In 1832, seventeen men were brought to the Richmond City Hustings Court with a unique charge. These men were cabinetmakers. They had united themselves illegally into a confederation and created illegal bylaws discouraging the use of cabinetmaker shops that employed free Black and enslaved tradesmen in the city. The indictment (which is ten pages long) put their crime into these terms: that the union of men had joined together “to endeavor to reduce and encourage all journey-men cabinet makers to go out of and abandon any cabinet shop in the city aforesaid from and after the fourth day of July…Eighteen hundred and thirty two should any person of colour be employed to work at the said shop by the master workmen to whom the shop aforesaid should belong.”1
This union of cabinetmakers wasn’t all talk; in addition to threats, they had gone so far as to assault a man who had been working at cabinet shops that employed Black laborers. According to the indictment, the “Conspirators…did endeavor to cause & force the said William Selden to abandon & quit the work and employment of the said George Hendree at the shop last aforesaid by then & there and within the jurisdiction aforesaid by assaulting, beating and otherwise mal-treating the said William Selden…” Hendree was a master cabinetmaker who employed Black artisans in his cabinet shop. The indictment papers also identified Robert Poore as one of the men who employed Black artisans in the city. Isaac, a free Black man, and Jac, who was enslaved by Poore, both worked in his shop. Both Hendree and Poore were notable Richmond cabinetmakers who worked closely with more famous names such as Richmond City’s Willis Cowling.2
Posted on June 22, 1832, in the RICHMOND WHIG, ``The Committee`` resolved that they would abandon cabinetmaking shops where people of color were employed.
The “committee,” as they referred to themselves publicly, had placed a notice in the newspaper just two months prior advising that the use of journeymen cabinetmakers of color was “pernicious” to the trade because of the “degraded society to which they are subject…” The term “journeymen” in this context refers to the skill level within the trade. Traditionally the trajectory went something like: apprentice, journeyman, master. The journeyman level designated a mid-tier status in which one might still be working for someone else but no longer considered an amateur tradesperson. The committee also announced that as of July 4, 1832, they would abandon any shop where “coloured persons” were employed. Note that the indictment references this same exact date (July 4, 1832) as the day in which cabinetmaking shops should be abandoned.
Unfortunately for us, the case was “quashed,” which essentially means that it was terminated, and the minute book entry confirms that the case moved no further.3
There certainly was precedence for white workers being pushed out by a Black labor force in the Richmond City industrial landscape. By the 1830s, tobacco manufacturing factories, canal companies, and coal mines were securing more enslaved labor. Some white workers refused to work with enslaved people.4 Southern white artisans felt that their role in the economy was threatened by enslaved labor and advocated against the use of their free labor. A similar instance of discrimination in the trades had occurred in 1790 in Richmond when white journeymen shoemakers refused to work for any person who had “negro workmen” in their employment.5 Enslaved labor was not necessarily cheaper, but did have other benefits such as the ease of management. Many employers believed that Black laborers more naturally submitted to authority.6 When white workers did try to organize against the use of enslaved labor, companies such as the Norfolk Dry Dock and Richmond’s Tredegar Iron Works simply replaced the strikers with more enslaved labor and the strike failed.7
Cabinetmaking, however, was considered a “high prestige artisanal job” in the early Revolutionary period to the mid-19th century and it’s possible that white workers felt more threatened by Black laborers in these types of trades. The late-18th century saw a fairly peaceful co-existence of mixed labor forces in places like Richmond, but by the mid-19th century, the population of free Black craftsman was shrinking as white men pushed out Black labor and left them to more menial tasks.8
I quickly and easily found information related to white cabinetmakers George Hendree and Robert Poore. Less discoverable are the stories of Jac and Isaac, the Black men who were employed as cabinetmakers. Until recently, it has been difficult to find information on Black craftspeople. That’s beginning to change with projects like the Black Craftspeople Database, a digital project that documents the stories and trades of Black craftspeople pulling largely from newspaper sources, but also census records, city directories, and estate and personal papers. Currently, the project documents people from Tennessee and South Carolina, but there are plans to incorporate more states in the future.
When searching for craftspeople in Virginia, indentures of apprenticeship provide one vantage point on the trades assigned to free Black individuals. For the Virginia Untold project, we have digitized nearly 2,000 indentures from 25 Virginia localities. By searching “Indenture of Apprenticeship” in the record type field, the Virginia Untold database reveals a single record tagged for cabinetmaking. In 1852, Argyle, a twelve-year-old free Black boy was apprenticed to Hezekiah Stoakes. Oddly enough, his trade of “cabinet maker” was crossed out in the text. A general keyword search for “cabinetmaker” in the Virginia Untold database reveals only a few records, and even those are hardly illuminating. An 1807 tax list for Southampton County lists a cabinetmaker named Randall Melton. Peter James, a thirty-five-year-old Black man was working at a cabinet shop in Prince Edward County in 1860.
