The Waiting Men:
Black Barbers in Rhode Island
By Noah Mack
The slave barber was “a waiting man.” Enslaved men began in their master’s household, where they were intimately exposed to the internal structures of the White American culture whose barriers and pins survive the 21st century. Slave barbers took advantage of their masters’ own social aspirations and established a privileged status among white people and a substantial image of leadership and possibility among Black people, who considered less of what Black men and women could be within an enslaved structure, and more of what its possible downfall would look like. This process of acculturation involved becoming fluent in English and acquiring a working knowledge of Anglo-American customs and society in order to interact confidently with members of the dominant race. The waiting man served his master personally, and the slave’s immersion in the master’s affairs provided a wide-ranging education in the ways of the colonial elite. In no area of Black barbering was the influence of white men greater than in their privilege of choosing which slaves would have the opportunity to learn the barbering trade. Recently purchased slaves received this privilege. As dually privileged, necessitated servants to gentlemen, the waiting men exercised considerable leverage over their masters, who were attempting to form their own identity in a white society; In some ways, masters had no choice but to recognize that they were beholden to their slave barbers. These servants were to represent nothing but a standard of behavior. Excellence was the standard white men held to remind those beholden they belonged to slavery and nothing else. While the demands of entertaining personalities further kept these men close to the ones who owned them, this personality, before emancipation, reflected upward mobility and the ability to welcome white upper classes in their own atmosphere. Poets, merchants, and intellectuals joined the crowd to meet the growing literacy of several famous tonsorial artists. Black tonsorial work was a contradiction, built off of high standard and expense.
As irreconcilable as slavery was, and to how few, the transition from being valued in slavery to self-standing was only natural. Newspaper clippings hinted at a coming independence. On April 17, 1769: Cato Hunter was listed in Newport Mercury for sale by Andrew Hunter, described as “brought up a barber, and Peruke-Maker, and excels in the art of shaving, dressing gentlemen’s and ladies’ hair being stout and strong is fit for any labor.” Prince G. Williams. had “the knowledge of every fashionable change in the Catalog of Hair-Dressing.” “No American Artist will dispute George Thomas' ability to administer the most Chin-felt satisfaction to those who may place themselves within the sphere of his razor.” An antebellum definition of excellence sat one ad under a runaway’s call. These runaway ads soon became full out rebellions, which we are fortunate to consider from the victorious side as a sign of the growing fortune of Black people. Self-owned excellence naturally repelled ‘enslaved excellence’, never far from ideas that reaped war and division.
“An Increase of Blacks,” appeared in the July 7, 1824, Providence Gazette. “There seems to have been an unusual augmentation of our coloured population within a few weeks, and the number of Blacks now in this town, probably bears much greater proportion to the white population than it does in any other town, except in the slave-holding states. At this season of the year there has generally been a migration of Blacks to this town from various other parts of this state, and from places more remote, there being at this time great facilities offered to them to live on the labors and earnings of others, to riot in dissipation and idleness. The more than ordinary increase of these emigrants at the present season, may be attributed to rigorous measures that have recently been taken by the city authority of Boston to rid that place of such worthless Black population, as have not obtained a legal settlement there, and have disturbed the city with noise, riot and thefts. Many of these dissolute vagabonds have undergone an examination before the Town Council of this town, and ordered to depart, and should they neglect to comply with such orders, they will undoubtedly experience the severity of the law in force against such characters. But while our municipal authority is thus manifesting a disposition, and exerting its lawful powers, it may be reasonable to call for the cooperation of all citizens to aid them in their exertions to apply the axe to the root of an evil…..This is the duty of every citizen, and if this duty be performed faithfully, the number of these locusts who consume the fruits of industry and labors of our citizens, may be easily ascertained, and they will be driven from our confines.”
