Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Black Barbers and Base Ball

Peter Lewis, one of Jersey City's black base ball pioneers mentioned in the last post, operated a barber shop primarily for a white clientele.  After finishing the post, I began reading the latest issue of Base Ball: A Journal of the Early Game, edited by John Thorn and published by McFarland & Co.  Always a good read and now an expanded annual publication, this issue has two articles about Bud Fowler, the first African American professional black base ball player.  Of all the communities in the country, Fowler (real name John W. Jackson) improbably came from Cooperstown, New York and one article by village historian Hugh MacDougall discusses Fowler's life in that small village.

Bud Fowler as a member of the Keokuk, Iowa Club

Interestingly, Fowler, like Lewis, was a black barber serving white customers, but in a very different environment.  In fact, it would have been difficult for Fowler and Lewis to have lived in more different communities, but in 1860 urban Jersey City actually had a smaller percentage of black residents (1.1%) than rural Cooperstown (1.8%).  According to the article and some other sources, black barbers cutting white hair was not an isolated phenomena, but fairly common in both north and south.  As MacDougall notes for black men, it was a chance at a middle class life and status as a Knight of the Razor, an "almost medieval guild - in 19th century African American culture."

One of many ads in the Evening Journal of Jersey City for Peter Lewis' hair dressing saloon

Reading the article rang a vague bell regarding a February 20, 2013 post about Newark's black base ball pioneers which speculated that the C. Ophate listed in a well known 1862 Brooklyn Daily Eagle box score of a match between two black clubs was, in fact, Charles O'Fake of Newark, the son of Peter O'Fake.  The O'Fakes were a prominent middle class 19th century black family in Newark with Peter and his brother, John, highly regarded as musicians and music teachers.  Peter O'Fake, however, had another profession, like Fowler and Lewis he was a barber.  And similar to Cooperstown and Jersey City, Newark had a relatively small black population (1.8% of the total in 1860) so O'Fake's customer base had to be white.  To date there is no proof that Peter O'Fake played base ball or had anything to do with Newark's early black base ball clubs, but archival material for the O'Fakes survives at the New Jersey Historical Society and clearly needs to be studied.

1863 Newark City Directory listing for Peter and John O'Fake

The social and economic advantages of black barbering seem clear and well documented, but what, if any, relationship was there between black barbers and black base ball clubs.  At the very least listening to white customers talk about base ball was a way interested barbers could learn not just about the game, but also about the issues involved in forming a base ball club.  Reportedly black barbers were acceptable to whites because it was a master/servant relationship, not in any sense a relationship of equals.  It was, however, still a relationship and the captive audience aspect of a hair cut and/or shave (more frequent in those days) could have led to conversations that resulted in the "master" helping the "servant" start and operate a base ball club, help in the form of ideas, money, old uniforms as well as used bats and balls.

August 4, 1848 Newark Daily Advertiser ad sponsored by Newark barbers including Peter O'Fake, of the other 11 barbers at least five were black

This is all speculation and subject to further research and analysis, but one thing seems certain.  Regardless of whether Peter O'Fake had anything to do with base ball, his descendants caught the bug somewhere.  According to a 1926 article in the Newark Sunday Call, "young O'Fake" played for the  Active Club of Newark, a leading white club of the late 1860's and 1870's, perhaps the first New Jersey black to play for a primarily white club. 

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