Up From Slavery: An Interview with Richard Barrington

Yesterday, I told you about Senator Solomon W. Downs.  Today I want to tell you about his slave, Mr. Richard Barrington.  The following article was found many years ago in a New Orleans paper.  It was printed just a few years before Richard’s death.  Richard was the father of Wisner Colored School, the forerunner of Monroe Colored High, which was the forerunner of Caroll High School.  We owe a great deal to Mr. Barrington.

The Daily Picayune (New Orleans, LA), November 4, 1894, Page 23

RICHARD BARRINGTON.

The Story of a Faithful Old Colored Servant,

Much Respected by All Where He Lives in the Vicinity of Monroe.

He Belonged to United States Senator Downs, of North Louisiana,

Went to Washington With Him and Saw All the Great Men of the Day.

 

There lives about three miles outside of Monroe, in the state of Louisiana, a colored man, the mention of whose name will recall to many of the older residents of New Orleans recollections of days and years before the great conflict.  And after the war and when Louisiana was under the domination of the Negro, this man was at all times a Democrat, though naturally not an outspoken one, except upon certain occasions.

The story of Richard Barrington has never been written, but, with few exceptions, that of no other colored man can equal it in interest.  He is at the age of 84 years still in possession of his cultivated mind, but rather weak on his “pins,” as he remarked to a reporter, who called to see him the other day.  His wife, who is three years his senior, is equally as well preserved.  They live in a well-furnished double farmhouse, on a 50 acre farm, which Barrington owns, but rents out, as happy an old couple as can be found anywhere.

The first United States senator ever chosen from north Louisiana was General S.W. Downs, who was elected in 1847, and Richard Barrington, then his slave, whom he often said money could not buy, was his body servant.  Any one can see by looking at Barrington to-day that in those times he must have been an exceedingly fine man to gaze upon.

When the general went to Washington he took Barrington with him, and the Louisiana senator soon became one of the most popular men in congress.  His body servant, thoroughly trained and naturally gifted, became well known among the great men who at that period graced the national capital.  General Downs, D.R. Atchison of Missouri, Emil La Sair, congressman from the First Louisiana district, and Mr. Louis St. Martin, also of this state; Jefferson Davis, of Mississippi, and Wm. R. King and Thomas A. Benton, of Alabama, formed a bachelors’ club, none having their families with them.

Around the table at the club were frequently gathered all the brighter lights – Webster, Clay, Stephen A. Douglas, Benton and sometimes Calhoun.  However, let “Uncle Dick” tell his own story in his own way.  It is somewhat disjointed because the old man was not feeling particularly well when the reporter called upon him, and, as he remarked, could not talk well unless he felt good.

“When,” said he, “the nuts and the cakes and the wine had been put upon the table I would send the dining-room servant away, but always remained myself.  And I tell you it was a treat to hear those great men talk.  I had read a great deal, and still continued to read, so that their conversation taught me a great deal more.

“Webster I remember so well with his powerful voice and forceful manner.  Clay was fiery in his speech, while Douglas, as a speaker, was not to be sneezed at.  Of course I heard them in the senate as well as at our home at the club.  Calhoun was occasionally there, but then he was not good company.  He was cold and austere, and it is a fact that his best friends were afraid of him, not knowing in what humor he might be were they to approach him.

“Webster was always genial and kind.  I tried once to outdo him in politeness, but it did not succeed.  At the market I had purchased a pair of canvas-back ducks, and wishing to get another pair, went to a stand where I met Mr. Webster.  I took off my hat and bowed.  He evidently knew what I was after.  We were both aware of the fact that the pair of ducks on the stand were the last pair in the market.  “Well, Richard, you must have company at the club to-night.’ He remarked, and he insisted upon my taking the ducks.  There was no man in Washington who loved canvas-back better than Mr. Webster.  That was after he had changed his abode from the club.”

“Did they drink much in those days?  Yes, nearly everybody drank brandy.  Mr. Webster was very fond of it; but I never saw him intoxicated.  Calhoun never drank.  Mr. Davis was a most kind and considerate gentleman, and when, after the war, I opened a barber shop in Monroe, the finest one, by the way, ever opened in that town, I used to tell some of the darkies about thee that I had done to Mr. Davis what none of them would dare do.  I had held his nose between my fingers.  At Washington I had frequently shaved Mr. Davis, as well as other intimate friends of General Downs.

