Wednesday, April 23, 2014

The Underground Railroad & Free Black Barbers

It seems that it was not unusual for free black barbers in Kentucky to assist runaway slaves. Georgia fugitive slave John Brown wrote about being helped by a Paducah barber. Louisville barber Washington Spradling both loaned money to slaves to buy their freedom and helped others make their way across the Ohio River to the free state of Indiana. 

White Kentuckians' attitudes toward free African Americans were often influenced by stories such at that shown above. White citizens perceived that free blacks not only threatened their ordered slave society by being examples for slaves to aspire to, but also by assisting slaves in escaping from their servile situations.

This short article was printed in the June 30, 1855, edition of the Louisville Weekly Courier. It claims that Louisville free black barber, Theodore Sterrett, who was apparently "well-known" in the community, ran off to Canada after running up debts and borrowing money from friends. However, the last paragraph identifies a different or possibly additional reason for Sterrett leaving town. Sterrett, much like the other free barbers noted above, had a reputation for helping runaway slaves; possibly even encouraging them to abscond. Did Sterrett perhaps help a slave or group of slaves with the funds he allegedly borrowed, or did he possibly fear being caught and imprisoned after assisting an escape and thus make his was to Canada in effort to avoid be remanded?

It seems that Sterrett had a barber's position that provided for his family, and since he was "well-known," he likely had plenty of customers. The article indicates that Sterrett "packed his duds, his wife and other things" and made his way out of town under the cover of night. It does not say anything about the rest of his family. The 1850 census lists Sterrett as a 31 year old "mulatto" barber, who was born in Virginia. In his household was wife Ann, who was 23 years old, six year old son Don, four year old daughter Lurena, and two year old daughter Sarah. Did Sterrett leave his children behind in Louisville? Or, more likely, did the article just not mention them. In addition to the immediate family, three other individuals were listed in the Sterrett household: 10 year old Heston A. Ewing, 16 year old John Helton, and 14 year old George Helton. Did these boys make away with Sterrett and his family, too?

Regardless of the true details of this story, it provides a good example of how white attitudes toward free blacks were often shaped..               

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