Saturday, May 24, 2014

Antebellum White Kentuckians and their Perceptions of Free Blacks

In doing my research on Kentucky's antebellum black barbers I have found numerous references that show white Kentuckians' disdain for free people of color. Despite the fact that the vast majority of free blacks were hard-working and law abiding, whites consistently read in the newspapers about those few who created stereotypes for the many.

The majority of white Kentuckians believed that slavery was the best social system for both races. Slavery allowed whites to socially control blacks and coerce their labor. Whites believed that if blacks were without the controlling influence of slave owners they would not work for their self support, would resort to theft and other crimes to survive, and thus become a unnecessary burden on society.   

The first three short articles posted here ran in the Louisville Daily Courier in the summer of 1859 (all within days of each other), and concerned a free black barber named Alexander Hatfield. Hatfield is listed in the 1850 census in Louisville as 26 year old "black" barber. Hatfield is missing from the 1860 census. It could be that his criminal activity finally caught up with him and landed him in the "penitentiary," as the above article hopefully suggests. 

Hatfield's stay in the jail for the accused crime of stealing $25 was short-lived as there was insufficient evidence for a conviction. Hatfield's apparent history of criminal activity obviously influenced the newspaper's perception of whether he was guilty or innocent.

Hatfield's bad decisions appear to have continued. His alleged theft and misuse of a horse and buggy brought more trouble his way and provided the newspaper with more fodder to print, which only added to the negative perception of free blacks. 

The speculative accusations against free blacks during this era have not ceased to amaze me. By merely being next door to a home that was robbed of some articles of clothing, individuals that attended a "negro ball" were thought to have been the perpetrators. In the court of public opinion free blacks seem to have had to prove their innocence as they were always assumed to be guilty. 

A black barbershop was the setting for another story that ran in the Louisville Daily Democrat in the summer of 1859. This story does not specifically say if the perpetrator, John Jordan, was a barber, but it is likely that he was as he apparently took the patron's money while brushing his clothing, presumably after cutting the man's hair. There is a 22 year old "mulatto" John Jordan listed as a barber in Frankfort in 1860. Perhaps this incident in Louisville encouraged Jordan to seek a new beginning in a new location.    

Yet another black barber was suspected of stealing from a customer in the above story. Although the white customer, William Bosley, could have lost or had his wallet stolen at any time during in his travels, he suspected black barber William Swede. Swede, a native of Ohio, is listed in the 1860 census as a 26 year old "mulatto" barber with only $50 in personal property. Although Swede was eventually absolved of the charge, stories such as this only added to whites' beliefs that free blacks were a trouble making burden on society.  

A couple of references that I found in the 1860 census from Greenup County, Kentucky, again showed how whites often perceived free blacks. It is not know if Edmund Derican was indeed a deadbeat, and thus the census taker's label of "worthless" was correct. However, the line where "worthless" is noted was intended to list the person's occupation. Was it necessary to provide such an opinion, whether he deserved or not?  

Similarly, and probably family related, was the notation on Edward Derikin's census. With such similar first and last names, and probably spelled phonetically, Edward and Edmund were likely brothers. Only 10 years different in age and with both listed as being "black," Edward received the census taker's labeled occupation of "doing nothing." 

It is interesting that Edward's wife, Henny, and son Doctor, were both not listed as black or mulatto, which seemingly indicates they were white. Did the census taker just not note their color, or was Edward living with a white wife and step son? It is also intriguing that Edmund and Edward both had sons named Doctor, and that the boys were only one year apart in age. That leads me to suspect that Edward's son was not a step son but his real son, and that either his complexion was so light as not be to noted or that the census taker just overlooked noting him (and possibly his mother) as black or mulatto. Regardless, to me, these occupation notations provide yet more evidence of antebellum white Kentuckians' perceptions of free black as being less than worthy citizens and best suited to slavery.

No comments:

Post a Comment