Publisher’s note: I first learned about Henry Boyd in “The Furniture Makers of Cincinnati: 1790 to 1849” (1976) by Jane E. Sikes. The short entry on Boyd was fascinating, but I found little else that had been published about his life or his woodworking. In the early 2000s, I encountered one of Boyd’s amazing beds at The Golden Lamb in Lebanon, Ohio, and became determined to learn more about him. Two years ago, I hired Suzanne Ellison to dig deep into public archives (her specialty) to put together a dossier on Boyd’s life. As many of you know, Suzanne does not engage in half-measures. After months of research, she produced a fascinating account of Boyd’s life that became the seed for a book on Boyd. Soon, we will introduce you to the author and the book (we have a signed contract with the author, but she asked for some time to work out some things on her end before we introduce her). This blog entry is a short introduction to Boyd’s life; more is to come. — Christopher Schwarz
When Henry Boyd died in March of 1886 at age 84 he had survived slavery, overcome enormous odds to start not one, but two businesses and persevered through tremendous societal changes. The story of his life as it has been printed in Cincinnati newspapers, often for Black History Month, was at best bare bones, at its worst just not true. Yet, his history has been waiting and is easily found in archives held in Cincinnati and in the Ohio History Collection. His history – his story – reveals a man of intelligence, determination and courage.
Boyd was born in Carlisle, Kentucky, the son of two worlds: his father was white and originally from Scotland; his mother was black, an enslaved person originally from Virginia. Boyd seems to have determined early on to buy his freedom. In his late teens he was hired out to work at the Kanawha saltworks in Virginia (now West Virginia) located about 150-160 miles from Carlisle. When slave owners had too many enslaved persons, one option was to send them to work at other farms or businesses. In this way the owner could continue to profit from their labor. For the enslaved person, it meant a year-long separation from family and possible exposure to dangerous conditions and harsher treatment. If there was an advantage to being hired out to the saltworks, it was that the enslaved person was allowed to work extra hours (overwork) to earn money they could keep. While in Kanawha, Boyd’s world expanded. He worked alongside enslaved persons from other states and interacted with free black men working the riverboats moving barrels of salt to Porkopolis (Cincinnati).
After several years, Boyd returned to Carlisle and was apprenticed to a carpenter (there are examples in the historical record of enslaved children of white owners given opportunities to learn a trade). During his apprenticeship Boyd would have had an opportunity to do overwork and earn money for himself. We don’t know exactly when his apprenticeship ended, exactly when he bought his freedom, or once free if he stayed in Kentucky for a while to earn more money. Fortunately for Boyd, Kentucky did not prohibit enslaved persons from learning to read and write, nor require them to leave the state within a set period after earning their freedom. We do know that once free, Boyd would have had to carry his official freedom papers with him at all times.
Boyd arrived in Cincinnati sometime during 1825 or 1826. Finding work along the busy docks of the Ohio River was fairly easy, but finding work as a black carpenter, no matter how skilled, was not. Although Cincinnati was a non-slave northern city, it had strong southern sympathies and business concerns. Eventually, with the help of a white man he was able to start working as a house carpenter.
A newspaper biography published in 1877 relates the story of how Boyd met his future mother-in-law and how he came to live at 15 New Street. On his way to Cincinnati he was introduced to a woman whose widowed daughter lived in Cincinnati. She wanted to provide Boyd with a letter of introduction, but was illiterate. Boyd wrote the letter for her and on visiting New Street met Keziah, his future wife, and Sarah Jane, his future step-daughter. The 1850 census shows Emma Laws, his mother-in-law, was then living with them. One chance meeting on his journey to live as a free man resulted in a family firmly tied together. When Keziah died (estimated in 1862) they had been married 36 years. At the time of Boyd’s death he was still living in the same house on New Street with his daughter Maria and her family. He was buried next to Keziah in a cemetery plot owned by Sarah Jane.
Within eight years of arriving in his new city Boyd had his own business building houses and was employing five or six men, both black and white. In addition to having his own family and permanent residence, he had earned enough to purchase the freedom of two siblings.
Boyd was also planning and tinkering. He solved the most common problem of rope-suspension bedsteads (collapse) by devising a stabilizing screw-fastening system that tied the horizontal rails and vertical posts into a strong frame. With the help of George Porter, a Massachusetts-born cabinetmaker, he had the fastening system patented in 1833. At the time, black inventors were legally able to obtain patents, however, there were obstacles that made the preparation and submission of patent materials prohibitive. Six years later, in 1839, Henry opened his bedstead manufactory at the northeast corner of Broadway and Eighth Street.
Boyd advertised his bedsteads in city newspapers and business directories. Prominent business owners bought and endorsed his bedsteads. The 1850 Federal Profits of Industry Census shows the woods he used for bedsteads were poplar, walnut, mahogany, sycamore and cherry; more than 1,540 bedsteads were made annually for a production value of approximately $41,000. He employed an average of 20 men and, although the census doesn’t detail this, we know he employed both black and white men. Boyd’s bedsteads were popular in the South and and were transported by boat down the Ohio River to the Mississippi River, a cost-efficient transportation method for Cincinnati businesses.
