The story of the Thomas-Rapier family of Florence is an extraordinary one that deserves a more prominent place in our community. It is uniquely American and inspirational, a rare story of African American achievement and optimism in the antebellum South. Intending to research only James T. Rapier, a Reconstruction-era African American congressman from Florence, I discovered that the story of his family is truly unique and worthy of further research. There is a great need for antebellum African American heroic figures not only in Florence but throughout the nation. We need to recognize their unique achievements and celebrate these as part of our shared heritage.
The family’s patriarch, John Henry Thomas, was born in Albemarle County, Virginia. He was the son of slave master John Thomas and his slave Sally. Sally was taken to Nashville with John Thomas around 1818, along with her sons John (born 1808) and Henry (born 1809). In Nashville, Sally worked as a cleaning lady and was able to keep a portion of her earnings. Some slave owners would “hire out” their slaves on a short-term basis, but the profits from their labor typically went back to the slave owner. In some situations, a slave was allowed to keep a portion of the money they earned. With some of her saved money, Sally rented a house and established her own cleaning business, though most of her income went to her owner. In 1827, she had a third son named James whose father was Tennessee’s Chief Justice John C. Catron. Around this time, she arranged for eldest son John to be hired out to Richard Rapier, a merchant who traveled between Nashville and Florence. Sally is said to have known and trusted Rapier, and John became a waiter for Rapier on his barge and prairie schooners and followed him to his residence in Florence sometime in the 1820s.
We can only guess as to the nature of the relationship between John and Richard Rapier. Rapier was a wealthy and powerful merchant who built many large warehouses on the Tennessee River and was among the first successful businessmen in Florence. Rapier did much to establish Florence, which was situated on the unnavigable shoals, as an important port by transporting goods overland to Florence and then on to New Orleans via the Tennessee, Ohio, and Mississippi Rivers. Apparently, John made an impression on Richard Rapier because in 1824 Rapier added a provision for John in his will: “I bequeath one thousand dollars to my executors for the purpose of purchasing the freedom of the mulatto boy, John, who now waits on me and who belongs to the Estate of Thomas.”
Richard Rapier died in 1826, and three years later the Alabama General Assembly passed a law emancipating John, who adopted Rapier’s surname. It required a law from the state legislative for a slave to manumitted in Alabama. After Nat Turner’s Rebellion in 1831, these manumissions became far less frequent. Thus, John Henry Rapier became part of a small community of free blacks in Florence in the 1820s. He set up a barber shop on Court Street and was likely the only barber in town (for whites as well as blacks). In 1831, John Henry married a free black woman named Susan and the couple had four children together: Richard G (1831-1887), John H. Jr. (1835-1866), Henry (1836-1859), and James Thomas (1837-1883). Susan is said to have died in childbirth in 1841 along with two infant sons, Jackson and Alexander.
After Susan’s death, John purchased and married a slave woman name Lucretia with whom he fathered five more children, all born as slaves. Children inherited the status of their mother; had their mother been free and their father a slave, the children would have been born free. The details of the relationship aren’t known, but during this period John Henry was able to accumulate a significant amount of wealth. He owned a building on Court Street in Florence, a house on Cedar Street, as well as property in other parts of Alabama, and parcels of land in Canada and the Minnesota Territory. This was no small feat. Despite the considerable wealth accumulated by this man who was born as property, the odds of a freedman in Alabama living unmolested by the law were slim. There were frequent attempts to kidnap freedmen and sell them into slavery; often they were jailed, and as John Rapier describes, subject to higher taxes than whites. In this context, the wealth accumulated by Rapier is remarkable.
John’s brother Henry also found success as a barber. Having escaped slavery in Nashville, Henry made his way to Buffalo, New York where he established a successful barbershop in the basement of the Hotel Niagara. After the passage in 1850 of the Fugitive Slave Act, which required that citizens and officials in free states cooperate in returning escaped slaves to their original masters, Henry decided it was time to leave the “free” state of New York. In 1852, Henry moved his wife and eleven children to the black community of Buxton, Ontario. Buxton was established in 1849 by the Reverend William King and the Governor General of Canada, Lord Elgin as a land development project designed to provide affordable farmland for escaped American slaves.
