John J. Minor's Barbershop and "New Light" on the Underground Railroad
Recovering the History of Portsmouth's Underground Railroad
Born in 1828 in Albemarle County, Virginia, John James Minor settled in Portsmouth, Ohio in the mid-1830s, not long after the city had expelled many of its Black residents during its infamous “Black Friday” enforcement of Ohio laws requiring African Americans to register with the county clerk and barring Ohio residents from hiring undocumented Black immigrants.
Whether born free or as a slave (the historical record is unclear), John J. Minor grew up in Portsmouth, married an African American woman from Kentucky, raised a family, built a successful barbershop business, and helped secure the charter of Portsmouth’s Trinity Lodge, No. 9, of Free and Accepted Masons. Minor would serve as the lodge’s first Worshipful Master, beginning in 1871.
US Census records help bring more of John J. Minor’s life in to focus. In June of 1860, John’s wife, Martha, was twenty-six years old. John’s “profession, occupation, or trade” was listed as “Barber,” while Martha’s was left blank. The couple had two children in their household, William, age six, and Joseph, age three. And both of these children had been born free in Ohio. The eldest, William, having been born in 1854, the year of John and Martha’s marriage. The Minors rented their residence, sharing it with another African American family, headed by Ellen Jones, a twenty-six year-old single-mother of two -- Mary, age nine, and Florence, age six. Ellen Jones and her children were recorded as having all been born free in Ohio. John J. The Minors reported that they owned fifty dollars worth of personal property, while Ellen Jones had none. Notably, all three of the adults in the dwelling, according to the Census enumerator, were able to “read & write.”
The earliest record of John J. Minor’s barbershop locates his business on "Second Street, between Market and Court,” in the heart of what is now known today as the Boneyfiddle District of downtown Portsmouth. From newspaper advertisements in the 1850s, business directories from the 1870s, and fire insurance maps from 1910s, Minor’s barbershop can be located and it is still standing at 542 Second Street.
In the 1890s, when Portsmouth’s central business district shifted from the Boneyfiddle to the intersection of Chillicothe and Gallia, John J. Minor followed. At the time of his death on 14 April 1895, Minor’s last barbershop was located on Gallia Street.
In 1894, when Ohio State University history professor Wilbur Siebert visited Portsmouth to research the history of the Underground Railroad in Scioto County, he came to town looking to interview Milton Kennedy, whom Siebert had been told, knew much about the operations from his personal involvement. At the time, Siebert knew nothing about the network of local African-American operators in the city and county who helped fugitive slaves across the river and carried them north to their next destination. Milton Kennedy had made a name for himself in local politics as an avowed abolitionist and had played a critical and early role in the establishment of the Scioto County and Ohio Republican Parties.
As the fates would have it, when Siebert visited Portsmouth, Milton Kennedy was out west traveling. It was, thus, only by chance that history professor would meet and interview John J. Minor. Writing in the first volume of the American Historical Review (April 1896), in an article entitled, "Light on the Underground Railroad," Siebert would recall: “I made the acquaintance of an intelligent colored man—a barber, J. J. Minor by name — himself an old-time 'agent' of the 'road,' who corroborated the report about Mr. Kennedy's connections with the underground work, and gave a straightforward account of what he called 'the regular line' up the Chillicothe pike seven miles, to the houses of two colored men (Dan Lucas and Joseph Love), and thence to a settlement of colored people in Peble township in the north central part of Pike County.”
Today Siebert's history of the Underground Railroad is often criticized for romanticing the operations and generating a distorted and miscolored image of the men and women who were involved in the secret, illegal work. However, it is thanks to Siebert's research that we know that Portsmouth’s Underground Railroad operations was the work of whites and blacks. It was a interracial network, one that operated in the shadows and whose history was once nearly lost and is now coming back into focus.
Siebert openned his 1896 article, noting: "The elucidation by new light of some obscure matter already reported, the verification by a fresh witness of some fact already discovered, gives at once the rule and test of an investigation such as this. Out of the many illustrations which might be given I offer one. Having grounds for believing that Portsmouth, Ohio, was one of the initial stations of an underground line of travel, I obtained, by correspondence with Mr. Henry Hall, the mayor of the town, a letter stating that Milton Kennedy and his brother-in-law Joseph Ashton had aided fugitive slaves in that neighborhood, and urging that I visit Portsmouth in order to get fuller information."
Siebert's visit to Portsmouth provided "new light," which ultimately recovered the stories of John J. Minor, Joseph Love, and Dan Lucas, three African American operators on Portsmouth's Underground Railroad.