The life and times of William James Parker, from slave to freedman and beyond 

In Search of the Tinsmith of Tradd Street

A chance encounter with gospel singer Ysaye Barnwell led paul garbarini to 12 Tradd Street.

Jonathan Boncek

A chance encounter with gospel singer Ysaye Barnwell led paul garbarini to 12 Tradd Street.

For Paul Garbarini, it was a weekend lark. In January 2011, the Charleston vocalist, tour guide, and furniture restorer drove to Aiken, S.C., to take part in a vocal workshop led by Ysaye Barnwell. The deep, mellow-voiced Barnwell anchors Sweet Honey in the Rock, a women's spiritual a capella group which has toured the world, won an Emmy Award, and released dozens of albums over the course of four decades.

At a workshop dinner Garbarini found himself across the table from Barnwell. Small talk ensued and Barnwell mentioned that her father's family was from Charleston.

In retrospect, the revelation seems almost karmic. The name Barnwell, after all, is one of the oldest in South Carolina. And Garbarini, along with his other interests and occupations, is also a historian and genealogist.

When he returned to Charleston the next week, he was on a mission. He was going to tease out the strands of Ysaye Barnwell's family from the densely woven fabric of Charleston history. He would spend the next 18 months poring through archives, census records, and spools of microfilm. He would pick his way through nearly two centuries of this city's rococo past, piecing together the story of a remarkable family and its triumphs and sorrows, from slavery to freedom.

The starting point was easy enough, Garbarini says. Barnwell's grandmother was born Lucia Parker. She appears in the 1870 census records, one of nine surviving children of William James and Anna Parker. The family lived at 12 Tradd Street, where W.J. Parker had a tinsmith shop. They are at the same address in the 1880 census records; the 1890 records were destroyed by fire. By 1900, the Parker family was living at 26 Morris Street.

Tracing the family back before the 1870 census was a challenge, Garbarini says, noting the brick wall that genealogists hit when tracing African-American history. "Before 1870, most African Americans in the South were slaves. They had no last names," he says. "They were listed in census records simply as 'male' and 'female' under their owners' names."

click to enlarge Sweet Honey on the Rock’s Ysaye Barnwell. - DWIGHT CARTER PHOTOGRAPHY
  • Dwight Carter Photography
  • Sweet Honey on the Rock’s Ysaye Barnwell.

Garbarini was looking for a tinsmith named William James Parker. But where was W.J. Parker before 1870? Was he a slave or was he free?

On a hunch, Garbarini went to the capitation tax records. Before emancipation, free persons of color in Charleston were required to pay a capitation tax to remain free. Think of it as a property tax that one would pay on his or her self. If they failed to pay, they could be seized and sold at auction. The 1852 tax record showed a William James Parker who would have been about the right age, but he was a boilermaker, not a tinsmith. Garbarini followed him through the records for years.

"He moved quite a bit, all over the Neck. In 1862, he was a ship's carpenter, but a boilermaker the other years," Garbarini says, "So I had to figure, among other things, how a boilermaker could become a tinsmith by 1869."

Garbarini was forced to conclude that there must have been two William James Parkers in Charleston, and he had been chasing the wrong one. In the process he had lost nearly six weeks of hard work.

Garbarini turned to deduction. "If my W.J. Parker was a tinsmith, he had to be taught the trade by another tinsmith," he says. "I searched the city directories in 1860 and 1850 for tinsmiths. Then I went to the 1850 and 1860 slave schedules, which listed those who owned slaves for taxation purposes. Only one tinsmith of nearly two dozen was a slaveholder — Robert Forbes." And he lived on Tradd Street.

Garbarini had found his W.J. Parker, and with him he found an example of the often complicated relationships between slaves and their owners. W.J. Parker was born in 1834 and purchased in 1845 by Forbes for the sum of $750. He was a personal servant to Forbes and an apprentice in his shop. But beyond the craft of bending and forming tin, Forbes taught his young charge to read and write and to keep the shop books. Why did he take this extraordinary and illegal measure?

click to enlarge The house at 12 Tradd Street might not have a grand entrance, but makes up for it with a rich history. - JONATHAN BONCEK
  • Jonathan Boncek
  • The house at 12 Tradd Street might not have a grand entrance, but makes up for it with a rich history.

"There," says Garbarini, "is a question for the ages."

William James Parker married and started a family in the years before the Civil War, but we know little else about him. He worked at the 12 Tradd Street shop and probably lived at the same property with Forbes. In 1864, his owner died and Parker became the property of Forbes' sister, Harriett. During this time Parker was allowed to "live on his own time," which was a condition as close to freedom as a slave was able to enjoy.

