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Catching up With...Joyce Gibbs

By Megan Malugani

It’s probably safe to say that no one is more tickled about the September opening of George W. Gibbs Elementary School (the “W” stands for Washington) in northwest Rochester than Joyce Gibbs, a long-time educator whose late husband is the school’s namesake. Joyce, 75, is currently a substitute teacher in the Rochester Public School District, and looks forward to subbing in the new school named after George, who was the first African American to reach Antarctica (as part of a Navy expedition), a longtime IBM employee, and the co-founder of the local branch of the NAACP.

“It just blew my mind,” Joyce says about the decision to name a school after her husband. A native of Portsmouth, Virginia, Joyce talked to Rochester Magazine about her 45 years in Rochester, raising her two children here, and her teaching career.

Rochester Magazine: What is your occupation?
Joyce Gibbs: I sub in the public schools now, but for a long time I was a pre-school teacher for multi-handicapped kids [at the Development Achievement Center]. I did that for 17 years.

RM: What did you like about the job?
JG: I tell people ‘everybody needs a friend.’ I was captivated by these children. They were so loving and many of them were very, very disabled ... It’s just that I felt I had something to give. Sometimes [college] students would come in and they were turned off by these children, by their disabilities – by the drooling, by changing a 10-year-old. It never bothered me.

RM: You came to Rochester 45 years ago. What was it like?
JG: I say it was like living in a fishbowl. We were a novelty. There were seven African American people out of 37,000. ... My husband went to work every day [at IBM] and I knew things were not easy for him. But I had decided when I lived in Hawaii and had been left out of a CPO Wives’ Club that I either get in there and try to live my life or I suffer in silence. There were many, many incidents in Rochester. But I decided that if I’m sitting here and you’re sitting here, and you’re uncomfortable, then you go. It was hard for the kids [daughter Leilani and son Tony].

RM: Did the kids ever ask to move somewhere more diverse?
JG: The kids knew absolutely nothing else. I had the brunt of giving the kids some confidence and some pride, and letting them know there is nobody that you will ever see that is your superior. I feel like I’ve succeeded. Many of the teachers had not had an experience with having an African-American in their class. I remember Tony’s kindergarten teacher said at a conference, ‘I owe you an apology. When people ask me how many kids I have this year, I say ‘I have 27 and Tony.’ To me, that’s like saying ‘I’ve got four kids and one adopted one.’ The teacher said ‘one day I heard myself say that and then I realized I was separating him.’ I appreciated the teacher for telling me that. You are a product of your early socialization. I don’t care how many degrees you have. Early socialization is what molded most of who you are today. I liked the teacher. I praised her for realizing what she was doing. She’d never had a black kid in her class before.

RM: How were you involved in the community in those early years?
JG: I went to the YWCA and took classes. And I was secretary for the American Red Cross for two and a half or three years. After that, my first real involvement with the community was with the Girl Scouts. I was a Girl Scout leader for six years. ... I had 44 girls. I knew 25 percent of their names right away, because 11 of them were named Debbie. If I said ‘Debbie, Debra, or Deb,’ I knew that 25 percent of the time I was right.

RM: What have been some of the most inspiring advances or pivotal moments in the advancement and acceptance of diversity in Rochester?
JG: George and I both really forged ahead to do things. ... The fact is that it’s been a gradual thing. Many, many people of color have come into Rochester with IBM and the Clinic. Once in a while these people would see someone else of color. Look at the Y, and there George was. Look at the Girl Scouts, and there I was. I taught Sunday school and sang in the choir. Anything we wanted to do, we just did. Except the Elks Club wouldn’t allow George to be in there. They blackballed him [igniting a controversy that made national news].

RM: You and your husband’s legacies are tied together. To what extent were you influencing and supporting your husband behind the scenes?
JG: I wasn’t as vocal but I was a part of everything. I supported whatever it was he was doing. I mainly tried to make sure the kids were comfortable and they were not feeling left out or just feeling like they didn’t belong. ... The Elks thing was the only thing I was upset about because he didn’t tell me he was going to join Elks. He was in everything. The reason I was against it was because women were ‘does.’ I’ve always said ‘do not commit me to whatever you’re doing.’ That meant that they’d expect me to be a doe. ‘Doe Doe’ is what I said.

RM: How does it feel to have a school named after your husband?
JG: The school being named for George negates most all of the negative stuff that we encountered, and we encountered a lot. I just think it really wipes out much of that. ... Kids today do not understand it. I was in a class one time and I got some notes. One note said ‘I’m sorry for what happened to you and your family.’ It was heartwarming to me. School is so diverse now. When my kids were in school it wasn’t.

RM: Do you consider yourself a role model for students?
JG: Kids need to see diversity. A kindergartner came up to me and said ‘Mrs. Gibbs, I never saw a black teacher before.’ I said ‘now tell me something, ‘is it okay?’ He said ‘Oh yeah, it’s cool.’ A couple of kids have quietly said that to me.

RM: What are your expectations for the next generation?
JG: I’m hopeful for this generation that’s coming up. When the kids are together I have not seen problems. Two little second grade boys, one black and one white, came up to my desk one day. ‘Mrs. Gibbs, he called me a name.’ I was so grateful when it was ‘he called me stupid.’ I said ‘Thank you, God. I can handle stupid.’ These are the kinds of things that are progress. ... Racism is alive and well here among us, but lots better than it was. The young generation will be a big change for the better in the community. Diversity is the name of the game with children going to school every day, working and learning together.

RM: What would you most want the students of George W. Gibbs Elementary to know about your husband?
JG: You have to make a contribution. George was a hard worker and I can’t exactly quote him, but he would say something like ‘Always do your job and then a little bit more.’ Always do just a little bit more and it pays off.
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