Readers listen; As William J. Brown remembered, the rioters “drove many from their houses, then tore them down, took their furniture, what little they had, carried it to Pawtucket, and sold it at auction.” The newfound struggle for survival in freedom, naturally, faced opposition that almost succeeded in recreating the limits cultivated by slavery; Providence’s emancipated faced the clear antebellum legacies of enslavement; men mostly worked at menial jobs and women at opportunities; Living choices were even fewer; Substandard housing east of the Providence River fell off the northwestern edge of town, and closer to the city, Addison Hollow was nicknamed Hardscrabble. Indeed, the existence of its residents shared the same imaginary grounds of work and struggle, searching, and perseverance of the nickname that expeditioners Lewis and Clark coined while trekking them. Free, hard-working people purchased land and small homes there. The choices made freely by these residents give more direction to their own path and define the story of agency inherent in survivors. Facing a legalized and relentless cycle to drive free people out of town, Black citizens embraced themselves in the rapidly increasing violence; Hardscrabble riots only marked ownership over growing African American success and freedom. They can be considered signs of it, servants to their predecessors. The occupations chosen by free people had a significant impact on their ascension in the community, whether through the hardly built opportunities of financial gain or legal change– the influence among opposing forces attracted the pre-existing reputation and movements of Black barbers, familiar with the care over their community, living in manual labor or service jobs, and, introduced to a corresponding mediation in communication with whites; White clientele themselves offered valuable connections with city elites. Black barbers, through the public, become visible leaders. Antebellum Providence was a time of rapid economic and population growth, much of it fueled by new industries and immigrants—Irish, French-Canadians, Germans and Jews among them—looking for work, but the rising visibility of Blacks that coupled their hard work was a necessary one. The growth impact was beyond visible in the Black lives that made Providence, but began making censuses and surveys. A 1823 survey lists 35 entrepreneurs of African Heritage in Antebellum Providence alone. Enoch Freeman, Alfred Niger, Samuel T. Mason, Gilbert D. Gardner, Cornelius Maxwell, Alexander G. Sweet, Moses H. Jackson, A. M. Narr, James E. Elless, Philip Lewis, Lewis Figurado, James Scott, W.G. Kinnicut, Charles Gray, James Crawford and William Howard are hair artists remembered not just for their profession but for their strides in bringing the whole Black community forward.
Osceola R. Cook is known for his contributions to the Black community of Providence and to the tonsorial world. Few Black men in Providence walked as famous as Cook. Despite troubles with assault and his eventual murder, his reputation was closer to his character. His bootBlacking establishments and political influence held up the well-known Republican Voter whose 3 column long obituary included a hand drawn portrait. His personality, stemming from singular humanity, shared fame’s reason. In fact, his bodily size gave him the added persona of the “person on the street.” After his death, the paper only remembered him for a strength known from picking the right fights. May 15, 1899 the Evening Bulletin reported, “His strength was tremendous and although he grew to great size; he had much muscle. In the room where he died is a set of chest weights against the wall, and two pairs of Indian clubs. day and night, in the effort to keep down his flesh. A prize fighter once picked a quarrel with him, and then went to the hospital with his Jaw shattered, where Cook had hit him one blow, the first in the fight. He has had many other difficulties, notably the one with David F. Ling-ane, but it. was said of the man that he never picked a quarrel, although he never dodged none coming his way. He had the reputation of being absolutely truthful, and was notably honest for a sporting man. He was generous to the degree of Injustice to himself.” He practiced his artistry in his own shop in the Narragansett hotel, and eventually sold an invention for 800 dollars. In his own words that make the following technical pictures and details easy to understand,
Christiana Babcock was unique for an African American barber; she was a woman. Waiting men who were now national and local servants made room for Babcock, who was born circa 1820 in North Kingstown, Rhode Island to African American and Narragansett Indian parents. Her African American grandparents most likely lived and died as slaves. Christiana’s parents were born after Rhode Island’s gradual emancipation act of 1784 was passed, and so gained complete freedom at the age of twenty-one. By the time Babcock was eleven years old, the abolitionist movement was gaining momentum in northeastern cities. Christiana Babock’s brother Charles married Cecelia Remond, whose family ran several businesses, including a hair salon and a wig factory. Christiana followed him to Salem to join the Ladies Hair Work Salon, where she learned hairdressing and wigmaking; Christiana Babcock’s growth into Madame Carteaux, following her marriage to Desiline Carteaux, a Caribbean clothes