Friday, March 7, 2014

A Negro Shoots at a Barber

I have turned up some interesting incidents while conducting research on black barbers in antebellum and Civil War Kentucky. The above short article ran in the Louisville Daily Courier on May 26, 1859. While it does not mention outright that the barber was an African American it hints at that fact by stating that the shooting incident "scared the barber till he was pale as a white man."

The article mentions that the barber was named Cowan. Wallace Cowan or Cowing was a 33 year old free man of color that was described as mulatto in the 1860 census. At the time of the census Cowan owned $400 worth of personal property and lived in the Fourth Ward.

The barber Cowan's census information is corroborated by the 1860 edition of the Louisville Directory and Business Advertiser. In this publication Cowan is spelled Cowing and is listed as living and working on Jefferson Street between First and Second Streets.

As in this case, it seems that it was not uncommon for free black barbers to rent young male slaves and use them for manual labor at their shops or to teach them the trade as apprentice barbers. Another source that was located charged a fine to a Maysville, Kentucky white barkeeper for selling liquor to an enslaved young man that was being hired by a free black barber and that had a shop next door to the bar. The barber allegedly allowed the youth to be served, and since the slave was under the command of the barber he was given a drink, thus breaking a city ordinance.

Another short notice (shown above) ran in the July 23, 1858, issue of the Daily Louisville Democrat. Unfortunately, the barber here is not named. The only identifier is that the barber's shop was on East Street. The 1860 Louisville Directory and Business Advertiser only provided home addresses for most of the black barbers listed, so we will likely never learn this individual's identity.

Unless employed there, enslaved and free African Americans were not normally allowed in barber shops run by free men of color while white patrons were present. However, these locations were of scenes of gathering after hours and when they were closed. It was incidents like this, and the first, that too often seemed to make their way into the newspapers and that strengthened the prejudices of whites against free blacks. These sensational and controversial incidents always won out over the understanding that the majority of free black barbers provided an important community service and lived productive quite lives.

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