Welcome to my Part I of my 4-part series called, THE ENTREPRENEUR WHO BOUGHT…HIMSELF. I had originally planned to tell this story in three parts, but it’s such a rich and beautiful story, it deserved all the space I could give it. Hope you enjoy!
The 19th century is full of entrepreneurs. The founders of Folgers, Tiffany & Co., and Bausch & Lomb are only a few. But there were unknown, unsung entrepreneurs also, and William “Uncle Bill” Lewis, shown here, was one of them.
Bill was born into slavery in Winchester, Tennessee in 1810. His owner was a man named Colonel Lewis. Colonel Lewis taught Bill the blacksmithing trade as soon as he was old enough to stand on his own two legs and pay attention. Bill was so good at his job, he brought Colonel Lewis much money and made him a very happy man. Bill even worked at odd hours and saved money for himself.
Colonel Lewis told a Chattanooga Times Reporter he was pleased with his “honest, industrious and faithful servant.” In fact, he was so satisfied with Bill’s performance, he granted his request and allowed him to move to Chattanooga and set up a blacksmith shop on Georgia Avenue. But such a privilege—working and earning money for himself when he was only a slave—hardly came free. Bill had to pay $350 a year to operate on his own. This is equivalent to over $8,000 a year in the new millennium.
Young Bill arrived at Ross’s Landing in 1837—the first African American blacksmith to locate to Chattanooga–and set up shop on Georgia Avenue. But work and money weren’t the only things on this intelligent man’s mind. Like a true entrepreneur, he devised a plan to not only build an empire, but to live free to enjoy it.
The first item on the agenda: purchase his wife’s freedom. Bill knew children of slaves followed the condition of their mothers, so his wife must be free if their children were to be free. He worked hard, saved much, and finally bought his wife’s freedom for $1,000.
Next, he saved for his own freedom. While he saved, he played a vital part in the growing Chattanooga community. At that time, Chattanooga held its community meetings, school sessions and other services in a little 16X20 log building on a tiny lot somewhere between Fourth and Fifth Streets, near Georgia Avenue. Bill was the man who forged the pestle and mortar bell that hung in the building. By striking the mortar with the pestle, Bill made it possible to alert community members far and wide that a meeting was about to be held. This is a picture of the historical marker for the little log school house (copyright 2005, Rita Lorraine Hubbard).
Bill earned steady money shodding horses and grounding iron, and not long after his arrival in Chattanooga, he made the final payment on his own freedom papers.
Yes, Bill was free. This entrepreneur had bought…himself for $1,000 dollars.
Well, that’s it for now. Please stay tuned for Part II of The Entrepreneur Who Bought…Himself.
UPDATE: My first picture book, HAMMERING FOR FREEDOM, celebrates the life and legacy of William Lewis. Here’s an image of the cover:
Pick up Hammering for Freedom here:
Purchase AFRICAN AMERICANS OF CHATTANOOGA HERE:
Be sure to pick up your copy of African Americans of Chattanooga and find out about other African American entreprenuers. Just click on the icon to the left, and you’ll be taken directly to Amazon.com’s website, where you can make your purchase.
Best wishes and happy researching,