John Hope, also known as “Barber Caesar”, rose from being enslaved to achieving professional success. He was just a young boy when he was purchased by a tavern operator who named him “Caesar” and advertised his “famous” haircuts.
Born free in Africa, with researchers yet to know the exact location, Hope was sold by coastal traders to European slave traders. He survived a horrifying Middle Passage across the Atlantic Ocean before he was sold as a slave when he was 10 years old in Virginia, in North America, in 1743. He was sold to Benjamin Catton of Yorktown, who gave him the name Caesar. Hope was brought before a York County court to “confirm his status as a piece of property subject to taxes,” according to Daily Press.
His owner Catton did not only operate a tavern but was also into the making of wigs. He hired men from London to make these wigs while also advertising the sale of hair and haircuts for men and women. It is possible that Hope learned his barber skills from Catton and his other workers.
When Catton died in 1749, his son, Doctor Benjamin Catton Jr., inherited Hope as his slave. Hope would be sold in 1768 for 150 pounds, showing how valuable he was thanks to his occupation. In fact, Hope’s barbering skills gave him access to Virginia’s elite. Powerful White men of his time were among his clients, and they trusted him.
Daily Press reports that Thomas Jefferson even traveled from Williamsburg to Yorktown, where Hope was, to be shaved for 9 pence in 1769.
“When people sit in a barber’s chair, there’s this connection you have with the barber — and it was the same back then with patrons like Jefferson and Gov. Thomas Nelson,” Colonial Williamsburg Actor-Interpreter DeAndre Short, who portrayed Hope recently, said. “They shared their secrets. Sitting in that chair made them talk.”
It is possible that Hope passed along information he overhead from his White and prominent clients to secretly support the free Blacks and enslaved men and women in his community.
By 1779, Hope, who was described by the Virginia Gazette as “Caesar, the famous barber of York”, had been freed. Enslaved for 36 years, his owner in 1779 petitioned the Virginia Assembly to set him free. This became possible thanks to the fame he had earned for his occupation. Reports said at least 32 residents of Yorktown supported Hope’s freedom.
Five years after becoming a free man, he shed the slave name “Caesar” and started doing business in Williamsburg under the name John Hope. He also purchased and freed his own son, Aberdeen. In the 1790s, Hope purchased a lot on Shockoe Hill, a few blocks west of the Capitol building. While accumulating property, he got married and had two children.
Five years ago, the life and journey of Hope inspired a new Colonial Williamsburg site. Colonial Williamsburg has since the 1920s served as a museum and education site, and it is very popular in the American South. In October 2017, it opened Hope’s Barber Shop to interpret the remarkable story of Hope.
“Every day at Colonial Williamsburg we share with our guests the remarkable lives of African-Americans who comprised more than half our city at the time of our nation’s birth,” Colonial Williamsburg President and CEO Mitchell Reiss said at the time. “Along with his fellow characters like Gowan Pamphlet, Aggy Randolph, Patrick Henry and Thomas Jefferson, John Hope offers guests a window on the courage and complexity that define America’s enduring story.”
Ted Maris-Wolf, a researcher at Colonial Williamsburg, told The Virginia Gazette that Hope’s Barber Shop “allows us to represent the life of a Black man who navigated the horror of slavery and the challenges of freedom by acquiring enough trust from many of the city’s gentry — including Thomas Jefferson — to hold a sharp blade to their throats, and eventually, earn a living doing so.”