“When General Downs’ term expired, in 1853, he was a candidate for re-election on the Democratic ticket, and was opposed by Judah P. Benjamin, who was put up by the whigs.  Mr. Clay, who was a whig, always said that Louisiana had never had a senator until my master was chosen, and he wrote to the legislature asking for the re-election of General Downs.  However, Mr. Benjamin was chosen by a majority of eight votes.  Then President Pierce appointed my master collector of the port of New Orleans.  That was his last official position, for he died in 1854, on his place, near Monroe.[1]

“He left a wife.  Children who were born to them.  Several died in infancy.  They never told me he was sick, and he died without sending for me.  When he was buried, and after I had returned home, I was told that he frequently called for me, saying: ‘Oh, if Richard were only here.’ By his will, General Downs gave me my freedom, $500 in money and the privilege of cultivating as much of the plantation as I wished.  I did not take up any of the land, but went to work on my own account.  “People in those days did not like ‘free niggers,’ and they made it unpleasant for me.

“Right here, I want to say that at that time there was a law in Louisiana providing that any slave who had been given his freedom should leave the state.  Mr. Charles H. Morrison, of Ouachita parish, introduced a bill in the legislature to exempt me from the operation of the law, and I am proud to say that it was passed without a dissenting vote.  I had no wish to leave Louisiana.

“Shortly after the death of Senator Downs I learned that no monument had been erected over his grave, nor was there likely to be.  I got from Mrs. Downs the date of her husband’s birth, and then I had a shaft placed over his grave.  There was nothing upon it but the name, dates of birth and death, and beneath all simply this –

“Erected by His Old Servant.”

“I did not want my name to appear at all.  The family made no opposition, nor was it ever intimated to me that I had done that which I should not have done.  My only wish was to show my love for the memory of the man who had been so kind to me.

“One other instance of those early days and I will end that part of my story.  First of all, you must understand that while I was Senator Downs’ body servant, I was also his private secretary and treasurer.  I kept all the cash.  In those days there were none of the conveniences we have now for sending money from one part of the country to the other, so that when one gentleman wished to remit cash to another it was no uncommon thing to ask a traveler known to the sender to oblige him by carrying the money.

“Well, one day when we were stopping at the original Delmonico’s, in lower Broadway, New York, a gentleman who knew that the senator was going to New Orleans wrote a letter, and after placing in it a number of bills, asked him to deliver it to a certain party in the Crescent city known to both.  The senator handed the letter to me, telling me to take good care of it.  We took the steamer for the south, and, by-the-by, at that time all ocean steamers were commanded by United States naval officers, and our captain was he who afterwards became the famous Admiral Porter.

“When we reached New Orleans we stopped at Hulick’s Exchange, corner of Camp and Common streets.  The gentleman to whom the money was due came to the hotel for the letter.  Turning to me Senator Downs said: ‘Richard, where is the letter I gave you in New York?’ I went to my room, and, returning, handed it to the senator, who, in turn, passed it to the gentleman.  The latter appeared to be a little nervous, and eyed me closely as he opened it.  Within was between $6000 and $7000 in notes.  The amount was correct, and after looking at me a moment he turned to the senator and said:

“’Senator, did you raise that Negro?’”

“’Yes.’ Replied the senator.

“’Well, I’ll give you $2000 for him.’”

“’I suppose so; but you have not got money enough to buy him.’ That’s how much my old master thought of me.

“All during the war I was in the confederate commissary department at Shreveport.  During the reconstruction period the Republicans nominated me for the legislature, but I declined to run.  The Democrats also nominated me, but I also declined their nomination.  I made up my mind to stand by the white people, because all I had I got from them.  My desire in those days was to pacify the conflicting parties, and to that I lent my best efforts.  It seemed to me that every Negro wanted an office, all the way from a justiceship on the supreme bench down to the job of constable.

“It seems to me a wonder that I was not killed during those terrible days.  No man’s life was safe, white or black.  In 1879 the Democrats held a big meeting and barbecue at Trenton, just above Monroe on the Ouachita.  Before I hardly knew what was going on they had me on the stand and insisted that I should open the meeting.  I acted as temporary chairman and after the meeting returned to Monroe.  Dr. T.Y. Aby, Mr. L.D. McLain and others insisted that I should remain in town over night, as it was dangerous for me to come out home alone.  I refused their kind offers and started.  When I got opposite Mr. Nelson’s restaurant a Negro came up to me and called me an old rascal for presiding at the Democratic meeting.  I raised my heavy stick to strike him, but in a moment realized what terrible results would follow and lowered my stick.

“At that moment Mr. Nelson come out and seeing that I was nearly choking with anger asked what was the matter.  I briefly told him what had happened, and then the others came and wanted to know where the fellow as.  Though I saw him I would not point him out.  I wanted peace, not bloodshed.  Well, they got me in the restaurant, and how the wine did flow.  No, I didn’t go home that night.”

As “Uncle Dick” wound up his story he fell into a reminiscent mood.  He remarked that he had often been asked to write the story of his life, but could never muster up courage enough.

Richard Barrington is a unique figure in the history of his race.  There is no man in Ouachita parish for whom the white people entertain a higher respect.

 

[1] This is incorrect.  Senator Solomon Downs died at Crab Orchard Springs, KY.

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