"Elevate Us to a Free and Independent Position": William J. Brown Looks for Work, 1831
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“Elevate Us to a Free and Independent Position”: William J. Brown Looks for Work, 1831

After the War for Independence, the northern states slowly abolished slavery. However, the rising population of northern free blacks still faced significant obstacles in their struggle to achieve economic and social liberty. African Americans in New England remained concentrated in the seaport cities, often clustered in low-paying jobs. Successful entrepreneurs and skilled traders still faced discrimination as well as opposition from white wageworkers. William J. Brown had been born in 1814 into a free black family in Providence, Rhode Island. His father was a sailor and laborer and his mother was the daughter of an African-American slave and Narragansett Indian woman. William became an artisan and leader in Providence’s African-American community. But he described his uphill struggle to find work and obtain respect from his fellow New Englanders in his autobiography Life of William J. Brown of Providence (1883).

I now thought it time for me to look for a place to learn a trade, and my readers will at once see the hindrances I met with in every effort I made in that direction. My mother had just died, after a short illness; her burial occurring on the 3d of December, 1831, which caused a great change in our family. This change made me the more anxious to secure a good place to learn my trade.

My first call was on a Mr. Knowles, a first-class carpenter, to see if he would take me as an apprentice to the trade. His excuse was that he had but little work, and that he was going to close up business. I next applied to a Mr. Langley, a shoemaker, to see if he would learn me the shoe business; but he refused without giving me an excuse. I made application to several gentlemen doing business, for a chance to work, but all refused me, giving some very frivolous excuse. I could readily see that the people were determined not to instruct colored people in any art. I next called on Mr. Ira B. Winsor, a grocery man. Making known to him my wants I gained his sympathy, and a promise to do what he could for me. His promise to hire me as a clerk encouraged me very much. He had first to consult his uncle, who was his guardian, before he could give me a decided answer. His uncle bitterly opposed his hiring a black boy while there were so many white boys he could get. This objection of his uncle displeased him much, and he told him if he could not have me he would have none. So he never hired a clerk. I often went in and helped wait on customers. This, however, did not suit me. I wanted something permanent that I could depend on for future support, not to be shifting to various kinds of employ as I had been doing. Other boys of my acquaintance, with little or no education, jerked up instead of being brought up, were learning trades and getting employments, and I could get nothing. It seemed singular to me at first. I soon found it was on account ot my color, for no colored men except barbers had trades, and that could hardly be called a trade. The white people seemed to be combined against giving us any thing to do which would elevate us to a free and independent position. The kindest feelings were manifested towards us in conversation, and that was all. I was now seventeen years old, and was at a loss to know what steps to take to get a living, for if I possessed the knowledge of a Demosthenes or Cicero, or Horace, or Virgil, it would not bring to me flattering prospects for the future. To drive carriage, carry a market basket after the boss, and brush his boots, or saw wood and run errands, was as high as a colored man could rise. This seemed to be the only prospect lying in my path. Some of my associates worked for eight or ten dollars a month, but what would that small pittance be to them, settled down in life with, a family to support, if they should have long continued sickness to contend with. This wouldn’t suit me; I must go somewhere else to find employ.

I now commenced the study of bookkeeping, thinking it would be of use to me sometime. I continued my study one year, when I had a chance to get work with a wealthy lawyer, to take care of his office and bedroom, paying me five dollars a month, and extra pay for all extra work done. I was told that he was a very cross man, and difficult to please, and often very abusive. Several good men had tried him, but could not suit him and had left. I concluded to try him. My father thought it was useless for me to try, but still if I did I must give him half of my wages.... Mr. Greene was much pleased with my work. After working for him three months his cousin, William C. Greene, hired the house and rented him a room in it. He had a large family; kept a cook, chamber maid and housekeeper, as his wife’s health was very delicate. He said to me one morning, “ William, I want to make a bargain with you to work for me. My chamber maid is going away on a visit and will be absent two months or more. I want you to do all the errands that my folks want done, and split some wood for them, (I believe they are now out,) and anything Miss Paris wants you to do, do it, and I will pay you. As soon as you have done Mr. Richard Greene’s work in the morning, you can get your breakfast here, and then be in readiness to do the chores.” I told him that I went to school, but would do what I could between school hours. This arrangement pleased him, and I commenced with him that day, doing whatever I was called upon to do. After working for six weeks I made out and presented my bill at his office; he being away, I left it on the office desk. I had been very careful in netting down my charges, as I was to be paid for going on errands a certain sum each time, never higher than twelve cents or lower than six. He was quite displeased with the bill, refusing to pay it. I was very calm, and told him I thought my charges were reasonable; but I did not wish to cherish hard feelings, one towards the other. I then submitted the prices of my work to his judgment; he seemed much pleased with my mild way of speaking, and said he would take my bill and fix the prices, and let me know when he was ready; and I could keep on doing his work as usual. In about three weeks he sent for me to come to his counting room. I went down and found my bill ready for settlement, but he had reduced the bill from six and a half to two dollars, allowing me three cents for every errand this side of the bridge, above Market Square, and ten cents an hour for cutting wood. As he was willing to be governed by these prices in the future, I receipted the bill and took my pay, which was $2.50. In two months and a half the maid returned, and as my services were no longer required, I went away, made out my bill and carried it to the office. Some two weeks passed, when his clerk, meeting me, said that Mr. Greene wanted to see me. I went to his office and found him fretting about my bill. I asked him if he could find any charge on the bill which did not correspond with the dates on the books where the purchases were made. If he did I would alter the bill; but if he found it to be of the same date the purchases were made, I could make no change in the bill. Finding nothing to justify his belief, he paid me and I left him.

