Monday, March 24, 2014

Lincoln, Barbers, and Race

In my ongoing search for references to Kentucky's African American antebellum barbers, I came across the short article above. It was printed in the April 14, 1864, edition of the Maysville Dollar Weekly Bulletin. Apparently, it was a reprint from the Richmond [Virginia] Inquirer, and thus must be taken with a grain of salt. 

However, with that being said, it certainly speaks of Lincoln's style. He typically used a humorous story to attempt to get a point across, especially in one-on-one or small group situations.   

Lincoln's use of a barber for his story (if this tale is true) probably came from personal close experience. In 1860, the future president met free man of color William Johnson in Springfield. Not a whole lot is known of Johnson history, but he was apparently skilled with shears and razors, as he came along with the Lincoln's to Washington D.C. as a barber and personal valet. 

It seems that the White House staff did not take kindly Johnson's valet service.  There appears to be evidence that the lighter complexioned staff did not care to associate with the darker Johnson. The situation called for a change, so Lincoln wrote to the Secretary of Treasurer, Salmon P. Chase, to help find Johnson a different position (letter above). On occasion Lincoln continued to employ Johnson for various personal services. The relationship between Lincoln and Johnson is covered quite well in one of stories in the New York Times "Disunion" series printed a couple of years ago. It is certainly worth the read.

Unfortunately, Johnson died an early death. He passed away in 1864 from smallpox, possibly contracted from the president. A headstone in Arlington Cemetery simply reads "William H. Johnson, A Citizen." Whether that is the barber's final resting place is unknown, but it certainly an appropriate epithet for such a man. 

Images courtesy of the Library of Congress.

No comments:

Post a Comment