William Henry Dewey was born into slavery in 1858 in New Bern, a riverfront town in Craven County, in the rural Inner Banks of North Carolina. His mother died when he was a child.
By the age of 13, Henry was working as a “waiter boy” for Dr. Attmore, a popular young white physician who had served in the Confederate army. Henry’s older brother, Miles, was employed as a “boy” (domestic servant) for a series of white families. By the time he turned 16, Henry was apprenticing as a barber; and when he turned 20, he married Presbaretta “Etta” McIlvaine, another freed slave from New Bern. He found work at the barbershop in Gaston House, a landmark hotel in downtown New Bern. When he turned 23, Henry’s boss died, and he took over the shop, offering shaves for ten cents apiece. His brother Miles became a “hand” on the railroad, but his lifeless body would be found in one of the cars a couple of years later; cause of death unknown.
Unlike his brother Miles, who had been completely illiterate, Henry was not only very literate but a gifted orator and writer, although, as a profiler later notes, “his means for the acquisition of books were very limited.” In 1883, he organized and became president of “The Philosophian Literary Society of New Bern,” which, he wrote, was “organized for the purpose of circulating pure moral principles, to cultivate a love for the true, the beautiful, the good, and to qualify its votaries to become leaders of the people in all departments of Art, Science and Literature.”
His appetite for the fruits of the political arena was even greater. North Carolina’s second congressional district was a national hotbed of Black politics in these waning days of the Reconstruction Era following the Civil War. Known as the “Black Second,” Dewey’s district included many of the state’s Black-majority counties, and New Bern was its largest town. The Republican party – at that time, Lincoln’s party of Emancipation – would elect four Black congressmen to a total of seven terms between 1874 and 1898 from the Black Second, together with numerous Black state legislators. And Dewey was right at the heart of it.
In 1882, Dewey, described by the local paper as “the young barber at the Gaston House,” took the floor of the Republican County Convention to introduce a resolution endorsing George H. White, a Black lawyer and school principal in New Bern, to be nominated for district solicitor. It was a controversial choice, and the debate became so heated that, the local paper reported, “pretty soon the whole floor was in a ferment. Everyone was on his feet; the Chairman called for order, and there was evidently a good deal of feeling stirred up.” White would eventually go on to not only be elected solicitor, but also to become the last Black congressman to serve North Carolina for nearly a century.
From 1884 to 1889, Dewey organized the annual “Emancipation Day” celebration of the 13th Amendment each January. The Black residents of New Bern would parade the streets with bands, assemblies, prayers, speeches, poetry, and the reading of the Emancipation Proclamation. This New Bern tradition continued well into the 20th century (and still survives there today as part of the annual Juneteenth celebration.)
Even as Dewey, “the Practical Tonsorial Artist,” continued to offer ten-cent shaves at his “Hairdressing and Shaving Saloon” at the Gaston House, he also waded deeper into politics. He was hired to work for local political campaigns. He organized an “Excursion Extraordinary” to the Congressional Convention in nearby Kinston in 1886. He was appointed to the executive committee of his party in his ward, and to the executive committee of the Freedmen in and around New Bern. He became a prominent statewide figure in the G.U.O.O.F. (Grand United Order of Odd Fellows in America). The local paper published a description of Dewey as “a man who stand in the fear of God but fearless of man.”
In 1886, while still at the barbershop, Dewey bought and became the editor of The People’s Advocate, the only political newspaper in the county and the only one intended for a Black readership. He soon renamed it The Golden Rule. While there are no known surviving copies of it, its existence is well-documented. It was a four-page broadsheet published every Saturday.
In 1887, a controversy over a school bill erupted. The bill consolidated the various schools under all-white management in exchange for a longer school year for the “colored school.” Dewey opposed it. In a letter to another local paper, he wrote, “I am opposed to centralization of power in one race over another. The bill says separate schools, but one committee of white people. After twenty-four years of enfranchisement my heart beats as high as the Anglo Saxon who condemned taxation without representation.”
A battle ensued in the newspapers. “Henry Dewey says he votes for nothing that is managed exclusively by white people,” responded one critic; “Henry Dewey is a better barber than a politician. He is not a great leader among his people.” “H. has lost his balance when he endeavors to teach his race to hate the white people,” wrote another. Dewey exploded back in print, “I desire for myself and a majority of the horny-fisted sons of toil, to ask you in all fairness and candor, did you mean [it] when you said that the negro, the poor man has no right to manhood, therefore he ought not to vote contrary to the rich man’s opinion? If you did let me tell you it would have been better for the poor man, better for the race of which I am proud of being one in part, that you never were born, I would to God have never allowed you to deform the face of nature, to darken the light of this day.” Soon after, embroiled in endless newspaper battles and ongoing lawsuits, Dewey sold his barbershop, and in 1889 moved ninety miles away from his hometown to the city Wilmington and opened a new barbershop. But it didn’t last long.
By 1889, the political climate for African-Americans in North Carolina had begun to shift away from the empowering years of the late Reconstruction era. The era of Jim Crow, discriminatory voter laws, and white supremacy was metastasizing. The borders of the Black Second would soon be redrawn. In what would be called “the Negro Exodus,” some 50,000 Black North Carolinians left the state over the next fifteen months. There were many reasons for the exodus, but many point to the passage of the Payne Election Law, a voting rights bill that granted broad discriminatory powers to local registrars, as a principal one. “It is perhaps a good riddance to let the disturbed element have an escape,” lambasted the Wilmington Morning Star. Most families migrated south or west; but a few, like Henry Dewey and his family, went north. His last mention in the New Bern newspapers was a passing detail in December 1889, listing “Wm. H. Dewey [of] Waltham, Mass.” visiting at a local hotel.
