I felt very fortunate to find the Samuel A. Oldham Papers at the University of Kentucky's special collections. And although the collection only contains 26 items, to have any insight into aspects of the life of a free man of color barber here in Kentucky is quite amazing.
One of the most fascinating items in the collection was an 1851 apprentice agreement (above) between Oldham and a father, who bound out his son, Henry Mitchell, to Oldham for 10 years to learn the barbering trade. Here is a transcription of the document:
I have bound my Son Henry Mitchell to Samuel Oldham till he is 21 Years old.
He is now 11 Years old on the 1st day of August 1851. To learn the trade of a Barber which said Oldham is to teach him & to have him as well Schooled as the nature of the case & condition of the Free blacks here will admit, and at the end of the time if Said boy behaves well and Serves faithfully is to give him a new Suit of Sunday clothes & ten pounds in money witness our hands and seals this 15th January 1851
Sam'l A. Oldham – Seal
Leaner Lervgin – Seal
His X mark
It seems quite logical why a free parent of color would want their child to apprentice with a barber. It was obvious to all that free black barbers were some of the most financially and socially successful members of the antebellum African American community. Enslaved and free blacks often sought out barbers for personal favors such as loans and serving as power of attorney.
These apprenticeships were likely a win-win situation for all involved; except perhaps those young men who did not particularly want to pursue the profession. The parents were able to place their child with a dependable individual who provided the young man with the skills, knowledge, and experience needed to make their own way in life at a time when professions were limited for African Americans. The barber received a long-term employee and revenue generator, to whom apparently he did not have to pay wages.
In the 1850 and 1860 Kentucky census records I have located a number of young men that were listed as apprentices. Other young barbers were listed in the households of established barbers, but were more than likely apprentices. For example, Samuel A. Oldham's household, in 1850, included his son Samuel C. Oldham, 22 years old, Henry Taylor, 19 years old, and Peter Mallery, 16 years old.
One Lexington barber, G.W. Tucker, even included a "help wanted" addendum to his 1836 newspaper advertisement (above), which sought two young apprentices to work in his shop.
Apprentice opportunities with barbers provided a unique chance for young free men of color - and likely some slaves, too - to take some preliminary steps toward a measure of economic independence.