John and Henry had a third brother named James, another successful barber and a slave in Nashville. John sent his four free children to school in Nashville between 1838 and 1846, where they stayed with their grandmother Sally and Uncle James. Slaves and free blacks were forbidden from attending school in Alabama, so John sent them to Tennessee.
James eventually won emancipation through a court petition in 1851. Before the Civil War had begun, all three of Sally Thomas’ sons were freedmen. But the family story continues. John Henry’s sons would benefit tremendously from the education they received while staying with their enslaved kinfolk in Tennessee.
John H. Rapier Jr. became a journalist in St. Paul Minnesota for several years before earning his M.D. at Iowa State University in Keokuk, IA and was appointed an army surgeon during the Civil War, one of only eight African Americans to occupy that position in the Union army.
James T. Rapier went to live with his uncle Henry in Canada where he attended the Buxton Mission School, which opened in 1850 and was taught by Rev. King. He then attended Montreal College in Montreal where he studied law. He also studied at the University of Glasgow in Scotland. Upon returning to Canada he taught at the Buxton Mission School briefly before settling in Nashville in 1864. He purchased land in nearby Maury County, Tennessee and became a cotton planter.
In 1867 James served as vice chairman of the Alabama Republican Convention and was a delegate to the state constitutional convention that same year. The Republican party found sympathizers amongst former slaves, freedmen, loyal Unionists, northerners who moved south following the war, and some poor whites. Many freedmen joined the party of Lincoln hoping to gain civil rights (specifically voting rights) in the years immediately following the war. In 1868, James relocated to Montgomery after being chased from his home in Florence by the Ku Klux Klan. In 1870, he was chosen as the first president of the National Negro Labor Union, an organization set up to help freedmen farmers. He also ran for Alabama Secretary of State that same year but lost the election. In 1872, however, James was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, serving Alabama’s 2nd district. James was one of three African American congressmen elected during Reconstruction and spent his days in congress advocating for civil rights for African Americans. He proposed the creation of a land bureau to help former slaves settle land in Western states and territories and proposed legislation that would increase funds for public education in the South. He is known for proposing and securing legislation that enabled the port of Montgomery to become a federal customs collection site.
James lost his reelection campaign in 1874, likely to a rigged election (common among Southern Democrats in the Reconstruction era until the adoption of the 1901 state constitution). In 1878, he was appointed collector for the IRS for the 2nd district of Alabama, a position he would hold until his death in 1883 of pulmonary tuberculosis. His tenure in Congress may have been brief, but like Reconstruction itself, offered a brief glimpse of a brighter future for African Americans in Alabama. Unfortunately, it would take Alabama another hundred-some years before it elected another African American representative to Congress.
The lives of John Henry Rapier and his sons emphasize a world of luck and also determination. John Henry was lucky to be emancipated at the age of 21; his brother Henry was fortunate enough to escape to Canada; and fortune played a role in James’ eventual emancipation in 1851. But it was their exploitation of this luck that led them to successful lives for themselves and their children. John Henry prospered in Florence, and was able to send four of his sons to college. A darker side of this saga is his recognition that he needed to send them away from Alabama in order for them to achieve success.
Consider the odds set against this family. Born into slavery and then eventually freed before the Civil War, the freedom of John Henry, John and James was still no guarantor of safety. Fearing jail, economic ruin due to higher taxes, and legal recapture or illegal kidnapping, these brothers not only survived, they thrived and prospered. John Henry also provided his children with an education, a difficult feat considering that education for all African Americans was illegal in their home state. His children took advantage of the opportunities afforded them through their education, and became successful in their fields. A truly inspirational group of individuals, the Thomas-Rapier family of Florence is worthy of further recognition.
© 2016 Brian Murphy
Originally published by Project Say Something, History & Race in Florence, AL, 2016, All rights reserved.
Brian is a Master’s student in UNA’s Public History program with a special interest in race and discriminatory housing practices. He hopes to bring his research in local history to bear on issues that continue to impact the Shoals community.