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Scholar to present on African American pioneer with Lake Junaluska ties


John W.I. Lee, an associate professor of history at the University of California Santa Barbara, will give a presentation on African American scholar and linguist John Wesley Gilbert at 2 p.m. Thursday, May 2, at Lake Junaluska Conference and Retreat Center.

Lee’s presentation, “An African American Pioneer in Greece: John Wesley Gilbert and the American School of Classical Studies at Athens, 1890-91,” will tell the story of how Gilbert rose from slavery to become the first African American to do archaeological work in Greece during 1890-91 as a member of the American School.

Gilbert, for whom the John Wesley Gilbert Room at Lake Junaluska's Lambuth Inn is named, had strong ties to the lake. He accompanied American Methodist Bishop Walter Russell Lambuth to the Belgian Congo in Central Africa in 1911 to establish mission work. Lambuth Inn is named for the bishop, who was elected as a bishop of the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, in 1910.

Following their mission work in Central Africa, Gilbert and Lambuth were among the 4,000 attendees of the first event ever held at Lake Junaluska – the Second General Missionary Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, which took place on June 25-29, 1913.

Gilbert was born into slavery in Hephzibah, Georgia, in 1863. He was the first graduate of Paine Institute, now Paine College (Augusta, Georgia), the third black graduate of Brown University and the first black scholar to receive an advanced degree from Brown. He was nationally known as an educator, community leader and civil rights activist. He died in Augusta in 1923.

“From his own writings and from the testimony of those who knew him, I would say that Professor Gilbert combined an intense love of learning and teaching with great humaneness, a deep sense of service to others and abiding Christian faith,” said Lee. “He relished the freedom and new experiences that travel abroad gave him, and he was committed to inter-racial cooperation and harmony.”

Lee studies ancient Greek and Persian history, and the development of classical studies and archaeology during the late nineteenth century. He first learned about Gilbert through an article by classical scholar Michele Valerie Ronnick of Wayne State University. It was "the seed that eventually sprouted into the book I am writing about Professor Gilbert’s journey to Greece,” he said.

Lee recently returned from retracing Gilbert's footsteps in Athens, Greece, and will speak at the Lucy Craft Laney Museum of Black History in Augusta on April 30.

"Visiting Lake Junaluska is a natural next step in my quest to tell Professor Gilbert's story," he said. "I am very eager to see it, as I have read much about its history and its connections with the Methodist churches."

The presentation will take place in the Reynolds Conference Center of the Foundation for Evangelism. It is sponsored by the Southeastern Jurisdiction Heritage Center, Lake Junaluska Conference and Retreat Center, The Junaluskans and the World Methodist Museum.

For more information, contact Nancy Watkins, SEJ Heritage Center director, at 828-356-5065 or

Lake Junaluska is a conference and retreat center and residential community that surround a 200-acre mountain lake in Western North Carolina. Lake Junaluska’s mission is to be a place of Christian hospitality where lives are transformed through renewal of soul, mind and body. For more information, visit


Mary Bates
Lake Junaluska
PO Box 67, Lake Junaluska, NC 28745