John Hope, often known as “Barber Caesar,” went from slavery to professional success. When he was a little boy, he was bought by a bar owner who dubbed him “Caesar” and advertised his “renowned” haircuts.
Hope was born free in Africa, though academics do not know where she was born. She was sold by coastal traders to European slave traders. He survived the perilous Middle Passage over the Atlantic Ocean before being sold as a slave at the age of ten in Virginia, North America, in 1743. He was sold to Yorktown merchant Benjamin Catton, who gave him the name Caesar. According to Daily Press, Hope was brought before a York County court to “affirm his status as a piece of property liable to taxes.”
Catton, his owner, was not only a bar owner, but also a wig maker. He employed London men to construct these wigs while also advertising the sale of men’s and women’s hair and haircuts. Hope may have gotten his barbering talents from Catton and his other employees.
Doctor Benjamin Catton Jr. inherited Hope as his slave when Catton died in 1749. Hope was sold for 150 pounds in 1768, demonstrating how valuable he was as a result of his occupation. Indeed, Hope’s barbering skills provided him with access to Virginia’s aristocracy. His clients included powerful White men of the time, and they trusted him.
In 1769, Thomas Jefferson traveled from Williamsburg to Yorktown to be shaved for 9 pence, according to the Daily Press.
“There’s this connection you have with the barber when you sit in a barber’s chair — and it was the same back then with patrons like Jefferson and Gov. Thomas Nelson,” Colonial Williamsburg Actor-Interpreter DeAndre Short, who recently portrayed Hope, said. “They divulged their secrets.” They started talking because they were sitting in that chair.”
Hope may have passed on information he heard from his White and important clients in order to surreptitiously support the free Blacks and enslaved men and women in his town.
By 1779, Hope, dubbed “Caesar, the famed barber of York” by the Virginia Gazette, had been set free. After being enslaved for 36 years, his owner petitioned the Virginia Assembly in 1779 to free him. This was made possible by his fame as a result of his occupation. According to reports, at least 32 Yorktown residents supported Hope’s freedom.
Five years after gaining his freedom, he dropped the slave name “Caesar” and began doing business in Williamsburg as John Hope. Aberdeen, his own son, was also purchased and liberated. Hope bought a site on Shockoe Hill, a few blocks west of the Capitol, in the 1790s. He married and had two children while accumulating property.
Hope’s life and journey inspired a new Colonial Williamsburg site five years ago. Colonial Williamsburg has been a museum and educational site since the 1920s, and it is very popular in the American South. Hope’s Barber Shop opened in October 2017 to interpret Hope’s remarkable story.
“Every day at Colonial Williamsburg, we share with our guests the extraordinary lives of African-Americans who made up more than half our city at the time of our nation’s birth,” Colonial Williamsburg President and CEO Mitchell Reiss said at the time. “John Hope, along with his co-stars Gowan Pamphlet, Aggy Randolph, Patrick Henry, and Thomas Jefferson, provides guests with a window into the courage and complexities that define America’s enduring story.”
Hope’s Barber Shop, according to Ted Maris-Wolf, a researcher at Colonial Williamsburg, “allows us to represent the life of a Black man who navigated the horror of slavery and the challenges of freedom by gaining 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.”