Saturday, March 3, 2018

George Washington Ruffin, Richmond Free Black Barber

Today, I had the opportunity to visit the Black History Museum and Cultural Center of Virginia in Richmond. I had tried to visit last fall, but a large funeral at the neighboring church left me looking for a parking space for quite a while and so I gave up but promising myself to return. I'm glad I did so.

At present the museum has some fantastic photographic images of Richmond's African American community from the antebellum years to the Civil Rights era. One fascinating image showed George Washington Ruffin, one of Richmond's many free black barbers. The photograph is owned by the Amistad Research Center at Tulane University, who also owns a collection of the family's correspondence. George Washington and Nancy Ruffin's impressive images can be viewed on the Amistad Research Center's website here

Curious to learn more about Ruffin, I searched the 1850 census (shown above). It listed him as a fifty year old (born 1800) mulatto barber with $2000 in real estate. Also listed were Nancy, and their sons and daughters, all also listed as mulatto.

The Amistad Research Center's website explained that the Ruffins valued education as the way toward socioeconomic advancement and therefore Nancy and the children moved to Boston where a better education could be attained than in Virginia. Meanwhile, George Washington Ruffin remained in Virginia as financial provider for the family, presumably due to his established barbering business.

This appears to be corroborated by the 1860 census, which shows Ruffin as 60 years old and with $2000 in real estate and $1900 in personal property. With Ruffin is Joseph M. Thurston, a nineteen year old barber, who was likely Ruffin's apprentice. This official record seems to confirm that Ruffin had indeed developed a thriving barbering business which allowed him to save an impressive amount of wealth for a free man of color in 1860.

One of the Ruffin children took the opportunity for a Boston education and ran with it. George Lewis Ruffin, who is listed as fifteen (born 1834) in the 1850 census with his parents in Richmond, like his father, worked as a barber, but in Boston. George Lewis Ruffin read and studied law while cutting hair and shaving beards and ended up being the first African American graduate from the Harvard Law School in 1869. He was also the first black municipal judge in Massachusetts in 1883. 

Hopefully, I can get my hands on the George Washington Ruffin papers someday to see if there are any insights into his life as a Richmond barber. Fascinating, just fascinating!


  1. Dear Tim Talbott, I first visited this Richmond museum on July 28, 2018 and took note of the information about the Ruffins. I immediately thought of Edmund Ruffin, a prominent Richmond Confederate supporter, who had several plantations around Richmond. I wondered if George Washington Ruffin, described as a mulatto, was a black offspring of Edmund who was freed by Edmund. Edmund, by the way, committed suicide in June 1865 wrapped in a Confederate Battle Flag. Do you know any more? Leon Dash

  2. Hello all! I am Ivan Ruffin the great great....grandson of George Washington Ruffin! It is so beautiful and humbling to read that you guys are interested in my great grand’s life. I can say the Edmund Ruffin was too young to be His father. However, I have been researching who his mother or father could be. I have found nothing so far. However, he spoke many languages and most likely was born to a free black mother as I have been unable to find any paperwork regarding the purchase of his freedom. My hypotheses is his mother or parents gained freedom after or during the American Revolution as many free blacks did.

    1. Hello Mr. Ruffin!
      I'd like to speak with you.My name is Elvatrice Belsches and I was the curator and researcher for the exhibition that featured your ancestors at the Black History Museum in Richmond, Va.
      I look forward to assisting you.

    2. I have so may questions to ask. Are you still with the BHM in Richmond?