Monday, March 30, 2015

John Singer - Covington Black Barber

Last week I was happy to be contacted by a good friend and colleague who is currently working on the Kentucky Civil War Governors Papers project. While doing transcriptions he came across a document that he knew would intrigue me.

The letter was written to Gov. Beriah Magoffin, and although it was undated, it had to have been written between the governor's election in 1859 and resignation in 1862. The missive was written by Samuel H. Cambron, a Covington, Kentucky, attorney, and was likely a customer of the subject of the letter, one John Singer, free man of color and noted barber.

I had come across Singer's name some time back in my research through the 1850 and 1860 censuses. In addition, I also had located an advertisement (above) that he ran for a time in the mid-1840s in the Licking Valley Register. Other than one of Singer's sons, Charles, he was the only black barber in Covington listed in those censuses. However, he competed for business with several immigrant barbers, mainly German, but also Irish and Italian. Singer though must have built up quite a large clientele, as he is listed as owning $4000 in real estate in 1860.

Singer had moved to Covington from western Virginia in 1836. Although it is not certain, he may have come from another river town like Wheeling. In an article that ran in the Covington Daily Commonwealth in the 1870s, he explained that his settlement as a free black man in Covington was first met with resistance, but he soon gained acceptance through his pleasant disposition and quality work.

In fact, Singer became such as asset to the community that he garnered enough support to get a legislative act passed that allowed him to stay in the state (see below) being that he was a free black man.  

But back the the letter "To his Excellency" Governor Magoffin. In it the attorney Cambron explained that Singer and his wife Ann, and daughter, Rachel, and son, Charles, had been indicted for crossing the Ohio River, probably to Cincinnati, and then returning to Covington. Of course, the fear at this time in this activity would be that Singer might help runaways to freedom if allowed to do such. 

However, Cambron explained to the governor that "John Singer & his family have [been] in the community for a long series of years say since 1836, [and] supported a good character. [He is] Industrious honest prudent and Saving. [He] Has made some money by his business (Barber) and so far as I know without reproach or suspicion of any citizen." Quite the endorsement.

Cambron went on to explain that Singer had come to Covington from Virginia in 1836 and that the state legislature had made an act authorizing the barber to live in Kentucky as a free man of color, and also that Singer had been accustomed to traveling across the Ohio River regularly before a recent law was passed disallowing free blacks to do so. Cambron claimed that "the violations which have occurred were not the result of design but of Mistake as the Extent of the rights conferred by the act for his benefit referred to above." Cambron requested that if the governor found it within his ability he "should deem it proper to pardon him and his wife and two children," and that if done "would meet with the approval of most citizens of this city who know the facts and know Singer & his said family."

Singer continued to work as a barber and apparently a number of this other sons also entered the trade. Free man of color John Singer died on December 6, 1886, and was buried in Highland Cemetery. His wife Ann followed in him death in 1893.


  1. John Singer's oldest son Charles joined the 107th USCT. By the time he mustered out, he was a sergeant major. After his service, Charles resided in Cincinnati, OH, where he worked as a musician, playing violin with a local band and teaching music in the area. While serving with the 107th, Charles wrote to the Christian Recorder about fighting for freedom for the enslaved and fighting to ensure that the freedman would not be re-enslaved. His letter can be found in Edwin Redkey's A Grand Army of Men. Charles died in 1915 as is buried at the Dayton Memorial Cemetery.

  2. Thanks for sharing this information!