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Toolbox Library, primary resources thematically organized with notes and discussion questionsOnline Seminars, professional development seminars for history and literature teachersThe Making of African American Identity: Volume I, 1500-1865
The Making of African American Identity: Volume I, 1500-1865
Theme: FreedomTheme: EnslavementTheme: CommunityTheme: IdentityTheme: Emancipation
Theme: Identity

Tobacconist, Lunsford Lane, 1863
- Tobacconist in North Carolina: Lunsford Lane, 1830s (PDF)
- Shoemaker in Connecticut: William J. Brown, 1830s
- Sailmaker in Massachusetts: James Forten, 1830s (PDF)
- Barber in Mississippi: William Johnson, 1830s-1840s (PDF)
- Merchant in California: Mifflin Gibbs, 1850s-1860s (PDF)
- Dressmaker in Washington, DC: Elizabeth Keckley, 1860s (PDF)

Profit-making businesses were created by more free and enslaved African Americans than one might realize from the usual survey of antebellum America. When the opportunity presented itself, it was taken by these men and women, sometimes timidly, sometimes whole-heartedly, and often endorsed by the masters of the enslaved.

  • Tobacconist. As a young slave, Lunsford Lane recalls selling a basket of peaches for money he could keep and very soon, he says, "plans for money-making took the principal possession of my thoughts." In six to eight years he had amassed one thousand dollars, enough to purchase his freedom, as we read from The Narrative of Lunsford Lane (1842).

  • Shoemaker. William J. Brown was born into a free black family in Rhode Island and as a young man faced discrimination and often unethical treatment from whites as he strove to pursue a trade and career. In his selection from his Life of William J. Brown of Providence, R. I. (1883) we read his frustrating experiences as a store clerk and apprentice shoemaker.

  • Sailmaker. James Forten, Sr., a freeman and grandfather of Charlotte Forten (see #3: Free-born), learned the sail-making trade after the Revolution, bought his employer's business, and later became the wealthiest black man in Philadelphia. In this 1835 article from the white journal The Anti-Slavery Record, a white reporter describes a visit to Forten's sailmaking business.

  • Barber. After being emancipated by his master in 1820, William Johnson became a successful businessman in Natchez, Mississippi, operating a barber shop, loaning money and acquiring real estate. He became a slaveowner himself, not a rare occurrence among southern free blacks. Selections from his daily journal and account book are presented here, glimpse into the mental machinery of this intriguing man.

  • Merchant. Free-born in Philadelphia, Mifflin Gibbs became a businessman, lawyer, politician, and abolitionist. For several years he operated a clothing store in San Francisco, which he we learn from his autobiography Shadow and Light (1902).

  • Dressmaker. After purchasing her freedom in St. Louis, Elizabeth Keckley moved to Washington, DC, and became the dressmaker for Mary Todd Lincoln, producing elegant gowns for the capital's elite women. These selections from her 1868 autobiography Behind the Scenes display her ardor and initiative in creating her business and her life.

Considering that "entrepreneur" derives from the French entreprendre—to undertake—note the personal and social risks undertaken by these African Americans in addition to the financial risks taken by all entrepreneurs. (xx pages.)

Discussion questions
  1. How do these entrepreneurs define themselves as business people, in their terms in their time?
  2. To what extent does their business activity define their sense of themselves?
  3. Compare and contrast these businesspeople by status (slave, freed slave, free-born), geographic region, gender, type of business, personal attributes, their business relationships with white people and other black people, and the spur that led to their business endeavors. What patterns do you find?
  4. Compare the entrepreneurs with the artists of the next section (#4). What differences and similarities do you find?

Framing Questions
  •  How did African Americans construct identity in antebellum America?
  •  How did enslaved and free blacks differ in their exercise of power and self-determination?
  •  How did African Americans define themselves as members of groups?

Supplemental Sites
Narratives in Documenting the American South, UNC-CH

- Lunsford Lane, The Narrative of Lunsford Lane, 1842
- Elizabeth Keckley, Behind the Scenes: or, Thirty years a Slave, and Four Years in the White House, 1868

- Merchant: Mifflin Wistar Gibbs, frontispiece of Gibbs, Shadow and Light: An Autobiography with Reminiscences of the Last and Present Century, 1902. Reproduced by permission of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, New York Public Library.
- Sailmaker: James Forten, watercolor portrait, n.d. Historical Society of Pennsylvania. Permission pending.
- Dressmaker: Elizabeth Keckley, frontispiece of Keckley, Behind the Scenes: Thirty Years a Slave, and Four Years in the White House, 1868. Reproduced by permission of the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.
- Tobacconist: Lunsford Lane, frontispiece of William G. Hawkins, Lunsford Lane; or, Another Helper from North Carolina, 1863. Reproduced by permission of the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.

*PDF file - You will need software on your computer that allows you to read and print Portable Document Format (PDF) files, such as Adobe Acrobat Reader. If you do not have this software, you may download it FREE from Adobe's Web site.

1. Slave   2. Slave to Free   3. Free-born   4. Entrepreneurs   5. Artists
6. Poets   7. Soldiers   8. Education   9. Citizenship   10. Emigration

TOOLBOX: The Making of African American Identity: Volume I, 1500-1865
Freedom | Enslavement | Community | Identity | Emancipation

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