Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Schenectady's Nineteenth-Century Black Barbers and the Anti-Slavery Movement

Tom Calarco, who has written many books about the Underground Railroad, writes in his book The Underground Railroad in the Adirondack Region that "census records generally show that the majority of free blacks in upstate New York who had attained some level of prosperity were barbers. But more significant to a study of the underground Railroad is the inordinate number who were agents or active in organizations that intersected with the Underground Railroad." This certainly seems to hold true in Schenectady, where at least three nineteenth-century black barbers appeared to have been connected to Underground Railroad activity or to the movement for the abolition of slavery. More information and research needs to be done in this area; for now, here are a few brief biographies of these men:

Newspaper advertisement for Francis Dana's barber shop
Francis Dana (ca. 1811–d. ca. 1875?)
Francis Dana was born in the British West Indies sometime between 1808 and 1811. There is a Francis Dana listed as a passenger on the ship George, which arrived in New York City from Frederickstaat, St. Croix, in 1826. Dana applied for naturalization in Schenectady in 1840. He is listed in the 1841 city directory as a barber working out of 146 State Street, on the canal. In 1842, Dana was listed as one of Stephen Myers’ North Star Association agents for the distribution of the Northern Star and Freeman’s Advocate. He continued to live and work in Schenectady until about 1865. A Francis Dana last appeared in the 1870 Federal census in Saratoga Springs, Saratoga County, and in Oriskany Falls, Oneida County (both locations show a man of similar age listed as being "mulatto" or "colored" and working as a barber).

Newspaper notice announcing the shop of John Wendell moving
from State Street to Ferry Street.
John Wendell (ca. 1801-d. 1875)
John Wendell (sometimes spelled Wendall, Wandell, or Wandle) was a barber. He was active in the Duryee Memorial AME Zion Church, serving as one of the church’s first trustees. He served as the first president of a local African-American temperance society in 1836. He was chosen to serve as secretary at a meeting of African-American citizens about the elective process (See The Colored American 28 December 1840). Articles in The Cabinet on March 18, 1845 and June 13, 1848 mention Wendell applying to the Common Council for aid to the school for African-American children in the city. Wendell died in 1875.

Advertisement for Stillman's razors endorsed by Richard P.G.
Wright. These types of advertisements were common in the
mid-nineteenth century.
Richard P.G. Wright (ca. 1778–1847)
Wright is perhaps the best known and most well-documented person in Schenectady connected to Underground Railroad and anti-slavery activity. He was born in Swansey, Massachusetts, and lived in Rhode Island for several years. In earlier years, he went by the name “Prince G. Wright.” By around 1811, Wright had moved to Schenectady, where he would continue to live until his death in 1847. Wright was a barber and both his business at 2 Canal Street and his home at 84 Ferry Street were close by the Erie Canal. Wright was deeply involved with local and regional anti-slavery activities; he was an early member of the American Anti-Slavery Society and a founding member of the Anti-Slavery Society of the City of Schenectady in 1838, and attended many anti-slavery conventions and gatherings in the region. Along with his son, the abolitionist and pastor Theodore Sedgwick Wright, he was a member of the New York Vigilance Committee. Wright and his son were also the only African-American members of the St. George’s Masonic Lodge in Schenectady. An Eastern New York Anti-Slavery Society 1843 annual report mentions 3 freedom seekers and notes that the agent who helped them “gave letter to Emp. Wright and Ellis Clizbe [of Montgomery County].” According to an article in the Emancipator and Weekly Chronicle (Boston) 16 April 1845, Wright assisted Charles Nelson in escaping slavery to freedom in Canada. Wright died in 1847; he is buried at Vale Cemetery in Schenectady.

Page from the 1841 Schenectady City
Directory. Black heads of household are
listed in italics.
 It is also worthwhile to investigate the lives of other free blacks who may have been active in anti-slavery efforts. Among other sources, the 1841 city directory is helpful here. The directory lists in italics all of the heads of households who are black, and in some cases professions are noted. Francis Thomas is another black barber listed at that time. The directory also includes names of prominent black citizens, such as Jacob Douw and Richard Sampson, who we find in a 1836 Schenectady Cabinet article as being involved in a black temperance society that had invited abolitionist Gerrit Smith to speak. Additionally, significant events, such as a national black conference held in Schenectady on September 16, 1844, deserve further inquiry. The library's collections of church records, cemetery records, family files, census records, newspapers on microfilm, clipping files, historic manuscripts, and other sources can help researchers learn about the lives of the city's black residents at that time period and about the contours of anti-slavery activity in the region.

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