Sunday, March 9, 2014

Jo Scott Runaway Barber

I have been finding it somewhat difficult to locate primary sources for enslaved barbers. While free black barbers left a fairly clear historical record, slave barbers (like any other enslaved segment) seemingly left little documentation of their day-to-day existence.

White owners sometimes set up shops for their slaves that were skilled in barbering. Other owners hired out and apprenticed their slaves to work for free black barbers. Whatever the situation, the desire of slaves to be free to make their own decisions and to earn profits from their labor prompted some to abscond.

The above advertisement, posted by the jailer of Trimble County, Kentucky, notes the capture of a African American man named Jo Scott, who was from New Orleans. It ran in the Louisville Weekly Journal on August 20, 1856. Included with a physical description of the mixed-race Scott was the notation that he "professed to be a barber," and the fact that he "plays well on the violin." These two potentially valuable skills may have prompted Scott to runaway and seek a better life.

It is certainly speculation, but perhaps Scott traveled by steamboat from New Orleans to his point of capture at Trimble County, which is on the Ohio River across from Madison, Indiana. In my reading I have discovered that a number of both free and enslaved barbers worked aboard steamboats, tending to the shaving and hair cutting of the white passengers. It is quite likely that some of these barbers took the opportunity their travels afforded them (near the free states) to attempt their escape.

In constructing my database of captured runaway slaves in Kentucky during the Civil War, I came across a number of captives claiming to be free and from other river towns such as Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Perhaps some of them, too, served as barbers on steamboats and when they disembarked in river towns such as Louisville, were captured and jailed as runaway slaves. If these free men of color resided in free states they would likely not possess, and thus carry, free papers.

Urban locations such as river towns like Louisville, Paducah, Maysville, and Henderson, Kentucky usually offered networks of free blacks willing to assist the enslaved in makin their way to freedom. But these cities and towns, in a slave state, also brought potential danger to the free men of color traveling there from other locations and without local white alibis.      

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