Monday, September 25, 2017

"Coloured Barbers" Excluded From Apprentice Prohibition

I've been reading through Drift Toward Dissolution: The Virginia Slavery Debate of 1831-1832, by Alison Goodyear Freehling. This book focuses on the legislative discussions that occurred among the Virginia delegates in the wake of Nat Turner's rebellion. Proposals were issued for different ideas and arguments on gradually phasing out slavery, compensating owners, and colonizing (some for voluntary and some for non-voluntary) free people of color out of the state and nation. A rather strong divide between those in western Virginia and those in the tidewater was clear on the issue of potential gradual emancipation. The westerners were mainly for, and the easterners largely against developing a plan for ending slavery in the Old Dominion.  

One result of all the debate was Bill 18, which was "a bill to amend 'an act reducing into one, several acts concerning slaves, free negroes, and mulattoes,' and for other purposes." In Bill 18 are a number of itemized regulations which sought to further limit African Americans' already highly controlled lives. Just a few examples are:

"No slave, free negro, or mulatto, whether he shall have been ordained, or licensed, or otherwise, shall hereafter undertake to preach, exhort, or conduct, or hold any assembly, or meeting for religious purposes, either in the day time, or at night . . . ."


"No free negro or mulatto, shall hereafter be capable of purchasing, or otherwise acquiring title to any real estate of any description, in fee, for life, or for a term longer than _______ year."


"No free negro or mulatto, shall be suffered to keep or carry any firelock [firearm] of any time, any military weapon, or any powder or lead; and any free negro or mulatto, who shall so offend, shall, on conviction before a justice of peace, forfeit all such arms and ammunition, to the use of the informer, and shall, moreover, be punished with stripes, at the discretion of the justice, not exceeding thirty-nine lashes."

But, the one that caught my eye was, "no such free negro, or mulatto tradesman, or mechanic, shall, under any circumstances, be hereafter allowed to take apprentices, or to teach their trade, or art, to any other person, except that coloured barbers may take apprentices."  

It is interesting that out of all the occupations that free people of color held, barbers were the only ones excepted from an apprentice ban. This work was of the type that required teaching it to someone before that person gained proficiency, but so did blacksmithing or brick masonry. However, barbering was viewed at that time, and particularly in the slave states, as unsuitable for whites. Although skilled work, it was a servant-type job. Blacksmithing or brick masonry were acceptable for white workers, but not barbering. Thus, it was excluded from apprentice prohibition.

As has been discussed here on many occasion, many black barbers made the most of their slim situation. They turned shaving faces and cutting hair into personal property and real estate assets, and often respected social positions within the black community, before, during, and after the Civil War.      

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