dealer and cigar maker, began as a passion and not a civil enforcement. Calling herself Madame Carteaux, she advertised her business in William Lloyd Garrison‘s abolitionist newspaper The Liberator, where the “hair doctress” advertised her excellence along with dye and restored hair for Black people. Her salons attracted African American and white abolitionists and eventually became one of their meeting spots. With this influence, she opened four elite salons in Boston. In 1855, Madame Christiana Carteaux opened a salon in Providence, Rhode Island and operated both businesses. Within a few years, she had started up an entire chain of hair salons in both areas. From 1847 to 1871, Madame Christiana Carteaux maintained several salons in Boston. In 1853, she met Edward Mitchell Bannister who applied for work as a barber in her Boston salon. She hired and then married him on June 10, 1857. After their wedding and with her support, Edward left his job at the salon and pursued his dream of becoming an artist. When in Boston, the Bannisters lived and worked with the abolitionist Lewis Hayden. They were not direct organizers but assisted in Hayden’s branch of the Underground Railroad. During the Civil War, Christiana Carteaux Bannister advocated for equal pay for Black soldiers, in particular, the 54th and 55th Massachusetts and the 5th Massachusetts Cavalry, ejecting any less pay than what white soldiers received. After a year and a half of service, in November 1864, she organized a fundraising fair sponsored by the Boston Colored Ladies Sanitary Commission to benefit the regiments. In Providence, she founded the Home for Aged Colored Women for homeless women who had once been domestic cleaners. The home, on today’s Dodge Street, was renamed Bannister Center.
For this is her death in 1903 remembered by Rhode Island Heritage Hall. A bust and two portraits, painted by her husband, hang within the Rhode Island Heritage Hall of fame.
Alfred Niger was born in 1797 in Old Saybrook, Connecticut, and baptized in 1808. He lived and worked as a barber in Providence, Rhode Island from 1824 to his death in 1862. His effective writing ability would later become part of Black Providence’s arsenal in the fight for full Black citizenship. In 1826 he, George C. Wyllis, Ichabod Northup, and Peter Browning consolidated the Prince Hall (Black) Mason Lodge in Providence. Black leaders came up with the idea to petition the General Assembly directly in response to the Providence Town Council’s refusal to create a school for children of color despite authority given by the General Assembly. The petition, written by Niger, and submitted at the General Assembly’s fall 1829 session, asked for Black Rhode Islanders’ relief from taxation because they could not vote, could not educate their children in the public school system, and could not take out licenses to open certain businesses or sell liquor. The General Assembly could not locate a priority within the three demands.The commands for full Black citizenship, however, would continue. While Niger’s connections with Wyllis and Northup, especially, would be long-lasting and the three would help reap significant benefits for their community. Niger’s focus on the future of division was only the founding of the future and destruction of division. The environment in which children learned was America deciding whether or not it wanted to prosper; Niger never left this battle to survive on its own, as he entered it once more.
In 1831, Leaders like Alfred Niger and George Willis of Providence would represent Rhode Island in the first “American Society of Free Persons of Color Convention” in 1831 Philadelphia. Niger and Willis would also co-chair the Providence Committee Against the American Colonization Society due to Race Riots within the Snowtown and Hardscrabble neighborhood. In 1831, At a protest meeting at the African Union Meeting House, where Niger was elected to be its secretary, and George C. Willis its chairman, his action began immediately; the petition that day laid out two problems: Providence still refused to build a school for children of color with their tax dollars, leading to the startling situation in which Black Providence taxpayers helped pay the way for the education of exclusively white children. Black Providence residents were subjected to taxation without a say in who could represent them. Taxation without representation called to mind the very cause the American Revolutionaries fought for; many of the Black Providence residents had fathers and grandfathers who had fought alongside white troops in the famous First Rhode Island Regiment. Niger was unfinished in causing the same disruption that the Assembly left face down along with the petition. As Providence delegate to the Garrison-led New England Anti-Slavery Society in the early 1830s, him and others created the Rhode Island Anti-Slavery Society (RIASS) in 1836. Niger was one of two only Black men in attendance; From the beginning of his work, as both an advantage in overthrowing the systems that caused it and a necessary sign of change, Niger was used to working with whites while against the forces that created those situations, a nuanced hint of his leadership that he worked to make unnecessary. His leadership and standing among all communities, especially within those that worked against it, strengthened along with the RIASS; Together, they became the most powerful ally during the suffrage