From the Archives: Biographies:
The Vosburghs

African American Robert Vosburgh and his wife Abigail, who was white, settled in Erie in 1818 with their three children.  Shortly after arriving in Erie, Robert set up a barbershop in the heart of downtown Erie.  The shop enabled him to meet, and sometimes befriend, Erie’s wealthiest and most powerful men.  It was also in this shop that he learned which of these men could be trusted. And many of these men, in turn, learned they could trust Vosburgh. 

There was always a good deal of traffic in and out, black and white.  From the Vosburgh shop, Underground Railroad workers could learn about the comings and goings of the town.  Here fugitives could change their appearance and obtain a new suit of clothes before making their way to Canada, either along the lake shore or by boat.

The barber trade, considered undignified for whites, was almost exclusively a black occupation until late in the 19th century.  Barbers were among the black elite in their communities.

The Vosburghs prospered and eventually had nine children, eight sons and one daughter.  Many of the Vosburgh children attended the Himrod School for Colored Children.  Tragedy struck twice in 1841 when sons Henry and Israel perished in the steamship Erie explosion.  Another son, Richard, drowned.  Albert continued his father’s work as an abolitionist, making fast friends with William D. Forten, youngest son of the famous Philadelphia sailmaker and abolitionist, and traveling to Philadelphia often.  Albert went on to great success in real estate.  George made his fortune in Cleveland with the Lake Shore Railroad and was well known in Cleveland social circles. Robert worked for the New York City Customs House for 35 years. Charles married into a prominent black family, the McConnells of Harborcreek. 

Robert Vosburgh
Barber and Hair Dresser
RESPECTFULLY informs the gentle men of Erie and its vicinity, that he continues to carry on the barbering business at his stand, the second door below P.S.V. Hamot’s store, on French Street, and keeps constantly on hand, a quantity of the best

Erie, May 27, 1820

The subscriber respectfully informs his friends and the public generally, that he is “on hand” at his old stand under the Mansion House, and ready to Shave, Dress Hair or Clean Clothes, in ample order.  Having been engaged in the above business about 17 years, he flatters himself that he can “do what is right about it.”

Robert Vosburgh
Erie, April 6, 1836

 Contributed by Karen James

The Demise of Peter Grawotz

Black Barbers


Harry Thacker Burleigh

John Brown

Pierre Simon Vincent Hamot

Robert Vosburgh

Hamilton Waters