Friday, April 20, 2012

Ella D. Barrier: White, Black, or Mulatto?

In reconstructing the life of Frederick Douglass as it intersected with women -- or even in reconstructing the less "important" and famous parts of his life, the paparazzi types of information -- I often find myself chasing down details that sometimes become important, sometimes become unimportant, and sometimes illustrate interesting tidbits about life in 19th century America.

Writing to her father in the 1870s, Rosetta Douglass Sprague mentioned several women, including  "Miss Barrier." From this letter I knew that Barrier was unmarried and that she lived somewhere around Rochester. Scanty enough details but they can sometimes take you pretty far in (seriously, the best investment I ever made for research). To narrow the search, I guesstimated her age about 20, since Rosetta called her "Miss" and I could assume that the number of of women designated "Miss" declined rapidly as they aged. I've been wrong there before, finding that Miss Julia Wilbur had about two more decades on her than I anticipated -- but that's another story for another time.

These are the results for a search including "Barrier," "Monroe County, New York, USA," and birth year 1850.:

1860 U.S. Census, Sweden, Monroe County, New York:

Here we see (or could see if we could enlarge the image)the household of Anthony Barrier, a 34-year old barber born in Pennsylvania, with a total estimated $2,500 worth of property. With him live Harriet, age 25; George, age 11; Ellen, age 9; Frances, age 6; [illegible -- and I've tried very hard to lege -- maybe Pesmilie]Prince , age 24; and Alfred L. and Susan [Hombalk]. Prince was a servant, possibly the Barrier's. The [Hombalks] appear to be boarders, with Alfred also working as a barber. If the children belong to both Anthony and Harriet, then Harriet began having babies at age 14. While not entirely unusual, motherhood at 14 meant Harriet started awfully young. Perhaps she appeared younger than she was to the Census taker. Certainly Anna Douglass's age varied wildly in the census for such a reason.

In any case, the column labeled "Race" interested me. The census taker designated all as "M" -- Mulatto. The reason that their race interested me? Well, first, I am desperately trying to reconstruct the black women who worked around Douglass. Most of the abolitionist women seem to be white and I have to work harder to find his associations with black women. Second, I had actually encountered the next document first.

1870 U.S. Census, Sweden, Monroe County, New York:

Same place, slightly different household composition. Anthony Barrier, now 46 and still a barber born in Pennsylvania, has a net worth of $4000. Harriet, now 36, still keeps house. George has become "Gio" (the abbreviation for George was "Geo"). Now 20-years old, Gio works as a barber like his father. Ella, 18, attends school, making her quite well-educated for a young, black woman of her time. Francis, called "Fanny," two years younger than Ella, also attends school. Nothing unusual, right?

Except, if you look at the race column, the census taker identified them as "W" -- white.

So, did the Barriers "pass"? That is, were they so light that they could pass for white? More importantly, did they try to pass?

Ella being my primary focus, I followed her into 1880:

1880 U.S. Census, Washington, D.C. (Massachusetts Avenue):

Ella has moved to Washington, D.C., putting her education to use as a teacher. She, now age 28, and her sister Fanny live in the household of Henry Tilghman, a 70-year old caterer from Maryland. The Tilghman family includes Henry's wife, Margaret, and daughters, Jerusha and Amelia, a dressmaker and teacher respectively. They also have a servant, Lilly Cross.

Tilghman, by the way, was a common last name in Talbot County, Douglass's birthplace.

In this case, the census taker identified all but Cross as "M." Cross was "B."

Damn fire for taking the 1890 census!

In 1900, however, I came across this little anomaly:

1900 U.S. Census, Washington, D.C. (17th Street):

Here I've found Ella D. Barrier. Ella in 1870 has a middle initial "D," but the age of the other Ellas all place her birth about 1852. This Ella, also from New York and also a teacher, says she was born in February 1860. Her passport application says the same thing, and also placed her birth place more specifically in Brockport, NY. (If you look back up at the link to Sweden, New York, you might notice that Sweden encompasses Brockport.) An 8 year difference seems significant, if not unheard of (again, Anna Douglass had a wide range of ages). Still, a consistent age for three censuses, then she shaves off 8 years?

Here, too, she lives with four other teachers and two students, all from North Carolina, as well as a dressmaker from Virginia. They or the census taker all identified as "B" -- black.

The head of this household of educated black women and their domestic? Anna J. Cooper. That is, Anna Julia Cooper, former slave, Sorbonne-educated professor and activist.

What does this all mean? Right now, I have no idea, and this exemplifies the ways that I range far afield from my primary research focus and book narrative. Nonetheless, this ranging produce an "ah-hah!" insight.

As I wrote above, I'm having a difficult time pulling together Douglass's interactions with black women. The earlier, abolitionist period of his life and the familial relationships have preoccupied my attention thus far. My weakness lies in the later, public part of his life. From the Civil War onward, from the rhetoric of manhood in recruiting black soldiers to the patronage positions awarded him, he moved in a much more masculine world than the one of his early career. Sure, he tangles with the suffragists over the 15th Amendment, and supports woman's suffrage afterward; but I think he gets too much credit for being a "woman's rights man." He certainly is not as analytical about women's issues as he is about African American issues.

Then, again, I'm hampered by the old "all the women are white and all the blacks are men." Where are the brave ones?

They are teaching. In this latter period of his life, the woman's suffrage is not the only place where he interacts with women. Black education, the cornerstone for a better future for African Americans, the bedrock of his own sense of self since Sophia Auld taught him the alphabet, black education was the field in which he and women, black women, worked together. How could I be so blind?

At least, for now, this has become my hypothesis. As in science, I must now test it with evidence.


  1. For what it's worth I've found Douglass worked with Mary Ann Shadd and Eunice P. Shadd (the first black gradate of Howard Medical College) during his editorship of "The New Era / New National Era." They were both subscription agents for the paper. Mary Ann was frequently published and/or mentioned in the paper.

  2. Ella D. Barrier was an amazing woman. She was a founding sister of my sorority Arethusean and the only african american woman in the organization in 1870. You can learn more about her on my tree. Please email me at to see what I have on her that may help further your research.
    Meredith Kaye-Tierney