Four Generations by Melinda Byers

 

Article from The Kentucky Post, Monday, January 20, 1992, Page 4K
Generously Transcribed and submitted by Sherida Dougherty
Thanks Sherida!

 

FREE BLACKS FACED HALF MEASURES ALONG THE ROAD TO GENUINE FREEDOM

Charity Southgate, Jonathan Singer used both guile and courage

By Jim Reis

 

          Jonathan J. Singer arrived in Covington on Nov. 27, 1836, and like thousands of others, he was simply a pioneer looking to make a life for himself on the frontier.

            Singer’s arrival, however, set the community abuzz.

            The amount of attention was similar to that appropriate for a traveling dignitary, possibly a former general or president.  Singer was neither.  He was a simple, friendly man with a great talent as a barber.

            Singer also was black, but the color of his skin wasn’t what set tongues wagging.  By most accounts hundreds of blacks lived in Northern Kentucky at the time and their comings and going were no more significant than anyone else’s.

            What made Singer a curiosity to some and a threat to others was that he was a free black man.

            Up until the Civil War the vast majority of Northern Kentucky blacks were slaves.  Covington, for example, had a population of more than 16,000 in 1860, about 200 were black.  Of the 200 blacks, only a handful were free.

            Two other free blacks well known in early Covington were Ike Bartlett and William Page.  Bartlett was a former slave.  He had been bought and freed by his white friends in Covington.  Page was a popular cook and waiter.

            The 1860 census records included a column for listing a person’s color, but for a white person the column was to be left blank.  If the person was black, a “B” was to be listed.  If a person was a mulatto, a person with one white parent and one black parent, the letter “M” was used.

Mulattoes [sic] existed in a kind of no man’s land – not really a part of either the black community or the white community.  Often they were simply listed as black and were treated as slaves usually when the father was white and the mother black. 

But in a few cases especially when the mother was white and the father black, a person of mixed race could claim being born free, which usually resulted in a legal battle.  That was the case of a Pendleton County woman named Charity Southgate.

A look at the lives of Jonathan J. Singer and Charity Southgate provide a look at exception to the rigid codes of the state’s slavery era.

Determining “firsts” in Northern Kentucky history is often chancy.  For the first 40 or so years of settlement in Northern Kentucky, records are limited.  Newspapers usually began only after there was a solid base of people living in a community.  The Licking Valley Register, for example, was publishing in the 1830s.

Accounts of those early pioneer days often did not appear in print until 40 or 50 years after the fact, often when a long time resident died or some major event such as a flood or storm got people trying to remember the last time thins were that bad.

Other after the fact accounts came about simply because someone chose to reminisce.  It was the latter case that provides much of the information available on Jonathan J. Singer.

A reporter for the Daily Commonwealth newspaper in Covington interviewed Singer, and the story published on Oct. 21, 1877, indicates that Singer was born in Virginia about 1810.

It is not clear whether Singer was born a free man or was a slave who was freed.  On this death certificate, blanks for the names of his parents were left blank.

Singer, however, was by all accounts a free man and not a runaway slave when he arrived in Covington on Nov. 27, 1836.

Singer said he had come to Covington from the western part of Virginia.

The newspaper reporter who interviewed Singer wrote that in 1836 it was not legal in Kentucky for a free black person to live in the state.  The law was prompted by concern that the appearance of a free black would cause a disturbance among slaves and might encourage them to try to escape.

The prevailing thought was that, even if a black man was free, it would probably be in his best interest, as well as the community’s, if he selected some white person to serve as his master.

The writer added that Singer’s arrival in 1836 “excited a great deal of comment, much of it arose to his remaining here, but more on account of the law and the prevailing prejudice, than for any objection anybody had to the intruder himself.

“The talk grew as it always does in a little town, until quite an excitement was created; his friends and opponents were somewhat embittered and some of the latter even threatened him with violence.  Danger stared him in the face and he lived in bodily fear all the time.”

Singer, however, apparently did not waver and the writer added, “by his good conduct and quiet, courteous behavior, in the course of a short time got into the good graces of even his enemies and they were soon numbered in the catalogue of his friends.”

Singer’s acceptance in the community did not resolve the legal problem.  That issue was resolved in 1841 when Singer’s friends organized a mass meeting in the community that included “some of the best people of the city”.

Those who attended the meeting decided to organize a petition drive to ask the state legislature to pass an act granting Singer the full privileges of an “unmolested citizen” with the right to live there, but no including rights of white males such as voting or seeking elected office.

The 1877 writer said just about everyone in the city signed the petition, which was then given to Maj. John A. Goodson to take to Frankfort.

The account said the bill was approved and in the early part of 1842, Singer became the first free colored man who had the right of residence conferred upon him by act of the legislature.

Goodson, who apparently led the effort on behalf of Singer, had represented Campbell County in the state legislature prior to Kenton County being carved out of Campbell County.  After Kenton County was created, Goodson served that county as a state senator.  He also was Covington mayor from about 1859 to 1862.

When Goodson died at the age of 74, his body was found on April 17, 1867, at Glen’s Tavern about a mile from Walton.  He apparently died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound.

Goodson’s role in gaining Singer the legal right to live in Covington resulted in an act that extended the right to his family.

It seems that in 1838, two years after coming to Covington, Singer decided it was time to get married.  At the time he would have been about 28 years old.