It was a perilous time in Charleston. The lower wards of the city — including Tradd Street — were under bombardment from Union forces and had largely been evacuated. The tinsmith shop was probably closed during this time.

With the end of the war, Parker became a free man in a devastated city and a shattered economy. But he had a huge advantage over the multitude of former slaves seeking to make new lives. He had a valuable skill and a rudimentary education.

Parker next appears in the 1869 city directory, where he is listed as a "tinner," working for himself at 12 Tradd Street. There he made roofing tin, gutters, stencils, and household items. In 1870, he opened an account with the Freedman's Bank, listing the names of his parents, siblings, wife, and six children on documents there.

It was a good time to be a freedman in Charleston, according to Bernard E. Powers, Jr., author of Black Charlestonians and professor of history at the College of Charleston. There was a strong entrepreneurial spirit among former slaves. They organized corporations to dig canals and build a railroad, exploit phosphate and timber resources, and deal in real estate and commerce. As a freedman with some education and a specialized skill, Parker was at the forefront of this wave of black enterprise. A tinsmith would have been in great demand as Charleston began to rebuild itself after the devastation of war and the Great Fire of 1861.

In 1873, Parker took a truly bold measure, which he must have found supremely satisfying. He bought the house at 12 Tradd Street, where he had once been a slave. The price: $1,500 cash.

Then, in 1876, he took another adventurous — and perhaps reckless — step. He ran for the state legislature — but he ran as a Democrat. The Republicans were the party of Reconstruction, the party of former slaves and Unionists. In the violent and seminal election of 1876, in which Reconstruction was overthrown and white supremacy reestablished, The News and Courier had almost daily reports of black Republicans attacking and intimidating black Democrats.

Powers believes that Parker's alliance with the Democrats was probably a matter of expediency. Most of his customers were white, and he sided with them against his fellow freedmen. Parker lost his one and only political race, and there is no further record of him in the party of Wade Hampton.

In 1882, he was a founding director of the Workingmen's Building and Loan, adding "banker" to his resume.

The year 1885 saw a devastating Category 3 hurricane which sat over Charleston for many hours, wreaking havoc on its old and vulnerable buildings. In its wake it left months of repair and restoration. It was a very good time to be in the tin roofing business.

The following year an earthquake struck the city, leveling whole neighborhoods. It meant more work for skilled tradesmen such as Parker. His house on 12 Tradd Street received $745 damage, according to the earthquake engineer's report, and his family probably spent some time in the tent city set up in Washington Park. But in the chaos and destruction, there was also opportunity.

click to enlarge William James Parker's home at 26 Morris St. still remains in the family. - JONATHAN BONCEK
  • Jonathan Boncek
  • William James Parker's home at 26 Morris St. still remains in the family.

The house at 26 Morris Street received considerable damage to its chimney and brick foundation. Parker bought the property for $2,300, repaired the damage, added stylish Queen Anne elements, a bay window, and a tin roof, all of which are still present. He moved his family to Morris Street, but kept his shop on Tradd.

In 1891, Parker and his family were among the more than 200 members of the Morris Street Baptist Church who left to form the Central Baptist Church a block away on Radcliffe Street. The split appears to have been over class and social status. From the minutes of the Central Baptist Church, May 28, 1891: "We further recommend that we should not contend with [Rev. John L.] Dart any longer as we can see the utter impossibility of removing him and the illiterate element following him."

Parker donated the labor to put the tin roof on the new church and erect the metal steeple tower. He served as trustee and deacon at Central Baptist until his death in 1907.

In 1901-1902, the S.C. Interstate and West Indian Exposition came to the sprawling grounds of Wagener Terrace, now occupied by Hampton Park and The Citadel. For six months it attracted industrialists, politicos, and dignitaries as Charleston sought to recruit commerce and industry to the city. Among the municipal leaders responsible for organizing the exposition was W.J. Parker, a member of the executive committee's "colored department." One of Garbarini's most astounding finds in his months of research was the picture of Parker, which appeared alongside that of Booker T. Washington, in a list of Who's Who of that department.

"I'll never forget being in the reading room of the Avery Research Center," Garbarini says, "looking up something else entirely, stumbling across Parker's name as being on the committee, then finding a much-copied photo of the front page of the Colored American newspaper with the picture of Parker and his cohorts, whose names were already familiar to me. I was speechless. It is the only known image of Parker."