I was without work some three months. I then applied to Enos Freeman, a colored man who had just opened a shop to repair shoes. He said he was unable to keep a man; he could hardly take care of himself by his trade, as he had just commenced business. I told him I wanted to learn the trade and if he would learn me I would board myself. He told me to come and he would learn me all he knew about it. I went home and told father; he was much pleased about it and said if I would go there and learn my trade he would board me. He said if he had learned the trade he could have made four or five dollars a day where he had been in foreign countries. I commenced and learned very fast. At the close of that year Mr. Freeman was taken sick and after a short illness died. I purchased all his tools of his half brother, Geo. Peters, determined to work until I could raise means to go away, which would take about eighteen months. My custom increased and promised great success. I had the waiters' work from the City Hotel, Franklin and Mansion House, besides waiters that lived in private families; and the prospect was that if my business continued good, I would have a sufficient amount of money at the appointed time to travel with, to some place where I could make a permanent living, for I was determined to go to some place where my prospects would be more encouraging. I also began to think that if I could be more successful in business, I would like to get married. But old people would say that it is very difficult to keep the pot a-boiling; so I concluded to make an effort to test my powers to do extra work. Then if I should be compelled to resort to that method to support a family, it would not be a new-thing to me. And if I succeeded in performing extra labors I would get married, and if not I would remain single a while longer. I commenced working nights until 12 o’clock, then replenish the fire and rest while it was kindling. Then it would be warm enough to commence work again. I followed it up one week, but the last night the fire did not burn very fast, and in waiting for it to kindle I fell asleep, and being near the stove I began to make one of my graceful bows until my head gently touched the stove, and to my great discomfort burnt my forehead, nose and chin, which speedily aroused me, as the pain was quite severe, taking a portion of skin off my forehead so that I could not work for an hour or two. I continued working for two weeks to see if I could endure the extra task. One night while resting I fell asleep and dreamed that a man entered the shop to kill me. I awoke, looked round, saw nothing, fell asleep and dreamed it again; and again the third time dreamed the same over again. Being startled by the dreary I awoke and found my shop on fire, all in a bright flame. I looked to see where the fire originated; learning the cause I soon put it out with my shoe tub of water. A piece of canvas belonging to father was hanging up in the shop; he had used it a few days before when he spun oakum for Captain Bullock’s ship which was under repair, intending to take it home in a few days. One end of it got unrolled and fell to the floor, and moving my bench it got dragged out; the room was very warm and the candle melted and falling on the floor set it on fire and nearly consumed it. After putting the fire out I went home and spent the rest of the night. I felt that I had been working at night long enough to warrant success in supporting a family. Another important matter I must settle was to leave the company I had been with so long, and break off from the Tuesday night Society. Many had watched me from the time I joined the church and I had to be reserved in my deportment, for they well knew how I used to be; I allowed no one to insult me or make useless threats. I found much difficulty in this respect....

