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Quite a Historical Character

Brief press reports went out from Mandan in February 1890 recounting an act of violence, saying, “A negro barber named Julius Whales stabbed another negro barber named Henry Wagner, in fifteen places with a jackknife. Wagner is in a precarious condition.” Oddly, that is the extent of reports. We read nothing as to the recovery of Mr. Wagner nor as to the legal fate of Mr. Whales. Evidently the matter was just left to rest.

Not that surprising, as the violence was black-on-black. And in some respects the report was typical of the treatment of African-Americans in the news of the day, with its intimation of passionate violence--fifteen wounds, after all.

I am struck, however, by one detail: that the wounds were inflicted not with a razor, the tool of the barber’s profession, but with a jackknife, like any man might carry. It seems important that the stabbing not reflect on the profession.

The historian Douglas Bristol, Jr., published in 2004 a scholarly article on black barbers through the nineteenth century and early years of the twentieth which situates them as businessmen in white society. He says they were “the most successful African American businessmen in the nineteenth century” who practiced their arts with “wit, savoir-faire, and tenacity.”

To accomplish this, Bristol says, the black barbers had to do two things. First, create and operate respectable, even luxurious establishments in which white patrons felt comfortable and pampered. Second, establish a persona, a “mask,” of unthreatening geniality.

Because “shaving, rather than haircutting, was the mainstay of nineteenth-century barbers.” Theirs was, literally, “the story of the black man’s razor at the white man’s throat.”

Which brings us back to Mr. Whales and his jackknife, not his razor. It is impossible to find out much more about this African American businessman. He was a married man, having wed a woman named Canie Malker in Burleigh County in 1882. And I know that before 1904 he relocated to the little town of Grand Harbor, in Ramsey County, where the Devils Lake Inter-Ocean published a brief sketch of him. It reads,

"Julius Whales, the Grand Harbor barber, is quite a historical character. He is 65 years old, was a slave before the war, and running away, joined the Union Army. When Julius Morgan, the rebel guerilla, made a raid in Ohio, Julius was instrumental in his capture. Whales and Morgan had played together as boys, and when Morgan, dressed in farmer’s clothes, was driving past some Union soldiers who were searching for him, Whales recognized his old playmate who was identified by a scar on his head. Morgan was sent to prison in Ohio, but escaped, went south and raised another army of guerillas and continued his operations against the Union forces."

Although Mr. Whales told census enumerators in 1890 he was a veteran of the 41st Ohio Infantry, I rather doubt that. I suspect that as an escaped slave, he went to work as some sort of laborer for the regiment. But that’s not my point. My point is the richness of his story, which, no doubt, he told to customers in his chair, many of whom likely were Civil War veterans themselves.

The old soldiers would have been entertained by the narrative, and they would have settled in comfortably for a shave or haircut. Just how comfortable, though, were black barbers like Whales in Dakota? The evidence is thin, but there are more stories.

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