The Dewey family had fled North Carolina for Massachusetts. From Waltham, they settled in Haverhill, where Henry opened a barber and hairdressing shop. He organized a 31st-anniversary celebration of the Emancipation Proclamation at the music hall in Haverhill for New Years Day 1894, featuring prayer, poetry, dance, and a speech by Dewey himself. But whether his event failed to move the residents of Haverhill, or whether he had lost his appetite for such things, this was evidently the last time Dewey tried to organize a public event.
The family moved next to Chelsea. Etta bore thirteen children in all, the first in New Bern, and the last born in Chelsea. Only three survived to adulthood: William Henry Jr. (known as “Billy”), Miles, and Harold. In Chelsea, the Dewey boys became involved, as children, in vaudeville. An 1899 Boston Post theater review mentioned “William Dewey, the comedian with the big mouth” and “Miles Dewey, the acrobatic cake walker” performing at the Nickelodeon. At age 15, Miles’ occupation was recorded as a “comedian” in the 1900 census.
Then they moved to Vineyard Haven. What drew the Dewey family to an Island town with only two other Black families (one Cape Verdean) has been forgotten. Sometime between about 1901 and 1905, the Deweys opened the “William H. Dewey Lunch Room, Hair Dressing and Boot Blacking Parlors” near the corner of Main Street and Church Street in downtown Vineyard Haven. It stood across from the stone bank, about where Mikado is today. Etta ran the lunchroom and bakery, known as the Eureka Lunch Room, next door to the barbershop. (“Don’t forget to try Dewey’s Famous Home-made Bread, 8 cents loaf,” they advertised.)
The barbershop and lunchroom operated until about 1912-13. “He was another colored barber,” recalled the late Stan Lair (1902-1987) of Vineyard Haven, without detail. “I went to school with his boy, Harold Dewey. I remember him well.”
There is no evidence that Dewey ever waded into Vineyard politics. As he turned fifty in his new Island home, the activism of his youth had turned into the pragmatism of feeding his family and keeping their youngest child in school. His forays into the newspapers were limited to classified ads. “A FIRST-CLASS colored barber, one that can wait upon white trade wanted. Address W. H. Dewey, Vineyard Haven, Mass.” he published in the Boston Globe in 1905 and 1906. “WANTED – A colored barber and a girl, age from 14 to 20, that wants a good home. Address W. H. Dewey, Vineyard Haven, Mass.” he published again in 1907. This last ad must have been answered, as the census lists 13-year-old Bernice, “adopted daughter,” living with them in Vineyard Haven in 1910.
“William H. Dewey, Lunch Room, also Tonsorial Artist,” he advertised about 1908. “Call at the barber shop next door to the Eureka Lunch Room, and opposite the New Bank on Main Street, Vineyard Haven, if you wish to enjoy the sensation of having your hair cut or of being shaved in truly ‘first-class style.’ This is a new shop with new equipment, but the proprietor, Mr. William H. Dewey, is by no means ‘new’ in the business. On the contrary he has had an experience of more than a quarter of a century, and as Mr. Dewey is one of those who learn from experience it may truly be said that never before was he so well prepared as he is to-day to completely satisfy the wants of even the most fastidious…. At his lunch room, also opposite the bank, meals may be had at all hours. A specialty of home made bread at eight cents per loaf; fresh every day, at lunch room.”
The Dewey family moved back to Boston shortly before Etta’s death there at the age of 57. Henry died three years later. Their three sons continued in show business. Billy became a professional singer, dancer, and comedian, touring in England and Canada, and starring in the all-Black 1921 Broadway jazz musical hit, “Shuffle Along,” which is now closely associated with the formative theatrical scene of the Harlem Renaissance. A striking 1910 photograph of him – a Black man in blackface, posing in costume – exists in the digital archives of Howard University’s Vaudeville Collection. Miles became a ragtime dancer, and a professional singer, entertainer, and stage performer. Harold, who had attended Tisbury High School, became a singer and performer with the Crane Stock Company of Washington D.C. Sadly, all three died in obscurity in the 1940s and 50s – Billy’s last job was as a porter at the Park Square Greyhound Bus Terminal in Boston; Miles went blind and died alone, spending his final decade living out a “meager existence” in Roxbury with his seeing-eye dog, “Beauty”. Harold’s last job was with the Tite-Flex Metal Hose Co. in Newark, NJ.
Dewey’s Vineyard Haven Lunch Room was taken over by Herbie Stevens. (“He had a sign stuck up over the front of the counter,” recalled Lair; “it said, ‘Do not kid the coffee – you may be old and weak yourself one day.’”) The space was soon taken over by the Alley Brothers’ market, and then by the Cronigs Brothers’ expanding grocery.
William Henry Dewey died in Tewksbury in 1916 at the age of 58, but no obituary was ever published, nor was one published for Etta a few years earlier, nor later for their three distinguished sons, nor for their other ten lost children. Perhaps this column may serve as a belated memorial.