movement. By its second year, his ascension he penned the committee’s resolutions that year, both of which claimed responsibility for his current position and which would not be forgotten in the wake of past and forgoing legal battles. They prioritized the idea that all distinctions of color, which were infringements on the Declaration of Independence’s ideas about equality in mankind, should be abolished. Attempts to change to nearly baseless distinctions were not responded to as menial edits; The weight of slavery hid under the worship of difference. Niger was more figurehead of influence than a slave to specific organizations. Beginning in the 1830s, Niger became active in the Black national convention movement. At a Black national convention in Philadelphia in 1835, Niger was elected to draft and deliver an address to the American Moral Reform Society that explained the purpose of the organization to the public. Along with his fraternization with whites who had access to change came the growth of division that, before threatening the solidity of that white community, put Blacks at risk while truly putting all at large; The fraternization consisted of freedom over the maintenance of 19th century connections. By 1841, the Suffrage Party became known as the "Dorrites." As they began to organize a new constitution, they realized that the rights of Black men would have to be confronted. In August 1841, as the Dorrites formed the People's Convention, where no race limited the right to vote, Niger showed up to the polling station and was welcomed on site. The supervisor, after an accidentally revolutionary freedom begetting decision, then declared that Niger would not be able to vote. White associates refused to vote in solidarity. The law in which property-owning Black men had lost this right to vote 19 years earlier had hardened to such a level so that the Legal Party broadcast the event in order to put the Dorrites in a bad light. Even the director of the suffrage association warned Niger of a danger only he had caused; the movement was likely to split. The Dorrites created their own backlash after finding out that their sacrifices, made in the name of slavery, had only sacrificed their solidity. Alfred, on the other hand, who had caused the rumbling division, and despite having seen some consequences, in the aftermath urged Black leaders to stay put.
The withholdment was a deeply set pattern of constitutional forwardness in Niger’s life, set too far to be considered the unruly behavior whites might take it for. His first son, born in 1832, bore the name Alexander Petion Niger, the first and middle names being the anglicized first and last names of the first president of the Republic of Haiti – signaling, undoubtedly, the pride he took in his Blackness. According to Historian CJ Martin, "Niger’s sons followed in their father’s footsteps by becoming professionals in Providence’s Black community Alexander became, according to one historical account of the Providence print industry, the first Black man to work in printing in the city. He probably also became the first Black member of a typographical union in Providence when he was one of its founding members in 1857." This pride, familial and disjoined from nearly all risk, naturally moved the entire community forward; At a meeting of the Suffrage Party in Providence on September 27, 1841, Alfred Niger was nominated for the office of the treasure, and denied on the basis of incorrect skin color. Abolitionist Frederick Douglass later reflected, what the African American community in Rhode Island wanted “was a constitution free from the narrow, selfish, and senseless limitation of the word white.” Niger’s presence had grown to a size where his rejection prompted many white and Black abolitionists left the suffrage party entirely, joining the side of the Legal Party, and hundreds of Black men joined Providence's home guard in the summer of 1842. In November 1842, Rhode Island's new constitution ratified, and Rhode Island was made the first state to grant suffrage to all native male citizens of the United States. In November 1842, the word “white” was rejected by a 13:1 margin. In 1846, Niger served as a Providence delegate to the American Anti-Slavery Society. He lived and worked as a barber until his death in 1862.
At times, slavery kept extraordinary accomplishment under its chains. Typically, recent slaves were hired for the profession where African Americans were expected to work at the highest level and were not dropped off at the success of their masters but instead, encountered the demand for invention. But like the slaves of Ancient Greece, invention felt honor; The actions of people like Niger, Babcock, and Cook have not stopped raising Providence since. Along with aftermath of slavery, and displacement, financial stability was found in agency that sped up the destroyal of slavery. Tonsorial ventures were more than just a venture in gain and success and invention but in cleanliness and genuine needs. Gain to African American barbers came naturally at emancipation, but the view of extended loyalty to whites kept tonsorial artists, at one point, below the Black social totem; Perhaps the greatest invention and highest standard of excellence came from self demanded and started ventures. American independence may have risen within slavery, but it never started there.
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