~by Joseph Kennedy~
A Barber and a Forbidden Hero
Welcome everyone! Like my colleagues, I will be showing you around the Ithaca grounds here in upstate New York, and I will be specifically focusing on the barber shop of George Johnson, an active Underground Railroad stationmaster. To give a summary of my presentation today, I will be informing you about what it meant for abolitionists to work in the Underground Railroad; what the Underground Railroad was; and the journey of station masters who indeed lived a double life. I will be offering information from sources I have gathered from the Cornell library catalog and other scholarly resources concerning the roles of stationmasters in the Underground Railroad. I will also be reading a page from Johnson’s diary, which is a blend of fiction and nonfiction. The purpose of this fictional story that I created is to give insight into the abolitionists’ possible thought processes and the risk they were facing. Our first stop is visiting the barber shop of George Johnson, which is a remarkable site that is often overlooked. I initially didn’t know barber shops and barbers made impactful contributions to the Underground Railroad, and I hope to bring some new information to you all through this tour. With that said, please follow me and I will guide you to the area where the barber shop was located.
Before I proceed to introduce the historical significance of the Underground Railroad, I will introduce some context about the origins of slavery. The southern states economy was largely dependent on cotton, hence, racist plantation owners subjugated Black people to cotton picking. Black people were enslaved because of racist beliefs and economic reasons: plantation owners in the South considered Black people inferior and exploited them to maintain an economy supported by cotton production. The enslavement of Black people, specifically in New York, dates back to the early days of colonialism, under the Dutch rule. Shortly after, the British dominated and established the system of slave trade. Britain claimed that slavery in New York was not as “harsh” as in the southern states because their slavery was “mild” and “benevolent.” Nonetheless, the treatment of slaves in the North or in the Eastern parts of what is now the United States was not “less harsh” than in the South. Protests by enslaved Black people in New York demonstrated how slaves were not treated as “nice” as the British claimed. For example, the “Great Negro Plot” in 1741, also known as the New York slave rebellion of 1741, was an unsuccessful slave insurrection that worsened the situation amongst slaves. Any parties who were suspected of contributing toward the insurrection were burned alive and the number of New York slaves who obtained freedom diminished. More executions and stricter laws concerning slavery were established in order to prevent further uprisings and limiting the liberty of Black New Yorkers. Undoubtedly myths such as non-southern states’ slavery systems not being “harsh enough” were disproved after several uprisings by enslaved Black people. Slavery, regardless of where it’s located was never “better” or “worse”: it was simply wrong.
A cinematic movie that I invite you all to watch is 12 Years a Slave, which conveys the trauma and abuse slaves experienced in the South, including Black people who were initially free but forced into slavery. The protagonist of the film in Solomon Northup, a violinist who was born free in New York, but was tricked and sold into slavery for 12 years. Solomon’s experience conveys one of the several perspectives of Black slaves whose lives changed abruptly and had no option but to tolerate harsh treatment or die. A scene I would like you all to pay close attention to if you manage to see the movie is the part where Solomon refuses to be whipped by a white man after perfectly following the given tasks. When Solomon manages to escape the whipping, he proceeds to whip the white man, unaware that he will soon be hanged by the white man. As a free Black man, Solomon has limited first-hand experiences as a slave, and was unaware of his fate after defying a white man. Solomon’s confusion and traumatic experience highlights the struggle enslaved Black people suffered when they refused to be beaten throughout the 19th century. Self-defense and refusal to be treated harshly came at a high cost because Black people were forced to be treated inhumanely and follow orders without question. Hence, harsh treatment and lynching were acts of disrespect Black people could no longer tolerate.
I will now proceed to introduce the historical context and the significance of the Underground Railroad. As you all may or may not know, the Underground Railroad was not in fact a railroad nor was it underneath. The Underground Railroad did not only consist of a series of paths, but also of people offering their homes and businesses as safe houses, and financial resources toward helping freedom seekers find refuge wherever they could. The Underground Railroad consisted of a network of trails, paths, and safehouses through which slaves escaped. Freedom seekers would arrive at free states and places such as Canada. Although it was illegal for enslaved people to leave the territory of their masters, escaping was a form of resistance and freedom from bondage. People of all genders, backgrounds, and racial groups contributed to these acts of heroism. Freedom seekers would self-emancipate either through help or without aid, which was especially risky after the enactment of the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850. After its passage, slaves were to be returned to their masters, even if these freedom seekers had already reached the free states. Hurdles such as the one mentioned above created more danger upon freedom seekers, stationmasters, and conductors. Abolitionists who took part in the first-hand experiences throughout the Underground Railroad missions would be fined, if not executed if they got caught. Thus, stationmasters’ needed to be skilled in communication, reliance, and knowledge about the areas they navigated with freedom seekers. Conductors could not make mistakes since masters began losing slaves at great numbers, presumably causing a production halt in their business. The Underground Railroad was often blamed for “inspiring” and “causing” runaways to leave their masters. However, it was not the Underground Railroad system that coincidently made runaway slave; it was the abuse and maltreatment slave owners imposed on Black people.
