Thursday, April 9, 2015

Richmond's Free Black Barbers Assisted the Confederacy, and Why it Made Sense

I had been wondering if black barbers advertised in newspapers in other upper-South states like Virginia and Maryland like they did in Kentucky, so I did a little keyword searching in the Chronicling America feature on the Library of Congress website. And while I did not find many ads, I did come across the above short article, which I found intriguing.  

It was printed in the July 16, 1861, edition of the Richmond Daily Dispatch. With the Civil War just started and Virginia seceding only three months before, constructing fortifications around Richmond--now the Confederate capital--were important for the city's defense. In addition, only days after this article ran, the first large engagement of the war occurred at Manassas, Virginia.

The article claimed that "several hundred" free blacks were "listed" at the City Hall for this work. Whether listed meant enlisted, or merely a census was being taken for potential work projects is not known. However, the author notes that he noticed many of the town's barber shops closed due to their operators being preoccupied with either the work or being counted.

Surprisingly, or on the other hand, perhaps not so surprisingly, the author claimed that free black barbers were "confessedly superior in intelligence, worth, and breeding to their [I assume he means non-barber free black] compatriots." The author, and certainly other whites, understood the service that these free men of color and talent provided to "the white male population unaccustomed to the having process, and who have been in the habit of availing themselves of the barbers' skill."

Although the barbers were willing to help in the Confederate cause, it appears that the town's whites would have preferred that these free men of color be exempted from working on the fortifications so that no inconvenience would come to their white patrons. Besides, the author argues that men who had experience in working with "nothing heavier than a razor will necessarily make an unproductive hand at rolling a wheel barrow or shoveling dirt." Obviously this is a fallacious argument, but not a shocking one from someone who saw free men of color with a prejudiced eye. 

So, why would free black barbers offer to help the Confederacy? It would be unwise to claim that they all had the same motives. Some may have indeed felt an obligation to help their new nation. I suspect, however, that most of them fully understood the potential economic repercussions if they did not show support. If the black barber ads tell us anything it is that these men flattered their patrons and relied on them coming into their shops in order to keep their businesses open, food on their families tables, and clothes on their backs. If a free black barber evidenced anything other than unwavering patriotic duty to the Confederacy, they would likely suffer being blackballed, certainly lose clients, and potentially be put out of business.    

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