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From Barber to President By: Tim Crumrin

Updated: Apr 12, 2022

By 1840 Vigo County had a Black population of 425 persons. Most lived in the rural settlements, but there was a growing urban population also. The city folks worked at various jobs, in meat packing and construction particularly. Barbering was always a profession seemingly dominated by black men. William Clark was among several “artists of the steel blade” in Terre Haute. Cutting hair was just a minor part of their trade. They spent much more time giving shaves with a straight razor. As now, barber shops were places people gathered and barbers like Clark were among those most in the know about what was happening in town.

One of Clark’s one-time partners was Edward Roye, a man who led a fascinating life. The son of former slaves, Roye was a very bright man and had a head for business. He advertised his tonsorial parlor and bath house with a 79-foot tall barber pole. Colonization of Free Blacks was a hot topic in Indiana. Roye, though initially opposed to colonization, began to think of emigrating. His first inclination was to move to Haiti, and he began to learn French at a Ohio University. A fellow student suggested he think about moving to Liberia. The American Colonization Society, a group founded in 1816 to encourage Free Blacks to “Go Back to Africa,” provided support for those wishing to leave the Untied States. It founded a colony in West Africa with its Capitol of Monrovia, named after President James Monroe. Eventually more that 15,000 Free Blacks would emigrate to the colony.

Whether Roye received financial support from the group is unknown, but the idea of emigrating took hold in his mind. After the death of his wife, Roye sailed to Liberia in 1846 with a load of trade goods. He was 31. Shortly after Roye’s arrival Liberia declared itself a free nation. He became the leading businessman in Liberia, running an import/export business. He soon became known as the richest man in that West African nation.

He was attracted to politics and served a term in the Liberian House of Representatives and as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Liberia. In 1870 he reached the pinnacle of his political aspirations when he was elected Liberia’s President. Unfortunately, Liberia’s economy was in shambles and there was growing unrest among native tribes. Roye had the Speaker of the House arrange a loan from Great Britain, but under very severe terms. There was an uproar and after a trial exonerated the Speaker, he was nevertheless murdered as he left the courthouse.

Liberia became even more roiled, as increasing conflicts arouse between the indigenous people and the American colonists grew. Roye’s tenure as President of Liberia was a short one. Roye was driven from office by a coup in 1871. A mystery still surrounds Roye’s death in 1872. Some believe he was killed, while others say he drowned while trying to board a British ship. Ironically, he died on Lincoln’s birthday.

(The above blog is adapted from the author’s book, The Hidden History of Terre Haute.)

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