Thursday, February 6, 2014

Henry Boyd - Former Slave and Cincinnati Entrepreneur

In honor of Black History Month, I want to highlight people from Cincinnati I have learned about over the years. The first is Henry Boyd, who I read about in "Front Line of Freedom" by Keith P. Griffler. This book is about the Underground Railroad and how African Americans were truly the leaders in starting and maintain this network to allow slaves to escape bondage in the South.

Henry Boyd was born into slavery on April 12, 1802 in Kentucky. His slave master gave him permission to earn money to buy his freedom. At the age of 18, he was employed by the Kenhawa Salt Works in present-day West Virginia, where he chopped wood and kept watch on the salt-kettles. After earning enough money, he went back to his master and paid to become a freed man. While in Kentucky, he learned the carpentry trade.
1838 Map of Cincinnati by Joseph Gest - Source
He journeyed to Cincinnati in 1826, using almost all his savings to arrive here. When searching for work in this city, he faced discrimination at every shop, even though there was plenty of work. He did find work with an Englishman after proving the quality of his work. However, the fellow journeymen refused to work with him and planned to quit their jobs. The shop owner decided he could not hire Boyd after all.

Dejected, Boyd finally found work unloading pig iron on the riverfront and was a loyal employee to the merchant, he was promoted to being the janitor for his store. When another carpenter was too drunk to install a counter for the merchant, Henry proved his skills so well that the merchant also hire him to build a frame building for him.
Tester Bed by Henry Boyd - Source
With the money from this job and others, Henry went on to create his own furniture shop, which stood at the corner of Broadway and Eighth Streets. His bedsteads were the feature of the business and in 1833, his invention was patented by George Porter, since African-Americans at the time were unable to legally secure patents themselves. His creative design, called "wood screw and swelled rail" allowed the frame to remain tightly assembled without the use of iron bolts.
Henry Boyd, Broadway, above Eighth street. This establishment has long enjoyed a distinguished reputation for bedstead work of high finish, fancy style, and excellent quality, although its operations are not confined to that article alone. Boyd works twenty hands.
The peculiarity of Boyd's bedsteads-which are the patent right and left, wood screw, and swelled rail-is the solidity of fit, when put together; which enhances their durability; as well as forms a perfect protection from vermin, which find no harbor at the joints.
Cist, Charles. Sketches and Statistics of Cincinnati in 1851.  Cincinnati: W. H. Moore, 1851.
H. Boyd; Cin' Ohio - Source
Henry and his family lived on New Street, which ran between Sycamore and Broadway and 6th and 7th Streets. His name appears in the city directories starting in 1834. His business was very successful. In 1835, he was worth $3,000 (equal to $65,763 in 2012). He was able to also purchase his brother and sister out of slavery. His business employed people all of backgrounds, both black and white.

1887 Sanborn Insurance Map - Source
15 New Street, Home of Henry Boyd from approx. 1834 until 1886, outlined in red.
According to abolitionist Martin Delany, Boyd was "widely known among abolitionist". When Calvin Fairbank was released from a Kentucky prision after serving his time for freeing slaves, his first stop in Cincinnati was to see Henry Boyd. In previous years, Fairbank had brought fugitive slaves to Boyd's house. Boyd continued the slaves' journey on the Underground Railroad. Fellow abolitionist Huntington Lyman recalled in 1898 that he believed it was Henry Boyd's house that was "Station A", not the home of Levi Coffin, as is widely understood.
Boyd Tester Bed at the Golden Lamb, Lebanon, Ohio - Source
Being a successful African-American business man in the mid-1800s brought others to become jealous and fires happened more than once at his manufacturing business. This caused insurance companies to no longer cover his business. Shortly after 1860, Boyd closed the Broadway street shop, however he was still listed in the furniture business until 1870. He continued to live in his New Street home until his death on March 1, 1886. He is buried in Spring Grove Cemetery.
Spring Grove Cemetery Burial Record for Henry Boyd - Source
African-American historian Carter G. Woodson mentions Henry Boyd in his "Journal of Negro History" in 1916. He states that Boyd and his family were in favor of miscegenation, or the mixing of races, which was looked down upon by both African-Americans at the time.
"Moreover, having to do chiefly with white men he was charged by his people with favoring the miscegenation of races. Whether or not this was well founded is not yet known, but his children and grandchildren did marry whites and were lost in the so-called superior race." (Woodson)
Boyd's family was considered Mulatto (light-skinned) in the census records for 1850 to 1870 and white in 1880. It is possible that Henry was the son of his slave master and could explain why he could work to buy his freedom. Even with these negative accusations, Boyd clearly helped his fellow man with his hiring practices and involvement in the Underground Railroad.
1904-1930 Sanborn Insurance Map - Source
Former location of Henry Boyd's house outlined in red
Boyd's house on New Street was demolished sometime between 1904 and 1928. It was replaced with a parking garage. A newer garage was built in 1972, but there is no recognition for Henry Boyd and his contributions to this city and to the Underground Railroad.
CAGIS Map; 2014 - Source
Sources Used:
Cowan Auctions
     Society of Friends, . "Henry Boyd." The Friend. (1881): 85.
     Woodson, Carter G. The Journal of Negro History. (1916). (accessed February 5, 2014).
     Robert S. , Levine. Martin R. Delany: A Documentary Reader . Univ of North Carolina Press, 2003. boyd delany&source=gbs_navlinks_s (accessed February 5, 2014).
     "Proceedings Ohio Anti-Slavery Convention. Held At Putnam, On The Twenty-Second, Twenty-Third, And Twenty-Fourth Of April, 1835.." . (accessed February 5, 2014).
     Griffler, Keith P. Front Line of Freedom. The University Press of Kentucky, 2004.


  1. Excellent blog entry! Thank you for the information. I've owned a house on Boyd Street in Northside for 19 years and have wondered recently, after learning about this particular Boyd, if there was any connection. It doesn't sound like it, from your article, unless one of Henry Boyd's descendants lived there and named it after him. Do you know anything about the background of that street name?

    1. I think if you go downtown Cinti to Court Street Admin Building before Main, 2nd floor, inquire about Cinti street maps or city plats, descendants of Henry Boyd and Boyd Street in Northside, and/or Cinti Library history, or Cinti Museum Center there may be a verifiable connection.

    2. How interesting. I stumbled across this post while reading something else. A couple of years ago, I shot a video of author Bing Spitler talking about the Boyd bed at The Golden Lamb. Cincinnati has such interesting stories. If you're interested in Bing's take on Boyd, the video is here:


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