The growth of Cincinnati and other “Western” cities attracted the attention of visitors, including abolitionists, from the East Coast and Europe. Henry Boyd and other successful black business owners were visited by the likes of Martin R. Delaney, Frederick Douglass and William Cooper Nell, and their successes were reported in abolitionist newspapers including Douglass’ The North Star and William Lloyd Garrison’s The Liberator.
Before the mid-1850s we know Boyd had expanded his operations into three or four additional buildings close to his original factory, and had more than doubled his work force. In addition to bedsteads he was advertising other types of furniture. He was also struggling to keep up with competition from larger furniture makers whose annual production values were more than triple his. One competitor, Clawson & Mudge, exclusively made bedsteads and offered 95 varieties. We also have documentation from an 1857 credit evaluation that indicates there was a level of turmoil in the workforce. By 1860, Boyd was not able to pay his leases and closed his factory. The leasehold agreements he had on the factory building and other holdings were advertised in sheriff’s sales.
The oft-published reason for Boyd closing his business was that his factory had been burned out three times and after the last fire he could not obtain insurance. The basis for this story is a newspaper article from the late 1870s. There is no documentation of Boyd’s factory being burned out either in the records of the Cincinnati Fire Department or in city newspapers. (Furniture factories in the 19th century were disasters waiting to happen with open fires, volatile liquids and plenty of wood shavings. There are plenty of records of other furniture factories burning down, including those of Clawson & Mudge.)
Boyd continued to operate a small furniture business for a couple more years, and in the late 1860s was employed by the city as a station-house keeper at one of the police stations.
Although he is best known for manufacturing bedsteads with a fastening system he devised and had patented, Boyd accomplished and contributed more to his adopted city.
When cholera arrived in Cincinnati in the autumn of 1832, the leading medical authority, Dr. Daniel Drake, was convinced the disease was caused by a type of aerial insect that was ”poisonous, invisible…of the same or similar habits with the gnat.” Boyd, on the other hand, thought cholera was in the water supply and communicated his idea to Charles Hammond, editor of one of the city newspapers. Hammond published Henry’s suggestion.
We don’t know if many people took up Boyd’s suggestion to boil drinking water. We do know Boyd survived cholera outbreaks in 1832, 1849, 1866 and one late in the 1870s. Twenty-two years after Boyd’s idea was published, a definitive study in London determined cholera was spread in the water supply.
While enslaved, Boyd was allowed to learn to read and write and learn a trade and was well aware of the advantages gained through education. In Cincinnati he supported and was involved in the initial efforts to open schools for black children. We don’t have full details on all of his family, but do know in 1849, when young women were not often allowed a higher education, his daughter Maria, age 16, was sent to Oberlin Collegiate Institute and completed three years of study. The Mechanics Institute prohibited enrollment of young black men wishing to learn a trade. We know of at least one instance where Henry apprenticed a young black man to learn how to be a turner.
Boyd had a home and business, paid taxes, obtained a patent and filed a lawsuit for non-payment for a house he built. Before 1857, he was citizen – of sorts, because he could not vote. After the 1857 Dred Scott decision, he was no longer considered a citizen. It was not until 1868, when the Fourteenth Amendment was passed, that he regained his citizenship. The Fifteenth Amendment passed on March 30, 1870, giving him the right to vote; three days later, on the evening of April 2, Boyd participated in the ward-level meetings of the Republican Party of Cincinnati. He was elected the initial chairman for the 13th Ward. In the autumn of that same year, at age 68, he voted for the first time in the state-wide election for the U.S. House of Representatives. The following year he joined the Grant Club to work for the re-election of Ulysses S. Grant.
Boyd had a humanitarian commitment that was not known until late in the 19th century. He was an active member of the Underground Railroad, contributing funds and helping to coordinate the movement of escaped enslaved persons to safety. He worked with other members, including Kitty Dorum, William Watson, Calvin Fairbanks and Levi Coffin. He knew Theodore Weld, a Lane (Seminary) Rebel, considered to be one of the architects of the abolitionist movements. Huntington Lyman, another Lane Rebel, revealed in correspondence with Wilbur Siebert (author of books on the Underground Railroad in Ohio) that Boyd had a hiding place in his house for escaped enslaved persons. Boyd’s involvement in helping escaped slaves seems to have begun within a few years of arriving in Cincinnati; they continued despite increased dangers brought about by the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act, and lasted until the end of the Civil War, a span of more than 30 years.
There aren’t a huge number of chronicles of 19th-century black men whose lives included buying their way out of slavery, long-term involvement in freeing others from slavery, invention and entrepreneurship, enduring four race riots in 12 years, and involvement in the early struggle for the civil rights of equal education and the right to vote. Boyd’s story adds dimension to the history of Cincinnati in particular, and to American history as a whole.
Using historical documents and contemporaneous accounts we can reconstruct much of what Boyd did in his life and we can extrapolate ideas that were important to him. He was, however, always living in two worlds. At his birth, his white father owned him and his mother was enslaved; he received an education likely denied to others. He could start a successful business, prosper and be well-regarded, but his public life was proscribed by state Black Laws and threats of violence. He had a law-abiding public life countered by a dangerous hidden life of illegal acts to help escaped slaves. We can try to imagine how he felt to truly be a citizen and cast his first vote, but we can’t even get close. About his suffering while enslaved, or once he was free, we will never know.