I found that other jobs kept coming in, from sources I little expected, yet I had not been able to get a sufficient sum to meet my arrears. I lived in a house belonging to a widow lady, and was back in rent fourteen dollars; she told me she had concluded to occupy the tenement herself, and as soon as I could to give it up; she lived up stairs. I soon learned that Barker & Wheaton wanted a man to dress new work. I made application for the place, telling them I heard they wanted a man; they said they did, and asked if I understood dressing new shoes with gum; I said I was a shoemaker by trade, but had never used any gum; they asked for recommendations; I said I had none, I had never worked for anybody to get one; they said they wanted a man that didn’t have a lot of company coming into the shop, and one that would give no back talk when spoken to; I told them I never had anyone loafing around me, but if any one had business with me I expected to see them wherever I was, and as for back talk I never gave any, and if I did not suit a man I left him; one asked if I knew his barbers, James Scott and Charles Burrell; I said I was well acquainted with them; he said I will see them, and if they speak well of you, you come next Monday and I will let you know. The next Monday I went to the store and Mr. Barker said to me, Messrs. Burrell and Scott spoke well of you, and said you was just the man we wanted; we want you to come mornings and open the store, make the fire and sweep the room; for that we will pay one dollar a week; we want you to dress shoes with gum, and we will allow you twenty-five cents a case; when you assist in rolling leather, we will allow you one cent a boll; you need not close the store at night, we attend to that; we pay out money but once in three months for work; we sell and receive on three months‘ credit; if you can serve us on those terms you can begin next Monday morning; we want you to look out for the shop, let no one trouble our books; you must be dressed clean, for you will have to be in the front part of the shop. Very good, sir, I will commence next Monday morning, I said. Mr. B. said, when you come go up stairs to Mr. Wheaton’s room, rap on the door, and he will give you the key; the shop must be opened by half past seven o’clock. Now, I wondered how I should get along for three months without any pay, as I had no means to sustain myself and family during the time; however, I thought I would trust the Lord and do the best I could, and if I got into straightened circumstances I might get some money of them, to keep me along until the three months were up. I told my wife if any work came in during the day to keep it and I would do it in the evening. I went to the store Monday morning, got the key and opened the store, made up a fire and put the store in order, as my employers would be in at half pas eight o’clock; I then went around to see how everything was placed, as I was very near sighted, and did not wish them to know it for some time; as it was generally the case as soon as a person found I was near sighted, the next opinion would be that I was about blind. After learning the places of the different’ articles they would use during the day I sat down and waited for them to come in. Mr. Barker soon came in, walked around the store, and said, William, you have every thing in first rate order, I think you will suit us. I thanked him, saying I should endeavor to. Mr. Barker was a smaller man than, myself, very large in feeling, quick in motion, sharp in perception and would try to make one think he knew everything. Mr. Wheaton, his partner, was very tall and large in proportion; slow and easy in motion, dull in perception and moderate in appearance; you would think he knew but little; he did the business in the store, and Mr. Barker did the travelling business. Mr. Barker told oft to go to breakfast and return as soon as possible, as they had a great deal of work on hand. When I returned the first thing called for was a hammer, saw and chisel; I brought them, and when he finished put them back in their places. He opened two cases of shoes, and set me to work dressing them; he had two bottles, one of gum arabic to dress the bottoms to give them a lively red color, the other was gum tragacanth to dress the upper leather, making it look fresh and smooth; after having been shown how to dress the shoes I commenced doing precisely as I had been shown, and worked all day on that one case, and got only about two-thirds of it done. I thought if I made no better progress than that during the week I should leave off. The next day I finished that case and another one besides, and at the close of the week I was able to dress three cases a day; being particular to have him examine each case before they were repacked. When I went home nights I would find some work to be done to sustain myself the coming day. I now found that I was obliged to put in practice that which I was once trying as an experiment, working nights. Some nights I would work until eleven o’clock, and other nights until after midnight; by this means I was enabled to keep along nearly two months. One morning while waiting I felt drowsy, and when Mr. Barker came in he suddenly opened the door, and said what is the matter, William, are you sick? I said, no, sir; He said, what makes you so dull, did you not have sleep enough last night? I said, no, sir. He asked what time I retired? I answered three o’clock this morning. He said what was you doing that you did not go to bed before, as you ought to? I said, I am obliged to work nights to support myself and family, as you could pay me no money for three months. He said that is too bad, we cannot get our money until it is due, but if you or any of your friends want shoes, we will let you have them at wholesale prices and credit them to your account, and you can receive the money. When the three months expired I made out my bill, setting down each day’s work, the number of cases of shoes I had dressed each day, and presented it for settlement. It was examined by my employers and they wanted to know who made it out for me? I said I always kept my own accounts and made out my own bills. They said they had no idea I could write such a fine hand, for neither of them could begin to write like it. My work came to over eighty dollars, and they settled it, lacking ten dollars. I then could settle up some