A prominent movie that you may or may not have heard of is Harriet, which highlights the significance of her role in the Underground Railroad. Born into slavery, Harriet Tubman traveled by foot to Pennsylvania and made it her mission to free as many enslaved people as possible. Harriet did not want to simply survive; she wanted to live. Initially, Harriet Tubman was using her own income to go on rescue missions. However, after making remarkable contributions such as freeing her parents, abolitionists aided Harriet’s rescue missions. Harriet’s impact was notable since plantation owners and masters were asking for her capture due to the losses in slaves and income in the cotton plantations. A point I do want to underline is that Harriet traveled to the North alone, with no previous knowledge about the trials she may encounter other than her own wit and the help of noble people she found along her journey. After returning to New York to guide slaves back to Pennsylvania, she was admitted into the Underground Railroad committee, and freed around 70 slaves in her lifetime. Many of her fascinating accomplishments are not often discussed: she never lost a passenger through the Underground Railroad; she became a Union spy during the Civil War, and contributed to women’s suffrage; and she led Black soldiers during the Civil War, who freed over 750 slaves. Harriet’s role as a “conductor” of the Underground Railroad was the start of her legacy and impact as a selfless Black woman.
Now that I have offered a brief history summary about the roots of slavery, popular movies, and the Underground Railroad, I will continue by telling you a bit more about the barber shop. We are on the Ithaca Commons.
There is not a barber shop anymore, of course, but we are here for the significance this place holds. Take a look around and imagine what the place might have looked like at the time. It may be difficult to imagine what would have been the barber shop when George Johnson was around due Ithaca’s modern look as of now. However, I want to remind you that the barber shops were used beyond hair cuts: they were used as “pit stops” for freedom seekers. Conductors and barbers lived a double life, but they prided themselves in doing the right thing. Stationmasters with positions as barbers utilized funds from their own income or from abolitionist committees in order to transform runaways’ appearances and offer their home as refuge. With that in mind, I would like to share with you all what I imagined the barber shop looked like before. The shop may have looked like a genuine barber shop, with no sketchy decorations to limit the attention from speculators. Barbers were skilled at making conversations on the spot. However, stationmasters who were barbers had to be extra cautious. There needed to be extra precautions when barbers and station masters had freedom seekers stay in their homes while the steamers such as the Simeon DeWitt were preparing for transport.
Now that you all may have had an idea of what barber shops would have looked like during the 1800s, I want to introduce a prominent stationmaster: George Johnson. To give you all some background on his story, George Johnson was born free on March 30, 1835, in Canandaigua, New York, but moved to Ithaca at the age of eleven years old.
Throughout his lifetime, he helped 114 freedom seekers. During his teenage years, he worked in his father’s barber shop; after learning the trade, he became the owner of the shop, which was under the Ithaca Hotel. Outside his work in the barber shop, Johnson served as an employee of the state senate with the help of John H. Selkreg, who was an editor of The Ithaca Journal. Hence, Johnson grew aware and well informed of politics and the public needs, specifically of Black people’s struggles. As an active Underground Railroad agent, he worked with Ben Johnson, the mayor of Ithaca, who would supply George Johnson with additional money to aid the runaway slaves. For example, the funds would be used to purchase clothes and shoes for runaway slaves who had come to the shop the night before. Johnson’s barber shop was not your typical haircut salon; it was a stop for runaway slaves. Freedom seekers would have their hair cut and would be given different clothes in order to conceal their image as runaways. During the 1830s it was common for barbers to work as ministers and to represent Black Americans by working with both Black and white abolitionists.
