Vibrant Lives. Vibrant Stories.
James Monroe Whitfield, 1822 - 1871
This biography was originally released on February 15, 2021 as a part of our on going series titled: Vibrant Lives. Vibrant Stories.
Written by the Staff of The Michigan Street African American Heritage Corridor Commission
Poet, barber, abolitionist, husband, and father. These are just a few of the words that can be used to describe James Monore Whitfield.
James Monroe Whitfield was born in Exeter, New Hampshire in 1822 to Joseph Whitfield, a freedom seeker from Virginia, and Nancy Paul, the sister of Rev. Thomas Paul who was affiliated with the African Meeting House of Boston, Massachusetts.
As a child, Whitfield was able to attend school until he was about nine years old at which point his father died. Much of the rest of his childhood remains unknown.
At some point in the 1830’s he relocated to Buffalo, NY. With his wife, Frances, the couple had three sons. It was here in Buffalo that he owned a barbershop at 30 E. Seneca Street as well as his home on South Division St. When he wasn’t cutting hair, he was following his true passion as a writer of poetry. His powerful political poetry gained national attention with its publications in William Lloyd Garrison's The Liberator and Frederick Douglass’ The North Star and Frederick Douglass’ Paper.
Douglass had visited Whitfield’s Buffalo barber shop and was troubled to find a man on of such intelligence working in what he considered a menial position, stating “that talents so commanding, gifts so rare, poetic powers so distinguished, should tied to the handle of a razor and buried in the precincts of a barber’s shop… is painfully disheartening.”
Despite Douglass’ praise, the two men had their differences regarding the future of African Americans in the country. In response to the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, Whitfield published a small collection of poetry titled “American and other Poems” in 1853. He dedicated the collection to his mentor and friend Martin Delany. Both Delany and Whitfield were proponents of the "Back-to-Africa" or Colonization Movement, which as the name suggests, advocated for the emigration of free African Americans back to Africa. Douglass was against this movement and believed that as American Citizens, African Americans had the right to stay and fight for their rights in the country.
Whitfield wrote a series of letters to Douglass that were published in The Frederick Douglass’ Paper urging African Americans to consider emigrating and even went so far as to become involved with the movement to establish a black colony in Central America.
All of this changed after the Emancipation Proclamation was declared. Believing there was an opportunity for a flourishing black community out west, Whitfield moved to California. Out west, Whitfield continued to own and operate a barbershop while writing in his free time. He continued to receive praise for his poetry until his death.
Whitfield died in San Francisco in 1871. He was buried at Masonic Cemetery.
Thank you to our sources...
You can read more about Whitfield in Joan R. Sherman's article James Monroe Whitfield, Poet and Emigrationist: A Voice of Protest and Despair, David Dixon's article Freedom Earned, Equality Denied: Evolving Race Relations in Exeter and Vicinity, 1776–1876, and on multiple poetry page devoted to his work, such as The Poetry Foundation and Poets.org
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