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Listen: ‘How Do You Take a Job and Then Recuse Yourself?’

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By Darcy Eveleigh

As the picture editor and photo researcher for this series, I spent dozens of hours in the photo archives of The New York Times. The morgue, as we call it, is a vast subbasement stuffed to capacity with old photographs, newspaper clippings, books and artifacts related to the publication of The Times. Estimates put the number of pictures covering an array of subjects over a 100-year span at about 10 million.

I have spent many years exploring the collection, but no matter how focused I am in the beginning of a project, I inevitably get sidetracked. I can’t help but spot photographic trends and similarities. This time was no exception.

During a period that began during World War II and lasted through the end of the 1950s, photographers for The Times consistently took photographs of couples in the back seats of cars. The trend abruptly disappeared from our picture collection around 1960. From that point through the 1980s, most of the photographs I discovered were the classic studio bridal portrait, a style common in the early 20th century.

Was it a preference of newspaper editors and designers to change the photography style? Was it that the automobile was no longer considered a luxury? Was it that brides and grooms considered it a style from their parents’ generation? Or was it that religious institutions had begun to permit photography during ceremonies, giving couples more options?

Some styles and trends should, admittedly, fade away. This one, however, may be worth reviving.

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“We were always the first this or the first that,” Jewelle Taylor Gibbs said as she looked back on her 60-year marriage to James Lowell Gibbs Jr.

They met in 1954 when he was a graduate student in anthropology at Harvard and the university’s first African-American resident tutor. She was a senior at Radcliffe and the only black student in her class.

Both recall that their courtship involved many long conversations over coffee. He was a quiet intellectual while she was an outspoken, vivacious one who could be fierce when debating issues like civil rights and minority hiring.

She also loved parties and fashion.

“She was quite well dressed, and she wore her clothes well,” Mr. Gibbs, now 85, said. “I remember particularly a red velvet halter dress.” He could not remember, however, how or when he proposed to her. Nevertheless, an announcement of their engagement appeared in The New York Times on June 3, 1956.

They were married on Aug. 25, 1956, and became one of the earliest African-American couples to appear in the wedding announcements as we know them today.

“Our families were pleased and proud that the announcements were included on the social pages,” Ms. Gibbs, now 83, said in an email. “But we were also keenly aware that this editorial decision was symbolic and reflected the changing racial attitudes in American society.”

Just months after the wedding, the couple moved to a Liberian village where Mr. Gibbs began an anthropological study of village life. The couple lived in a mud hut with rats running over the roof.

“It was not easy,“ Ms. Gibbs recalled. "We didn’t have electricity or plumbing or television. There were adventures every single day. We became very good friends, which I think is the basis for a good marriage.”

There were more firsts to come for the couple. In 1966, they moved to Palo Alto, Calif., so Mr. Gibbs could take a job as an anthropology professor at Stanford. He eventually became the first tenured African-American professor there.

“This ‘first black’ designation was a mixed blessing,” Ms. Gibbs wrote in her 2014 autobiography, “ Fine Jewelry 14K Gold over Silver Genuine Amethyst Genuine Pink Quartz amp; LabCreated White Sapphire Pendant Necklace ZivzN2ng2K
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When their two sons, Geoffrey and Lowell, were 4 and 6, she began pursuing a master’s degree in social work at the University of California, Berkeley, and went on to earn a Ph.D. in psychology, and eventually joined the Berkeley faculty.

In 1970, Mr. Gibbs became the first dean of undergraduate studies at Stanford. There was a growing number of black students on campus and a pervasive sense that racism was waning.

“My husband and I were much more optimistic in the ’60s than we are today,” Ms. Gibbs said. “We saw change happening rapidly and it was good change. Then, all of a sudden, we hit this wall.”

In 2010, they moved to a retirement community in Oakland.

Death does not seem to scare either of them. They have chosen side-by-side cemetery plots, and Ms. Gibbs, who still enjoys dressing up for parties, has begun giving her clothes away. “It’s part of the last stage of life,” she said. “I hope I’m going somewhere where I don’t need a lot of winter clothes.”

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Read “Miss Jewelle Althea Taylor Affianced To James Lowell Gibbs Jr. of Harvard” (June 3, 1956)
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