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Indy's Prominent Colored Citizens, 1880, Part 4

Updated: Mar 20, 2023

The Bagby Family: Henry and sons, Robert B. and James D.

Among these pleasant homes is one that owned and occupied by the Bagby brothers, of whom there are three now in the city. Two of these brothers are principals of public schools here, and the Indianapolis Leader is owned and published by them. James D. Bagby is the business manager of this weekly newspaper, which was first published in August 1879. It has been a financial success, having the confidence of both blacks and whites. Its circulation is estimated at about 2,500 copies.

Robert B. Bagby, the oldest of these brothers, principal of Public-school No. 24, in this city, relates his family history with a fond pride and tender reverence, fully justified by

the remarkable qualities of mind possessed by his father.

Both parents were born slaves in Virginia, and both were the children of their masters. The blood of three nationalities flows in their veins—English, Irish, and African.

The father, Henry Bagby, was sold after the death of his master, and was bought by a man from West Virginia who did not traffic in slaves, but who bought this boy of nine years to act as errand boy for him in his business, which was that of a tanner. At the age of 15 years, Henry was taught the tanner’s trade, and here, becoming a favorite with the white apprentices, they taught him secretly what they learned in night schools. For five years he read and studied of nights and Sundays, when a little circumstance revealed his stolen knowledge to his master.

On a general muster day, Henry was left alone in the tannery, and while all the others were away, a man came with a load of hides to sell. Henry weighed them, and recorded the transaction on the books. At night, on his master’s return, seeing the hides, he made inquiry concerning them. Henry said: “I have weighed them, and given credit for them on the book.”

His master was dumbfounded and could not believe that he was able to do this, until he had him repeat the weighing and tested his knowledge in other ways. His master was not displeased, however, and soon made him his bookkeeper and trusted him with the general charge of the business. But, although partially independent in action, Henry Bagby could not forget that he was a slave and, when he was about thirty years old he told his master that he wanted to buy himself. His master said: “Why Henry, I can’t get along without you.” But he did make out the freedom papers, and told Henry that he might own himself for $500. When the papers were given to Henry, his master said that he need not give the note, probably from the feeling that he had doubly earned his freedom during all those years that he had worked faithfully without regular wages. Henry insisted on giving him the note and his master finally took it, saying: “I am a rich man, you are a poor man. You may become rich, I may become poor. If that time should ever come, you may pay this note.”

During Mr. Dickinson’s lifetime the note was never paid, but after his death his heirs claimed the full amount, and it was paid. Just about the time Bagby married, and Mr. Dickinson immediately built another tannery a few miles away and made Bagby his partner there, under the firm name of Dickinson & Co. In a year or two his wife received by the will of her master (who was her father, you remember) her freedom, a house, some household furniture and fifty acres of land. Their business prospered under Bagby’s management, so that in a few years they acquired a good property. Six boys were born while they lived in West Virginia.

It is worthy of note that the names of the first three boys witness to their father’s enthusiasm for the heroes of the “Scottish Chiefs,” a book which lie greatly admired. Robert Bruce, William Wallace and Edwin Ruthann are the names written by the father himself, together with the other family record, in a fair, round hand in the big Bible, a book now tenderly treasured by his family.

Henry Bagby taught his three oldest boys every day (Sundays excepted) in his tannery, where he required them to come regularly and recite their lessons in reading, spelling, “ciphering” and geography. The fact of his teaching them geography, at that day and place, shows the effect of his own constant reading of papers and books, which had taught him the value of a knowledge of places. Henry Bagby was a subscriber to the Baltimore Sun for twenty-five years.

No anti-slavery papers or books were allowed to be sold or given away in that State; but the universal Yankee peddler carried them there surreptitiously and dropped them carelessly in safe places. After the murder of Lovejoy his paper edged with black was thus carelessly dropped upon a chair in Bagby’s house. Henry Bagby picked it up and began to read it, when the peddler turned around from the window at which he was standing and said: “I didn’t give you that.” “I know you didn’t,” said Bagby.

In 1857 Henry Bagby sold his business in West Virginia and removed to Oxford, Ohio, near which place he bought a farm. Here he embraced the liberty of subscribing for all the leading anti-slavery papers, and continued to cultivate his children a love for good reading. When criticized by some for allowing the children to wear and sometimes tear the books and papers, he said that he thought that by handling them they would acquire habits of reading. He lived to see these children educated and engaged in teaching.

The eldest, Robert B., entered the army at the age of seventeen, and served two years in the Twenty-Eighth United States regiment until the close of the war. He afterwards took a six years’ course at Oberlin, being graduated from that institution in 1874, since which time he has been a teacher in this city.

He is the only one of the family who completed the full college course, although his brothers spent some time studying at Oberlin.

In answer to the question how the purely black children compare in mental capacity with those of mixed blood, Mr. Bagby said that his experience as a teacher has convinced him that there is no superiority among the children who have white blood in their veins. “Some of the brightest children in our schools are coal-black.”

He is inclined to think that the popular impression of the greater mental quickness of those lighter-hued is due to the fact that in the days of slavery, these children being related to their masters, were kept about the house where they heard better English, and could pick up scraps of knowledge. As their people became better educated, the laws of heredity and association will probably assist in effacing these differences in language and general culture.

Up Next: Anderson Lewis, the last man profiled in the original article.

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