I will now be reading to you all a page from George Johnson’s diary. He could have written it if he had kept a diary of his experience as a stationmaster. I want to restate that this page was not written directly by George Johnson; I wrote it myself based on imagination and factual information I have researched. I would like you all to use this diary as an opportunity to envision the situation at the time, and what emotions George Johnson may have experienced throughout his journeys. I encourage you all to ask questions if you have any and maybe even share with the person next to you what may have been the thought processes of station masters of the time. With that said, I will begin reading the diary entry:
“I was born free in Canandaigua, and continued to use the trade I learned to help freedom seekers. A typical day consisted of waking before the sun hits the sky, and taking in the freedom seekers through the backdoor, making sure no one sees them come in. I gathered my razors and brushes to begin the job. I knew I had to do a good job in disguising these people, and change them into a completely different person (physically). Once in a while, my white folk neighbors came into the barber shop to see if anything was more unusual than ever. They never found anything. I was careful in making conversation with the runaways, acting like we had known each other forever: “How are your children? Do you think you will move out and find a new place?” These were the typical questions I would ask freedom seekers and the typical conversation I would make with them not to create suspicions. After cutting their hair, I gave a brown color to their beards, and for some, I cut their beards completely off. My barber shop looked like any typical barber shop. I had my materials displayed outside, a broom and dust gatherer on the corners. If I made my shop look more or less like a restricted area by closing off the windows and not continuously painting it, I might have fugitive searchers coming in to check. I was never caught because I was actively working with my friend Ben Johnson, who was the mayor of Ithaca. To some extent, I felt like my position as a stationmaster was not as risky because of my friend Ben. He has offered me financial support for materials such as hair dye and razors for customers when money has gone short. If it weren’t for his aid, my position would be more complex because I would be taking longer to obtain supplies for my shop in order to effectively give freedom seekers a complete makeover. Additionally, Ben informs me on what is going on in Ithaca, such as news about plantation owners sending slave seekers over to areas such as Ithaca to look for runaways. When I got this news from Ben, I made sure to inform other stationmasters nearby about the most recent news in order to temporarily halt the voyages and redirect runaways to different areas.
I learned best from my father, who was an active barber, but unfortunately passed away a couple years ago. Each haircut I have given has made arrangements to take runaways on their voyage to the steamer much easier. I was in charge of arranging their voyage on a steamer, which took refugees to Cayuga Bridge, at the northern end of Cayuga Lake.
The trip wasn’t easy, especially when I gathered the freedom seekers from my barber shop to the steamer. If anyone saw me with a large group, I was guaranteed to be stopped and the mission would have failed.
I realize that my activities in helping freedom seekers escape were risky and may have put me in mortal danger. However, I wanted to help these people obtain their freedom because it is inhumane to be forced to submit with no choice. As a freeman myself, I continued to experience discrimination. Sometimes my barber shop was vandalized or set on fire, but it was even riskier for runaways to flee plantations and run for many miles, so I felt like it was my duty to help them. Therefore, I make sure to give it my all when taking freedom seekers to the steamers, ensuring we don’t get caught late at night.”
After reading my fictional story, I would like to show you a real document from the time, taken from Samuel J. May Anti-Slavery Pamphlet Collection: an anti-slavery pamphlet by Samuel Miller. Miller was a pastor condemning slavery, who delivered a discourse condemning slavery in April 1797, at the New York Society. At this time, slavery continued to be prominent, especially in the United States. Miller was a pastor in New York City and part of the Princeton Seminary. He dreamed of the emancipation of slaves. In order to manifest the abolitionist sentiments of the Princeton Seminary, Miller addressed the inhumane conditions of society at the time, including the continuation of slavery. Miller’s discourse, a pamphlet, was written as a speech, and describes how he was asked by the New York Society to deliver this speech to the society itself. Miller’s speech is written in a passionate manner: he states that not all men are born free and created equal. He highlights the disparity in the treatment of humans, especially slaves who are treated as transactional property.
One common misconception about slavery was that is was restricted only to the South, and not present in the West or East coast. Today, California and New York are considered to be more liberal states, which leads to the assumption that there should have not been slavery in these places, especially New York. Nonetheless, slavery was still present in New York State. As a writer, Miller promoted treating slaves as real and equal human beings. In his speech, Miller conveys central themes such as the right to individual freedom and how believing in slavery is against morality. As stressed by Miller, regardless of an individual’s complexion, all individuals who possess a name are entitled to freedom. Undoubtedly, we can infer from Miller’s background as an active member committed to the church, that his religion played a key role in his disagreement with slavery, especially when he touches on the moral character. Throughout his speech, he emphasized good will, God making the blood of all men on earth equal, and that even though some individuals may be happy with their lives, enslaved people do not share the same privilege. It is vital to preserve this pamphlet because it illustrates figures and abolitionists who were against the enslavement of Black people. Samuel’s discourse is an example of the speeches that white abolitionists gave against slavery and demonstrates the different perspectives about slavery at the time. There may be misconceptions that all white people were in favor of slavery, but this in an example that illustrates the point of view of a white person who actively spoke against slavery. Pamphlets such as Miller’s discourse teach audiences about the role that religion, writers, and individuals who were against the enslavement of people played in the abolitionist movement.
