LOS ANGELES - NOVEMBER 22: ***U.S. TABLOIDS OUT*** Comedian Marla Gibbs accepts the award for Funniest Female Character on stage during Comedy Central's First Ever Awards Show "The Commies" at Sony Pictures Studios in Culver City, California. "The Commies" will air December 7, 2003 at 9pm pst on Comedy Central. (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images) *** Local Caption *** Marla Gibbs
It has been 38 years since Emmy Award-winning actress Marla Gibbs — best known for her role as the wise-cracking maid Florence on “The Jeffersons” — stepped foot in Wendell Phillips High School.
Growing up in what was then known as Bronzeville, Gibbs attended Douglas Elementary School at 32nd and Calumet, and in 1949 graduated from Phillips, where her classmates included future soul artist Sam Cooke.
“I didn’t know any of them at that time, because I was not an outgoing person,” says the TV, movie and stage actress, who will visit the school at 244 E. Pershing this Friday as part of the second annual “Back to School With the HistoryMakers” program.
The initiative of the nonprofit, Chicago-based HistoryMakers organization will send 500 famous African Americans into public schools nationwide, including President Obama senior adviser Valerie Jarrett in Washington, D.C.; Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick in Boston; and poet/author Sonia Sanchez in New York City.
“In high school, I just went to school and came home. I didn’t really partake in any activities, although I did have a couple of good friends at Phillips,” says Gibbs. The 80-year-old still performs in the theater, as well as in the fewer TV and movie character roles that come along.
She entered acting late in life — in her early 40s after working a variety of jobs and raising a family in the Midwest. But Gibbs took TV by storm in the 1970s, as the feisty maid on the groundbreaking sitcom about an affluent African-American couple living in New York. Producer Norman Lear’s spin-off from the popular “All in the Family” aired from 1975-1985 — the longest-running sitcom with a predominantly African-American cast in Hollywood history.
Along with musician Common and other celebrities, politicians and accomplished African Americans converging on Chicago Public Schools, Gibbs will share her positive message about potential and perseverance, encouraging students to strive for success.
The effort was begun last year by the lauded organization founded by Julieanna Richardson, dedicated to preserving and making accessible African-American history. The organization has compiled more than 2,000 in-depth videotaped interviews with both the well-known and the unsung. Available at thehistorymakers.com, it’s billed as the largest archival project of its kind.
“I suspect it will be a little weird going back to Phillips for the first time,” says Gibbs, who after “The Jeffersons” starred in her own sitcom, “227,” from 1985-1990. “The last time I was in Chicago a few years ago, I passed by Phillips, and it looked so much smaller than I imagined in my mind. I remembered it as this huge school and come to find out it wasn’t at all as big as I thought.”
In later years, Gibbs was a sought- after guest star for other sitcoms, such as “The Hughleys” and “The King of Queens”; on prime-time dramas such as “Touched By an Angel” and “ER”; and on the big screen in films such as the “The Visit” (2000) and “The Brothers” (2001).
“I’m not going to just tell the students, ‘Stay in school. Stay out of the street,’ because they know that already,” said Gibbs. “I think I want to impart to them that we have a connection, that we’re all one with God, and that they have this power they don’t know they have. They need to know that if you stay in school, the more you expand your mind, the more access you have to this power already inside you. . . . I want them to know they have a partner, that that partner is God, and if they understand that, they can do anything.”