Monday, April 21, 2014

Frederick Douglass and Black Barbers

I found the short article pictured above in the January 29, 1855, edition of the Louisville Daily Democrat. Extremely brief articles of this type were quite common in mid-nineteenth century newspapers. They usually provided little in the way of significant news, were used to fill column space not occupied by advertisements or other real stories, and often attempted humor.

I am not sure whether this particular article has a truthful origin. Was the mixed-race Frederick Douglass refused service by a mixed-race barber in Biddeford, Maine? Honestly, it might be difficult or impossible to corroborate this story. I can confirm that the town of Biddeford, Maine, does exist, so at least that part was not made up. And, I would not be surprised to find that the rest of this incident did in fact occur. If it did, it provided perfect fodder for those wanting to denigrate Douglass, particularly those of the Democratic Party. Of course, Douglass made a career speaking out against slavery and attempting to bring equal rights to African Americans. What better way for his enemies to show Douglass in a bad light than to promote a story where he was not offered service by a "belubbed brudder" [beloved brother] black barber. Naturally, if the incident did occur, Douglass would have been disgusted with not being served. Douglass never felt below any man - white or black. 

Interestingly, Douglass used his various publications to voice his thoughts on blacks in the barber profession. Douglass viewed barbering as a menial service occupation that reinforced both white and African American perceptions of blacks as being subservient, docile, and unmanly. In addition, Douglass believed that black barbers imitated their white patrons, and instead of helping their fellow African Americans, used their spare time for non-beneficial pursuits and their earnings for conspicuous consumption. Douglass once wrote in his newspaper, "To shave a half dozen faces in the morning, and to sleep or play the guitar in the afternoon - all this may be easy; but is it noble, is it manly, and does it improve and elevate us." Douglass also advised black parents to guide their sons away from service jobs such as waiters, porters and barbers. He saw that the barbers' time waiting on their next customer as that of being wasted and unproductive. 

At least one black barber responded to Douglass' harsh treatment of his chosen profession. Uriah Boston, a black barber in Poughkeepsie, New York, claimed that he toiled in a respectable occupation that provided many black men with the opportunity to own their own business and thus elevate themselves and offer wages to their black barber employees.  

Perhaps Douglass was speaking primarily of those black barbers he was familiar with in the free states where he lived, who though restricted in many ways, were still not as curbed as those that operated in the slave states. Douglass may not have fully appreciated the fact that free black barbers in the slave states used their occupation to gain a measure of independence that few other jobs there could offer or were even available. In addition, Douglass was likely unaware that free black barbers in the slave states sometimes owned their own business, accumulated both real and personal property, and in some instances - like Washington Spradling in Louisville - used their knowledge and earnings gained through servicing white patrons to assist slaves in making their escape or purchasing freedom. 

Douglass image courtesy of the Library of Congress.   


  1. This is the first time I've ever heard of a black barber in Maine. My French-Canadian ancestors lived in Biddeford, one of them making, by hand, the brick that went into the largest textile mill in the city. Growing up, and teaching for 39 years, in what is now the whitest state in the Union, I encountered very few blacks, and only one in my classroom. So for a black barber to be located in Biddeford in the 1850s, I'd wonder (1) how he got there; and (2) how many other blacks were in the city at the time...

  2. Mike, Those are good questions. I did a quick name search in the 1850 census and 1860 census for an African American Buckner in Biddeford, and stuck out. I didn't have time to search the whole census for York County, but I, too, would be interested to find out where this barber was born (and the census should provide that information).

  3. Sorry, I meant Bunker, not Buckner.

  4. Oh yeah this happened. Frederick Douglass wrote a response to this incident in the January 22nd 1855 edition of the Bangor Daily Whig & Courier: "I should have left Biddeford feeling unbroken satisfaction in view of this treatment, but for the bad luck and long beard which took me to the shop of Barber Bunker. This Barber, but a few shades lighter than myself, refused to allow me to be shaved at his shop. Men of color have formerly served the public as barbers, but foreigners are rapidly displacing them...." and it continues.

    1. Definitely happened. Many references to this. And there were in fact several Black people in the Biddeford Saco area at that time. It was no uncommon for there to be Black barbers around. We have records of an Osborne family in Saco for many years who ran a barber shop. Also there was a Black owned laundry and other people. Some were enslaved and then freed and some came after the war.