Considering his tenuous situation, however, there were apparently no prospects in Northern Kentucky for a wife.  Singer decided he would have to travel back East to find a wife.

The simple act of traveling, however, also presented a problem.

Kentucky and Singer’s native state of Virginia were still slave states and the prospect of losing his freedom was a constant threat.  The sight of a black man traveling alone might result in his arrest as a possible runaway.  Even if he could prove his free status, there were others who would have no qualm about kidnapping a free black and selling him into slavery in the Deep South.

The solution for Singer was to find a white traveling companion, one who could verify his free status to law officials and help him in the event he met other trouble.

His traveling companion was John MacKoy.

MacKoy was a native of Greenup County, born on Sept. 8, 1802.  He was a businessman who had moved to Covington in 1830.  He was active in the Presbyterian Church.  In time, he served Covington on the city council and the school board and worked as a Kenton County deputy clerk.

Accounts say MacKoy at the time was going on a business trip to New York, but it is worth noting he also got married in 1838.  He married Elizabeth Hardie of Virginia.

Singer brought back as his wife a woman named Annie.  The 1877 account described her as “one of the colored belles of Pennsylvania”.

Jonathan and Annie Singer had at least eight children: Charles, Mary, Joseph, Jonathan P., Bush, Samuel, George and Anna.

Singer opened a barber shop and an advertisement in the Licking Valley Register newspaper in 1845 identified Singer as “fashionable Barber and Hair Dresser, Rooms on Greenup St., nearly opposite Bates Hotel, Covington, Ky.”  Singer later had a barber shop at 404 Scott St.  He lived at 52 E. Fourth St.

Several of his sons also became barbers including Robert, Charles, George, and Jonathan Jr.  Bush Singer ran a tobacco shop.

Another son, Joseph Singer, when he was just 16, became an unfortunate casualty of the Civil War.  He was working as a cook for the Hawthorn Guards, a local Union military unit.  They were at Camp King, which was set up at Cole’s Garden in southern Kenton County.

Joseph Singer went outside the encampment to get a bucket of water one evening.  When he returned, he forgot a sentry had been posted.  He was shot and killed when he attempted to enter the encampment without giving the password.

Another son, Samuel Singer, became principal of Seventh Street School, Covington’s school for black children.

Jonathan Singer died on Dec. 6, 1886.

According to his death certificate he had been ill for about six weeks.  He was 77 years old.  He was buried at Highland Cemetery.

After his death his widow apparently moved to 147 E. 10th St.  Several other members of the family lived on that block including Bush Singer, who lived at 163 E. 10th St. and Samuel Singer who lived at 161 E. 10th St.

Annie Singer died in January 1893.  An account at the time said she was buried at a cemetery for black people in Cincinnati.

The story of Charity Southgate is based on information compiled by Pendleton County Circuit Clerk Marvin Sullivan.

The story starts about 1806 or 1807 in Louden County, Va., where a woman named Patsy gave birth to a daughter.

Patsy, whose last name was spelled various ways in legal documents as Parmer, Palmour and Palmer, had been living in the home of her brother-in-law Robert Foster.

The birth was treated as a family disgrace.  Not only was the woman apparently not married, but the father of her child was apparently a black, a house servant of Foster.

The family moved the child, named Charity, to Bardstown when the girl was 2 or 3 years old.  She lived there with the family of a man named Asher Pullen until about 1822 when Jonathan Reid appeared, armed with a power of attorney papers signed by Philip L. Palmour.  The letter authorized Reid to take possession of the girl, which he did.  He moved her to Falmouth where she was placed in the custody of Samuel Wilson.

The girl, who apparently had not been treated as slave up to that point, was treated as a slave by Wilson.  With the aid of a friend, Joshua Powell, Charity filed suit in 1824 asking the court to declare her a free woman.

That began a 26-year court battle with several legal issues raised.

Among the legal issues was the question of exactly who her parents were.  If the accounts of second-hand witnesses were true about the birth to a white woman than the issue was raised as to whether Charity was born a free woman because her mother was white.

It was fairly common at the time for children to be born with a white slave owner as the father and a black slave woman as the mother.  In those cases the child was usually considered a slave because the mother was black.  But the situation was revered in Charity’s case.

If Charity was legally a slave, there was the question of testimony that her “owner or guardian” had declared Charity was to be held as a slave only until she reached the age of 28.

While the court battle waged, Charity apparently was sold twice – once to Andrew S. Hughes and then by him to Martin Willett.  Records also mention a daughter, Lucy, who was sold as a slave.

Charity apparently had another daughter by a black man and a son by a white man.  Then she apparently married a black man named Allen Southgate, with whom she had several children.

Those relationships explain the differences in the way some of her children are listed on a 1850 Pendleton County census.

In that census her oldest daughter living at home, Rebecca, 25, is listed as black; the oldest son, Elsey Hughes, 23, is listed as a mulatto like his mother; while the other children, all with the last name of Southgate, are listed as black like their father, Allen Southgate, who was identified as a 45 year old laborer.  Charity at the time was 42 years old.

The Southgate children were listed as Charlotte, 20; Amy, 18; Lucinda, 16; Polley Ann, 14; John A., 12; Abraham, 10; Edmund, 6; and Minerva, 4.

Also listed as living with the Southgate family in 1850 was a white man, John Morgan, who was 70.

The records are confusing but the courts apparently eventually declared Charity a free woman.  She died in the spring of 1868.

 

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