Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Free Men of Color and the Limits of Freedom

In an 1863 interview Louisville black barber Washington Spradling explained that there were limits to his freedom. He expressed frustration at racial prejudice as it related to police harassment, taxes, and the limits on travel, among other things.

Free men of color understood how important it was to have white men vouch for them; the more wealthy and recognized the better. When free blacks wished to travel it was well known that carrying free papers or at least of letter of introduction was helpful in case certain situations arose. 

The above letter is included among the several pieces of surviving papers that belonged to Lexington free black barber Samuel A. Oldham. It appears to have been written by Lexington attorney Leslie Combs. Combs was a War of 1812 officer, member of the Kentucky legislature, Transylvania University trustee, and well respected Lexingtonian. It reads:

 Lexington Oct 14/49

Samuel Oldham the bearer hereof is a freeman of excellent conduct and character – by trade – a Barber – about 45 to 50 years of age – of middle size – yellow complexion, tho not a mulatto – middle size – rather inclined to fullness - & flesh – He proposes visiting Ohio & other portions on pleasure or business & is entitled to kind treatment & consideration wherever he may be –

Signed under our hands
Leslie Combs
O.F. Payne, Mayor
James A. Grinstead
J. G. Chiles

As can be seen, Oldham had not only Combs give an endorsement, but also other prominent white men in Lexington, including the mayor, O.F. Payne. It was likely through his barber business that Oldham came into contact with such community notables. Oldham's skills, attention to customers' needs, entrepreneurship, and prosperity must have made a positive impression over the years on these men, who pledged their reputation for Oldham.

However, like Washington Spradling, Oldham must have felt extreme frustration at this necessity. For a man who had accomplished so much through hard work, frugality, and wise business sense to have to shelve a measure of the independence he had earned and turn to others for a letter of good conduct and character must have been especially exasperating.      

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