Four Generations by Melinda Byers
from The Kentucky Post, Monday, January 20, 1992, Page 4K
Generously Transcribed and submitted by Sherida Dougherty
FREE BLACKS FACED HALF MEASURES ALONG THE ROAD TO GENUINE FREEDOM
Southgate, Jonathan Singer used both guile and courage
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.
“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.
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
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.
for the Daily Commonwealth newspaper in Covington interviewed Singer, and the
story published on Oct. 21, 1877, indicates that Singer was born in Virginia
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
however, was by all accounts a free man and not a runaway slave when he arrived
in Covington on Nov. 27, 1836.
he had come to Covington from the western part of Virginia.
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.
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.
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
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.”
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
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”.
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.
writer said just about everyone in the city signed the petition, which was then
given to Maj. John A. Goodson to take to Frankfort.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
act of traveling, however, also presented a problem.
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.
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.
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.
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.
brought back as his wife a woman named Annie.
The 1877 account described her as “one of the colored belles of
Annie Singer had at least eight children: Charles, Mary, Joseph, Jonathan P.,
Bush, Samuel, George and Anna.
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.
his sons also became barbers including Robert, Charles, George, and Jonathan Jr.
Bush Singer ran a tobacco shop.
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
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.
Samuel Singer, became principal of Seventh Street School, Covington’s school
for black children.
Singer died on Dec. 6, 1886.
his death certificate he had been ill for about six weeks. He was 77 years old. He
was buried at Highland Cemetery.
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.
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.
starts about 1806 or 1807 in Louden County, Va., where a woman named Patsy gave
birth to a daughter.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
relationships explain the differences in the way some of her children are listed
on a 1850 Pendleton County census.
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.
children were listed as Charlotte, 20; Amy, 18; Lucinda, 16; Polley Ann, 14;
John A., 12; Abraham, 10; Edmund, 6; and Minerva, 4.
as living with the Southgate family in 1850 was a white man, John Morgan, who
are confusing but the courts apparently eventually declared Charity a free
woman. She died in the spring of
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