There is still additional information that we should find out about Miller’s speech: for example, we should ascertain what specifically were his actions and efforts to actually promote the abolition of slavery. Did he limit himself to giving speeches or did he also actively contribute to the Underground Railroad? I believe we should find out what specifically were Miller’s efforts through the church to support abolitionist movements. Perhaps some documents from the Presbyterian Church or other speeches he wrote about slavery that give detail into his work would aid in understanding how he supported the Manumission of slaves. Miller did specify the importance of rejecting evil, even if the law or anyone you know disagrees with your actions: “Though you cannot control Legislatures and though when you plead the cause of humanity, they will not at all times listen to you; yet you can do much by directing your efforts to the conviction of individuals.” Clearly, Miller does emphasize going against the official and accepted norms when you know they are damaging society. When an individual recognizes that law systems and society accept sins such as slavery, it is up to this individual to trust their instinct and inform people of such racist wrongdoing. Thus, as readers and listeners, I would like you all to take Miller’s words as an inspiration to go against accepted norms that are wrong and challenge such evil by informing others about what we can do to stop structural racism. All the odds may be against you, but you must proceed to do the opposite of what society sometimes sells as “tolerance,” and directly challenge racist beliefs.
I do want to stress the importance of action and not simply stating that one supports antislavery and is antiracist. Speeches and written works regarding abolition are vital works and demonstrate the efforts of people of all backgrounds supporting abolitionist movements. Nonetheless, as an audience, we must learn to identify the difference between words and action: we must contribute to the fight against racism through actual efforts. For example, individuals cannot say that they are not racist because they have Black friends or are friends with people who are part of a minority group. Instead, antiracists “get their hands dirty” by actually going out to protests and are part of a movement to end the embedded racism in our society. With this call to action, I shall end my part of the tour and invite you all to ask any questions. I hope this tour has informed you about new facts and inspired you to take action through efforts, not only words. Our society continues to have embedded racism and we cannot end it until we all recognize that racism is not just a southern or northern problem, but a structural and societal problem. I hope to see you again here and other crowds at these tours in order to continue spreading the knowledge of Ithaca’s impactful role in the Underground Railroad.
Foner, Eric. Gateway to Freedom: The Hidden History of the Underground Railroad. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2015. Google Books.
Latimer, Catherine A. “Harriet Tubman.” Negro History Bulletin 5, no. 2 (Nov. 1941): 40–41. http://www.jstor.org/stable/44246599.
Miller, Samuel. A Discourse, Delivered April 12, 1797, at the Request of and Before the New-York Society for Promoting the Manumission of Slaves, and Protecting Such of Them as Have Been, or May Be Liberated. New-York: Printed by T. and J. Swords, no. 99 Pearl-Street., 1797. In Cornell University Library. Samuel J. May Anti-Slavery Pamphlet Collection. https://digital.library.cornell.edu/catalog/may892607.
National Park Service. “African American Participation in the Underground Railroad.” Last updated on February 26, 2015. https://www.nps.gov/wori/learn/historyculture/african-american-participation-in-the-underground-railroad.htm.
The History Center in Tompkins County. “The Underground Railroad in Tompkins County: Searching for the Path to Freedom.” Information compiled by The History Center volunteers. 2005.
White, Mary. “Johnson assisted many on the Underground Railroad.” The Ithaca Journal, February 10, 2007. http://www.myfamiliesbranchesandleaves.com/george_johnson.htm.
 Eric Foner, Gateway to Freedom: The Hidden History of the Underground Railroad (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2015), Google Books.
 The History Center in Tompkins County, “The Underground Railroad in Tompkins County: Searching for the Path to Freedom,” Information compiled by The History Center volunteers, 2005.
 National Park Service, “African American Participation in the Underground Railroad,” last updated on February 26, 2015, https://www.nps.gov/wori/learn/historyculture/african-american-participation-in-the-underground-railroad.htm.
 Eric Foner, Gateway to Freedom.
 Catherine A. Latimer, “Harriet Tubman,” Negro History Bulletin 5, no. 2 (Nov. 1941): 40–41. http://www.jstor.org/stable/44246599.
 Mary White, “Johnson assisted many on the Underground Railroad,” The Ithaca Journal, February 10, 2007, http://www.myfamiliesbranchesandleaves.com/george_johnson.htm.
 Samuel Miller, A Discourse, Delivered April 12, 1797, at the Request of and Before the New-York Society for Promoting the Manumission of Slaves, and Protecting Such of Them as Have Been, or May Be Liberated (New-York: Printed by T. and J. Swords, no. 99 Pearl-Street., 1797), in Cornell University Library, Samuel J. May Anti-Slavery Pamphlet Collection, https://digital.library.cornell.edu/catalog/may892607.