Theodore Gibson, a legacy of change in Miami’s Black community, Part 6

Nearly 40 years after his death, celebrated civil rights icon Rev. Theodore Gibson remains an influential figure in Miami’s Black history. 

Today, Gibson, who died in 1982, is a resident of the historic Miami City Cemetery. He rests in the cemetery alongside other notable figures, including the founder of the City of Miami, Julia Tuttle and Miami’s first physician resident, Dr. James Jackson.

Gibson’s wife, Thelma Vernell Anderson Gibson, said her husband’s father purchased a burial spot in the cemetery during the construction of the Miami City Cemetery that allowed him to be buried there. 

Thelma is the founder of the Miami-Dade County Women’s Chamber of Commerce and serves as a trustee emerita and member at the University of Miami School of Nursing and Health Studies visiting committee. 

“You have to prove that you have space there,” she said. “My husbands’ father was buried there and he [Gibson] had a deed for that piece of property, so he was buried in his father’s grave, and I will go in that grave when it is my time.”

Theodore R. Gibson, a native Miamian of Bahamian descent, was born in Overtown in 1915 when Jim Crow laws gave the neighborhood the title “Colored Town.” 

After graduating from Booker T. Washington High School, Gibson attended St. Augustine College in 1938, where he earned a bachelor’s degree. 

In 1943 Gibson attended Bishop Payne Divinity School, where he earned a Bachelor of Divinity. 

He was ordained a deacon that same year and was ordained a priest a year later. 

Gibson returned to Florida in 1945 and in 1948, he took on the rector role at Christ Episcopal Church in Miami’s first Black settlement, Coconut Grove. 

Gibson’s role at the church was profound in exposing him to the horrid living conditions of the West Grove during the ’40s.

During his time in the area, Gibson is credited for having led the effort to make significant – and desperately needed – improvements to Blacks’ living standards in the neighborhood. 

His work alongside prominent philanthropist Elizabeth Virrick led to creating the Coconut Grove Citizens Committee for Slum Clearance. 

The committee drafted numerous ordinances demanding running water, septic tanks and flushing toilets for the West Grove community, along with establishing a health clinic and daycare center. 

Paul George, a local historian and history professor at Miami Dade College, said Gibson had a broad approach toward fighting Jim Crow. 

“A lot of the civil rights activities emanated from his church, Christ Episcopal. People literally would walk out of there, march out of there, to wherever they were going to demonstrate,” said George.

In 1954, Gibson was appointed president of the NAACP Miami chapter, a position he would serve until 1964. 

A report by The Black Archives History and Research Foundation of South Florida showed that as chapter president, Gibson’s pursuit for equality extended far beyond Coconut Grove’s boundaries. 

During the late ’50s and early ’60s, Gibson filed lawsuits to desegregate downtown lunch counters and department stores in Miami. 

In 1956, determined to see his son attend an integrated school, Gibson filed a lawsuit with Miami Dade County Public Schools demanding classroom integration. 

In 1959, the courts ruled in Gibson’s favor, officially commencing public schools’ integration in Miami-Dade County. 

That same year Gibson held a swim-in at Crandon Park Beach on Key Biscayne, leading the effort to desegregate county beaches.

In the ’60s, Gibson served as a member of the Richmond Development, Inc., an advisory committee established to council on building the Richmond Heights community of southern Miami Dade County. 

Additionally, Gibson is well known for his refusal to reveal local NAACP members’ names to the “Johns Committee.”

Established in the ’50s, the Florida Legislative Investigation Committee, commonly known as “Johns Committee,” was part of an anti-communist legislative committee. The committee was tasked with investigating alleged subversive activities by civil rights movement groups like the NAACP. 

Gibson’s refusal to the committee’s demand was viewed as contempt of the legislature, and in 1963 he was fined and sentenced to six months in jail. 

Reaction to Gibson’s arrest led to an outcry in Miami. What followed was a slew of persuasive editorials from the Miami Times that fueled energy among local churches to hold rallies in protest of Gibson’s arrest. 

Biographical notes from the University of Miami Library say that in 1963 the U.S Supreme Court ruled in Gibson’s favor and all charges were dismissed. 

In 1972, he was elected a city commissioner, a role he would occupy until 1981. 

At the time of his appointment, Gibson would be the third Black person to serve on the Miami City Commission.

In 1982, at the age of 67, leaving behind a wife and grandson, Rev. Theodore R. Gibson died of cancer at Cedars-Lebanon Hospital. 

The hospital would go to become present-day University of Miami Hospital and Clinic. 

Decades after his death, Gibson’s work and name continue to stand as testaments for local change. 

Jamaal Fairley is the dean of students at Theodore R. and Thelma A. Gibson Charter School, in Gibson’s home neighborhood of Overtown.

Fairley said Gibson is a “staple in the community” and highlighted the connection between “past and present,” along with education as the key to Gibson’s legacy. 

“We get to recognize the greatness of someone who helped with education and knew how important that was, especially in his fights for civil rights,” said Fairley. 

Adding, “for him to go to school here [Overtown] and build the community up, it is good to have his name associated with our school.”

Miami has progressed since Father Gibson’s days as rector of Christ Episcopal Church. 

For Gibson’s grandson, Charles Gibson, he said if his grandfather were alive today, he would have a “mixed bag” reaction to the state of the Black community in Miami today. Increased accessibility within the economy, education, real estate and business has expanded opportunities for the Black community today that were not widely available decades ago.

“From a social point of view, he would be disappointed with those who did not maximize those opportunities,” he said. “But he would be pleased that there are opportunities that are present that people could seize on, that people have seized on, and gone on to do bigger and better things.”

Manny Garcia is a senior majoring in journalism at FIU. He aspires to be a reporter for the White House Press Corps. His interests include global politics, American history, world affairs and travel.