father Gibson lived many more years at the “Home for Aged and Infirm Colored Persons” (also known as the “Stephen Smith Home”) at 4400 Belmont avenue (at Girard Avenue), finally being gathered to his ancestors at the ripe old age of 117 on February 18, 1895, according to his death certificate. His occupation was listed as “Gentleman,” which I thought was nice. He was buried at the old Olive Cemetery which was adjacent to the home; about ten years later, when Eden Cemetery was opened in the western suburbs, Father Gibson, along with every else at Olive, was reinterred out there, although his gravestone (if he had ever had one) was lost. Always happy to help!

And Reginald Pitts found him in the census: “in 1880–aged 105 and somewhat feeble, he’s living with his wife Hannah A. (a sprite of fifty-eight) in a home at 2922 Herman (now West Gordon) Street (in the Strawberry Mansion section of North Philly) (1880 Federal Census for the City and County of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Supervisor’s District 111, Enumerator’s District 602, Sheet 493 (Page 25) Lines 44-45).”

What Was it about Philadelphia? African American Scrapbooks at Penn State U – Talk Jan. 30

Penn State University is hoping to help Cheyney University digitize some of the amazing collection of nearly 400 scrapbooks that William Henry Dorsey created from the 1860s to the turn of the century. William Dorsey knew other Philadelphia African American scrapbook makers as well. I’m honored to be heading to University Park, PA next week to speak about the scrapbooks they spent so much time on, and why they made them. And I’ll have a day in the library to revisit the scrapbooks — who knows what else I’ll find! On my wish list: more informatiDorsey scrapbooks at PSUon on Dorsey’s friend Joseph W.H. Cathcart, a Philadelphia janitor who made about 150 huge scrapbooks. And is it possible he knew Amos Webber?   What about Frank Webb?   Learn a bit more about Dorsey from a short article I wrote about his scrapbooks for The Root last year.

Sabra Statham has started a blog on the Dorsey digitization project. 

Of course Roger Lane mined Dorsey’s scrapbooks for his fine comprehensive history of 19th century black Philadelphia, William Dorsey’s Philadelphia and Ours.