Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Paducah Free Black Barber Helped Runaway Slave

I had hoped that I might find some mention of Kentucky free black barbers in some of the numerous slave narratives that were published before the Civil War. Fortunately, the search for such a source did not take long. While keyword searching in Google Books I found a mention in Slave Life in Georgia: A Narrative of the Life, Sufferings, and Escape of John Brown, a Fugitive Slave, which was published in England in 1855. Brown, pictured above, and also known by his slave name "Fed," absconded from his Georgia home, and in attempt to reach freedom in England, made his way North and eventually ended up on one of his adventures in Paducah, Kentucky. Here is is experience there:

"Had it been in broad day instead of quite dark, when I left my raft to be carried away by the current, my appearance in Paducah would certainly have led to my re-capture. I was dirty and miserable-looking from fatigue, traveling, and want of sufficient food, and my clothes were all worn and ragged. I got into town, however, at a hour when few people were about, and it was easier for me to avoid them. After resting to take a breath, I determined to look for a barber's shop. In the United States, the barbers are generally coloured men, and I concluded to I should be in safer hands with one of my own race. So I strolled about, up and down the streets, peeping in at doors and windows, until at length I found what I was seeking. After a moment's hesitation, I knocked gently at the door. It was presently opened by a black man, who no sooner saw me, than he understood by my looks that I wanted assistance. He at once invited me in, and immediately closed and fastened the door.

Having made me take a seat he asked me which way I was going.

'My master's gone down to New Orleans,' I said, 'and I want to join him again.'

I knew he did not believe me, and that he saw I was telling him a lie; but I felt afraid to tell him the truth right out.

'You're a runaway,' he answered, almost directly. 'Where have you come from?'

I did not hesitate now to confess the fact; and as I thought he looked friendly, I told him my story from beginning to end, in as few words as I could, he listening attentively all the while.When I had finished, he said:

'You mustn't stop here: it would be dangerous for both of us. You can sleep here to-night, however, and I will to get you away in the morning. But if you were seen, and it were found out I was helping you off, it would break me up.'

Concluding I was hungry, he gave me some fried fish and some hoe-cake for supper. I need not say I ate heartily. We chatted for an hour or so, and I learnt his name, and that the was a free man from Illinois. I must not repeat his name, but if ever this book reaches him, he will remember me,and I wish him to know that I have always thought of him with gratitude for his kindness to me that night, and for his fidelity to me in my sore trouble. 

He put me to sleep on his sofa, but I could not close my eyes for fear, as well as for a kind of shivering, brought on by my long exposure to cold and wet. If I slept at all, it was only by snatches, so that I felt quite relived when morning came. My benefactor the informed me he had been making inquires, and there was a steamer ready to start to New Orleans, on board of which I must go. She was called the Neptune. I did not desire anything better than to be off, fancying still that if I got safely to New Orleans I should find no difficulty in reaching England. Accordingly I jumped up, and after a hurried breakfast, made the best of my way to the quay, where I soon saw the steamer."

I found it interesting that Brown commented on this barber's awareness of keeping the fugitive from being known due to the repercussions that could be wrought on his business.  As he put it "if you were seen, and it were found out I was helping you off, it would break me up." Free men of color barbers had much to lose by helping fugitives and Brown fully understood this and appreciated his host's risk.

Searching the city directory of Paducah from 1859-60, I located two black barbers listed in the city: W. P. Miller and Jefferson Sanders. Unfortunately, I have been unable to corroborate if either of these men were from Illinois, and thus possibly the barber mentioned by Brown.       

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