Argyle was originally supposed to learn the 'trade of Cabinet making' while he was bound out to Hezekiah Stoakes, but someone crossed out this line in his contract.
Argyle (M, 12): Indenture of Apprenticeship, 1852, Virginia Untold: The African American Narrative Digital Collection, Library of Virginia.
The lack of records documenting free Black cabinetmakers within Virginia Untold may support the claim that cabinetmaking was indeed an elite trade. But it’s important to also bear in mind that many of these apprenticeship contracts were not arranged with the skills of the Black child in mind, but rather how they could serve the white indenture holder. These were not mentorship opportunities. Most of the crafts assigned to free Black and multiracial children were farming or housekeeping, typical roles assigned to enslaved laborers. While these contracts are enlightening, results from these few selected records shouldn’t be used to tell the story of Black craftsmen and cabinetmakers in antebellum Virginia. Even so, the literature suggests that successful Black cabinetmakers were few and far between. The story of individuals like Thomas Day is certainly an exception. With this in mind, it feels all the more important to share about the injustices suffered by people of color in the trades such as this 1832 attack on Black cabinetmakers in Richmond City, Virginia.
This court case is part of the Richmond (City) Ended Causes, 1820-1840. These records are currently closed for processing, scanning, indexing, and transcription, a project made possible through a National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC) grant. NHPRC provides advice and recommendations for the National Archives grants program. An announcement will be made when these records are added to the Virginia Untold project.
- Commonwealth vs. Edward Leneve, et. al., 1832, City of Richmond Circuit Court Records. Local Government Records Collection. The Library of Virginia.
- J. Christian Kolbe, “Research Note: The Turner and the Cabinet Maker, Seth Haywood and Willis Cowling of Richmond, Virginia. https://www.mesdajournal.org/2016/research-note-turner-cabinetmaker-seth-haywood-willis-cowling-richmond-virginia-1825-1829; “Hendree, George,” MESDA Craftsmen Database, accessed September 9, 2022, https://mesda.org/item/craftsman/hendree-george/16020/; “Poore, Robert,” MESDA Craftsmen Database, accessed September 9, 2022, https://mesda.org/item/craftsman/poore-robert/28907/
- Minute Book, 1831-1835, p. 219. City of Richmond Circuit Court Records, Barcode #1109086. Local Government Records Collection. The Library of Virginia.
- Midori Takagi, Rearing Wolves to our Own Destruction: Slavery in Richmond, Virginia, 1782-1865, (Charlottesville: University Press, 1999), 33.
- Sidbury, James, “Slave Artisans in Richmond, Virginia, 1780-1810.” American Artisans: Crafting Social Identity, 1750-1850. Ed. by Howard B. Rock, Paul A. Gilje, and Robert Asher (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995), 53-54.
- Takagi, 80-82.
- Elizabeth Cook. “The City at the Falls: Building Culture in Richmond, Virginia, 1730-1860.” (PhD diss., College of William and Mary, 2016), 344-345.
- Sidbury, 52; Gregg D. Kimball “African-Virginians and the Vernacular Building Tradition, 1790-1860.” Perspectives in Vernacular Architecture, Vol. 4 (1991): 129.
Commonwealth vs. Edward Leneve, et. al., 1832, City of Richmond Circuit Court Records. Local Government Records Collection. The Library of Virginia.
Cook, Elizabeth. “The City at the Falls: Building Culture in Richmond, Virginia, 1730-1860.” PhD diss., College of William and Mary, 2016.
Kimball, Gregg D. “African-Virginians and the Vernacular Building Tradition, 1790-1860.” Perspectives in Vernacular Architecture, Vol. 4 (1991): 121-129.
MESDA Craftsmen Database. (Winston Salem: Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts). https://mesda.org/research/craftsman-database/
Minute Book, 1831-1835, City of Richmond Circuit Court Records, Barcode #1109086. Local Government Records Collection. The Library of Virginia.
Sidbury, James. “Slave Artisans in Richmond, Virginia, 1780-1810.” American Artisans: Crafting Social Identity, 1750-1850. Edited by Howard B. Rock, Paul A. Gilje, and Robert Asher: 48-62. (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995).
Takagi, Midori. Rearing Wolves to our Own Destruction: Slavery in Richmond, Virginia, 1782-1865. (Charlottesville: University Press, 1999).
“To Journeymen Cabinet Makers and all others whom it may concern,” Richmond Whig-Commercial Journal, June 22, 1832.