In his long life, Parker acquired several pieces of property in the city, which ultimately went to his children. He trained his sons as tinsmiths, though one became a musician and undertaker. He sent one of his daughters to the Avery Institute, where she trained and graduated as a seamstress.

The 1900 census shows three generations of the W.J. Parker family living at 26 Morris Street. In 1895, daughter Lucia married Robert S. Barnwell. They had three children, including a son named Irving, born in 1897.

Sorrow engulfed the house at 26 Morris Street in the early years of the 20th century. William James Parker died there in 1907. Robert Barnwell died there in 1909. Lucia Parker died two years later. Anna Parker, wife of W.J., died in 1913.

Irving Barnwell was sent to New York City in 1910 to live with a family friend. There he learned violin and pursued it passionately. He had only a third-grade education, which he got at the Simonton School on Morris Street. But he came of age surrounded and inspired by the Harlem Renaissance. He was never able to earn a living as a musician, but he taught music until he was 90. One of his students (and godson) was the great jazz man Lisle Atkinson. Barnwell played with a string quartet for many years, but it was with a jazz ensemble that he traveled and earned money in resorts and clubs in New York and New England. His manner was formal, his words few. He never spoke of Charleston, his daughter recalls.

Barnwell also inherited his grandfather's mechanical skills. He worked in a nearby textile plant and kept a basement full of tools. He was a maintenance man for 30 years and had at least four patents to his name.

In New York City he married a registered nurse named Marcella Robinson and, in 1944, fathered a daughter. He named her Ysaye, in honor of the legendary Belgian violinist Eugene-Auguste Ysaye, and put a violin in her hands when she was three. Today, there is a picture on the singer's website of Irving Barnwell and his young daughter, violin in hand.

Raised in New York City, Ysaye Barnwell was the concert master in her high school orchestra. As a member of the all-city high school orchestra, she played for Leopold Stokowski.

After high school she studied speech pathology, eventually earning a doctorate in the field. She taught for many years, but music was always her first love. She organized a church choir, the Jubilee Singers, in Washington, D.C., in 1977. Two years later she was invited to join Sweet Honey in the Rock, traveling the world, writing and publishing music, appearing on screen and television, performing voice-overs. She has performed on more than a dozen albums.

The group's name, which is taken from Psalm 81:16, has special significance to Barnwell. "We have expanded the meaning to embrace black women," she writes in an e-mail. "We are referred to as rocks. But it is the honey which is particularly significant." She adds, "It is extremely adaptable to its environment and temperature and so will flow when warm and become rock hard when cool to cold. However, it never loses its sweetness. This is a powerful lesson for me to be conscious of."

As a teacher and choral clinician, she has taken her workshop, Building a Vocal Community: Singing in the African-American Tradition, to communities on three continents. It was this workshop that brought her to Aiken in 2011, where she met Paul Garbarini.

That meeting seems to be part of Ysaye Barnwell's life coming full circle. Afterward, she picked up the violin and started playing again for the first time in many years. It was amazing how easily it came back, she says. And it has reconnected her to her father, who died in 1987. The meeting also connected her to Charleston, a city that has haunted her in ways she does not understand. "I've always had an affinity for the city of Charleston without knowing exactly why," she says. "It was something about the language, the culture, the rhythms of the city ... It holds so much African-American culture. I need to explore it and get immersed in it."

She visited the city some 10 years ago with Sweet Honey. "But I've never really toured the city, never seen the landmarks," she says. That will probably change next year, when she plans to visit Charleston in June. She hopes she may have a chance to visit one or both of the houses where her ancestors lived.

Paul Garbarini turned his research into a talk which he recently gave to fellow scholars at Avery Institute. He has also created a walking tour around the life and times of William James Parker. The house at 26 Morris Street remained in the Parker family until 1945. Today it is a seven-bedroom rental property.

As for 12 Tradd Street, it was sold in 1913 to the noted Charleston preservationist Susan Pringle Frost after Anna Parker died. In 1920, Frost sold it to Mary Ravenel, and today it belongs to Ravenel's great-granddaughter, Fernanda Harrington.

In an e-mail Harrington writes, "There are many plaques on Charleston houses. I hope one day a plaque will adorn 12 Tradd about William J. Parker and what a remarkable man he was. What an honor that would be."

Today, a tin lantern hangs over the front door at 12 Tradd Street. It is the kind of household item W.J. Parker would have crafted in his shop when the roofing business was slow. It bears no trademark or signature, but it would appear to date from the 19th century. It may be one of the last surviving artifacts of the life of the tinsmith of Tradd Street.

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