of my back debts; the first was my rent, amounting to twenty-one dollars. My landlady was much pleased at receiving her rent in full, and said I need not move as she had concluded to remain up stairs, and had concluded that she should never tell me to move the second time, and as soon as I could better myself, to do so. I was soon able to dress six cases a day. I commenced the second quarter by putting down the balance due, ten dollars, and the charges underneath. I sold twelve pair of shoes, which I took out of the store, to my neighbors, and with the balance due on the last quarter I sustained myself until the second quarter was up. I carried in my bill, which was over eighty dollars, that was paid, (keeping out a balance of eight dollars); the sum enabled me to meet all my back debts so that 1 was not compelled to sit up nights to work. After commencing on the third quarter, one day while dressing shoes, Mr. Barker came on one side of me and Mr. Wheeler on the other; Mr. B. said, William, how long have you been working for us? I said nearly nine months. He said, I think you are a very honest person. That is what I always try to be, I said. Mr. B. said, if some men were working here and trusted as we trust you, they would carry off a great many dollars worth of boots and shoes. I said I have no doubt of it, some people are just so foolish; you would certainly know if they took away any of your property. He said, how would we know it unless we saw them? I said, don’t you have an invoice of every thing that comes into your shop on your books, and every article you sell is on your sales book, and when you post your books and take an inventory of your effects, every article that has not been sold must be in your store, and if they are not found in your store somebody must have taken them, and who would be accused but me? it would fall on my shoulders; you have given me liberty to take any shoes that I wanted and charge them to myself, and I have done so, charging them to my account, and when I presented my bill you have seen the credit given of what I had drawn. He asked me where I got this knowledge of doing business? I said, I attended school and studied bookkeeping. He asked, how long I went to school? I replied, until I was twenty years old. He said, no wonder you are so well posted; you ought to know something about business. I want to ask you, Billy, if you have ever taken any change out of the drawer and forgot to tell Mr. Wheaton about it, or made change for any one and made a. mistake, as you cannot see very well. I answered, I had not troubled his drawer, either to get change for my own use or any one; I had no business with your drawer, and if I wanted any money I should ask you for it. Mr. Wheaton said, I told you that I didn’t think William had taken any money out of the drawer; the mistake has come by me, I have not been particular enough in setting down the postage I paid out. Mr. Barker said we have found a little discrepancy in our accounts in posting up our books; we can’t strike a balance of four dollars and a half, and thought we would mention it to you, thinking you might have taken some change out of the drawer and forgot to mention it to Mr. Wheaton. I worked there fifteen months, when the firm failed and made an assignment. Thinking business was closed with them, I made out my bill and presented it to Mr. Barker, who said he had closed up business, but to leave my bill and he would settle it in a week or so; (the amount was seventy-one dollars). When I called to settle with them, Mr. B. said, I have got your bill made out from the time you commenced until you closed, embracing fifteen months; you have made a great mistake in your bill; we owe you a balance of twenty-two dollars, and if you receipt the bill you can get your money now. That made a reduction on my account of forty-nine dollars. I said I didn’t think I had made any mistake. I examined his bill, and well knew there was something about it. I asked him to let me have ten dollars and I would go home and look over my accounts and see what the difficulty was. He said he would not pay a cent until he paid the whole, and that would be when I receipted the bill. I asked him for the bill to take home for examination and would return it the next day. He said if I would do that I could take it. I promised I would and took it and went home, there copied the bill and returned it to him the next morning, and said I would see him the latter part of the week; I having a copy of his bill, and from my account, I saw that he had altered the charges I made; when I dressed six cases, he put down four, and when I dressed four, he put down two and three, and proceeded on, carrying out the bill fifteen months. I took the amount I had received and substracted it from the amount due, and it came to seventy-one dollars, just like the balance on my former bill; I took the amount of credit he had allowed for fifteen months, added my account with it, which increased it forty-two dollars; for he copied his credit from my former bills—he just cited the amount due me on his account and went on with the bill, without noticing that I had reckoned the money, and by this means I trapped him. I called again and told him I was ready to settle, and explained to him what he had done to deceive me. When he found himself trapped, he said, well, Billy, I will settle it to suit you and give you seventy-one dollars; he was glad to back out in that way. I was again without any work; I had stopped repairing shoes so long that my customers had gone elsewhere; I went about to see what I could find to do, when Royal Faruum met me and said, your people have failed. I said yes, sir; he inquired what I was doing now? I told him I was trying to find something to do. He kept shop on South Main, above Planet street, and was connected with a Philadelphia line of packets; kept ship stores and seamen’s clothing. I went into his store and he showed me a large number of small size boots and shoes he could not sell (having sold his larger sizes); he said, if you will oil, dress and sell these shoes I will give you half you make. I accepted the offer, went to work on them, and was kept very busy some three months.

Source: William J. Brown, The Life of William J. Brown, of Providence, R.I.; With Personal Recollections of Incidents in Rhode Island (Providence, R.I.,: Angell & Co., 1883), 102–21.