Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Washington Spradling Interviewed by Samuel G. Howe

I have been able to locate quite a few choice sources so far during my preliminary research into Kentucky's antebellum and Civil War African American barbers.

One man - probably Kentucky's wealthiest free man of color - Washington Spradling, had transitioned his occupation as a barber into the holder of significant amounts of Louisville real estate, and thus became a leader in the city's free black community.

Spadling had used some of his money to purchase his children out of slavery, and along with dispensing legal advice, Spradling loaned money to friends and business associates to help them do the same for their families. In addition, it appears that Spradling also helped fugitives make their way on to freedom via the Underground Railroad.

In 1863, while working with the American Freedmen's Inquiry Commission, Samuel Gridley Howe (pictured above) interviewed Spradling to get his thoughts on slavery and free blacks in Louisville. Howe was the husband of Julia Ward Howe, who had penned the "Battle Hymn of the Republic," and was one of John Brown's "Secret Six" financial supporters for the Harpers Ferry raid in 1859.

In the interview with Howe, Spradling commented:
"I was born a slave. My father bought me, and I bought my own children five in number, paying from $275 to $700 apiece for them. I have bought thirty-three other slaves, a good many of whom have repaid me, a good many have not. There is now $3337.50 due me from slaves that I have purchased.

There is no provision made here for the care of poor and sick colored persons, except in case of small pox. A pony purse [pooled funds] is made up among the colored people to bury the dead who leave no property. Our principle difficulty here grows out of the police laws, which are very stringent. For instance, a police officer may go to a house at night, without any search warrant, and, if the door is not opened when he knocks, force it in, and ransack the house, and the colored man has no redress. At other times, they come and say they are hunting for stolen goods or for runaway slaves, and, some of them being great scoundrels, if they see a piece of goods, which may have been purchased, they will take it and carry it off. If I go out of the state, I cannot come back to it again. The penalty is imprisonment in the penitentiary.

Such cases have been tried very often, but I have heard of but one conviction under the law. It is not a common thing to have such trials here in the city, where the colored people are mixed up, and it is hard to find a person; but here is one case I knew of. The mother of a young man who lives here moved across the [Ohio] river, and, being very sick and about to die, sent for him; but he could not go, and did not attend the funeral. He married here, & his wife preferred remaining here.

Another difficulty is this. If a freeman come here, (perhaps he may have been born free) he cannot  get free papers,and if the police find out he had got no free papers, they snap him up, and put him in jail. Sometimes they remain in jail three, four and five months before the are brought to trial. My children are just tied down here. If they go to Louisiana, there is no chance for them, unless I can get some white [person] to go to New Orleans and swear they belong to him, and claim them as his slaves. As I understand it, a freeman cannot get permission to go to the state and come back. There are many cases of assault and battery which we can have no redress. I have known a case here in which a slave bought himself three times. The last time, he was chained on board boat, to be sent South, when a gentleman who now lives in New York saw him, and bought him, and gave him his free papers.

I have to pay taxes to the amount of sixty dollars a year for schools. There is no colored school in any other part of the state except in this city. Colored children in Lexington, Frankfort, and other places, have to come here, if they go to school at all.

Slave women generally work round in the fields in this state. It frequently happens, that if a slave is lame or really unable to work and take care of himself, his neighbors try to persuade him to go home to his master and let him take care of him; but in such cases they often prefer to purchase themselves. A father or mother, if free, may buy their children or a free husband may buy his wife, or a free wife her husband and they can have their free papers. A brother cannot buy his sister, and giver her free papers."

*Paragraphs added for readability.

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