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Saturday, June 2, 2012

Jacob G. Revels: Portland, Michigan's "colored barber" (and inventor)

Jacob G. Revels

Jacob G. Revels (1863-1944) is one of the many people I profiled in my book, The Portland Area, 1869-1939. Along with Pedro Pratt, previously discussed in an earlier Brainsplotch blog post, Revels was one of a handful of African-Americans to live in Portland, Michigan in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  I guess for this reason, he became of special interest to me.  Okay, not just "of  special interest"--who am I kidding?  I became completely fascinated with Jacob Revels. The first time I ever saw the above portrait of Revels, in the 1969 centennial history of Portland, the questions flooded my brain. How did this man end up in, of all places, Portland, Michigan?  What led him to Portland? What was it like to be one of the only black people in a rural Michigan village only a few decades after the end of the Civil War?  Unfortunately, I have not yet been able to answer these questions, but it hasn't stopped me from trying to learn more about the man known in Portland as "the colored barber."

Revels was born in October 1863, most likely in Essex, Maidstone Township, Ontario; so it might be more accurate to describe him as "African-American/Canadian." According to the 1871 Canadian census, his father and mother were born in the United States and arrived in Canada at least by 1860, the year in which Jacob's eldest sister Mary was born.  Jacob was the third oldest overall, and only son, in a family of seven children.  At the time of his birth, Jacob's father Absalom was about 48 years-old and his mother Elmeda only 22. (The 1900 census record for Absalom indicates that he was born in Alabama, and though I have never found U.S. census records for Elmeda, Jacob reported his mother as having been born in Virginia).

What I found particularly noteworthy about the 1871 Canadian census was that, of the two pages I saw, four of the ten households had "African" listed as national origin.  Putting two and two together, it seemed safe to assume that these families probably arrived there via the Underground Railroad, and that this was a friendly place for those of African descent to settle.  Further web-based research led to information about a plague erected in 2007 by the Ontario Heritage Trust and the Lakeshore Black Heritage Committee. The plaque commemorates the Refugee Home Society, an abolitionist organization that, beginning in 1852, helped escaped slaves establish homesteads in Essex County, Ontario--the southern-most county in the province, directly across from Detroit.  It seems highly likely that this abolitionist society helped the Revels family.  Of course, I will have to do further digging to prove this conclusively.

(Here is a link to information regarding the Refugee Home Society and their efforts to help escaped slaves. It's fascinating to read):

Henry Bibb (1815-1854), abolitionist and administrator of the Refugee Home Society

According the U.S. Census, Jacob Revels emigrated to the United States in 1878 (at age 14 or 15), presumably with his father, Absalom.  I don't know if he immediately came to Portland at this point, or if he lived elsewhere in Michigan (or even in another state, though that doesn't seem likely).  I have no idea why he came to the United States, though in the aforementioned document about the Refugee Home Society, "settlers could sell or transfer their land free of restrictions at the end of 15 years", or ownership of the land may have been transferred by Absalom to one of his daughters.  All of this is speculation on my part, and I'm just going to have to do more research to find the answers.

By 1893, Jacob Revels was in Portland, because that was the year he established his barber shop, or at least began working as a barber.  In the October 16, 1900 issue of the Portland Review & Observer, it was reported that "Jacob Revels (Portland barber) was notified last week of the death of his father, Absolem (sic) REVELS, who was born in slavery. He was about 95 (sic) and lived at Owosso."  Besides getting his first name and age wrong, what the newspaper failed to mention was that Absalom Revels was, in fact, an "inmate" at the Owosso Poor Farm (aka, the Shiawassee County Poor House) in Caledonia Township.

Upon discovering this information about the unfortunate end of Absalom Revels, I pondered more questions. Why did Jacob's father end up in the poor farm? Was this because nursing homes did not exist in 1900? Did Jacob not have the time or resources to have his father live with him in Portland? Was Absalom too infirm for Jacob to care for himself? I wonder if Jacob felt a twinge of guilt or remorse learning that his father had died alone, with no family members by his side, in the poor house? I don't know if I'll ever have those answers.

(As an aside, it appears that Jacob Revels spent most of his life as a single man, and never had children. Based on information from the U.S. Census, it appears that he may have been married briefly, but I have not been able to find any information about who this woman may have been.  In his 1944 obituary, the only survivors mentioned are "a sister in the east.").

This brings me to the most interesting aspect of Jacob's life: his career as an inventor. On August 25, 1904, Revels filed an application for a patent for an invention that "relates generally to casters, and particularly to one adapted for temporary attachment to heavy articles of furniture or the like to facilitate their movement." Patent no. 801,742 for the caster invention was granted to J.G. Revels on October 10, 1905. A few years later, on November 28, 1908, Revels submitted a second patent application for an "envelop opener". Revels wrote, "My invention has to do with stationery and more particularly to the opening of envelops and the like; and it seeks the provision of a simple compact and inexpensive device through the medium of which envelops and analogous devices may be expeditiously and easily opened." On February 14, 1911, patent no. 984,299 was granted for Revels' "envelop[e] opener." Not bad for a man who, as far as I have been able to determine, had very little formal education.

Jacob Revel's caster patent

Jacob Revel's envelope opener patent

I don't know if Revels continued to try his hand at inventions (though it would not surprise me a bit if he did), but I do know that he continued his work as a barber until well into the 1930s.

In the January 6, 1944 issue of the Portland Observer, it was reported that "Jake Revels, known for many years as 'the colored barber,' died Sunday [January 2] at the Ionia County home, where he had resided for the last couple of years...Jake used to tell of the fact that his father had been a slave and that he was born in slavery." Unfortunately, the obituary made no mention of Jacob Revels' possession of two U.S. patents.

I'm amazed at Jacob Revels' accomplishments at a time when it was difficult for Blacks to make their way in America.  Here's a man who left his home country at the age of 14/15 and carved out a niche for himself in a predominantly white community.  I get the impression that he was an inveterate tinkerer and a man fascinated with mechanics and how things work. Clearly, he dedicated himself to making improvements to make life more efficient, while he made a living and payed the bills by working as a barber.

I will continue to be interested in Jacob Revels' life.  There are still many questions I have that remain unanswered, and I'll do my best to reveal the answers.