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From Mariners to a Botanic Physician: A Snapshot of African Americans in 1842 Boston

While on a recent hunt in the stacks, I had a chance to look at an 1842 directory for Boston published by Charles Stimpson. It was a directory which included a section near the back of the volume entitled “People of Color.”

This particular directory, including this section, listed information on where people lived as well as their occupations. So not only is the directory useful for genealogy research, it is also helpful for business historians including those who want to better understand the Black community in Boston and how they made their living.

title page for Stimpson's Boston Directory with the names of the inhabitants with occupations, places of business, and dwelling houses and includes the streets, lanes and wharves and city officers, public offices and banks

Stimpson’s Boston Directory, 1842

Looking through the entries in this section, I tried to figure out what occupations were most common in 1842. I might have missed a few, but here is the list of those that I found were most common.

28          Hairdressers and Barbers

31          Laborers

31          Mariners

14          Waiters

8            Boarding

27          Tailors, clothes, clothing, and clothing dealers

first two pages of the list of People of Color with name home location often the occupation

Stimpson’s Boston Directory, 1842.

Additional occupations included at least four bootblacks, two cordwainers, two people selling/making furniture, a cigar manufacturer, and a tobacconist. Beyond that, there was at least one: victuller, blacksmith, cook, hostler, whitesmith, stevedore, shoemaker, housewright, Hackman, handcartman, and someone selling refreshments. A few others caught my attention; in particular, Henry Symes was a gardener, Clarissa Gardner was a laundress, and John Cummings was a botanic physician. There were even two musicians, J. Gilman and Peter Howard (he was also a hairdresser).

Many Black Bostonians listed in this directory lived on Belknap Street, which makes sense. That is near the location of the African Meeting House (also known as the Abolition Church, First African Baptist Church, First Independent Baptist Church and the Belknap or Joy Street Church; now the Museum of African American History). The church was incorporated in 1805 and according to the 1842 directory, Rev John T. Raymond who lived at 12 Belknap, led the church (Sketches of Boston, Past and Present : and of Some Places in its Vicinity, p. 88). Many of the people listed lived in the area on streets such as Grove and Cyprus.

For anyone interested in learning about the African American workforce in other years and/or other cities, there are a number of places to look. One useful source is the African Americans in Business and Entrepreneurship: A Resource Guide. In addition, here are a few other ideas:

  1. Census records list occupations for individuals.
  2. City business directories often listed occupations for those people they included and some did include and denote businesses owned by African Americans.
  3. There are directories that include only African Americans. I wrote a post about a specific New York directory, but there are a few others. The most notable is The Negro Handbook, but others include: Simms ̀“Blue Book and National Negro Business and Professional Directory; Worsham’s Negro Business Directory of the World, Pennsylvania Negro Business Directory, 1910 : industrial and material growth of the Negroes of Pennsylvania; and others.

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