Joseph Farr and the Underground Railroad

Joseph Farr and the Underground Railroad – 2022 – 20×30 – ink

Joseph Farr was a young man when he arrived in Saint Paul in 1850, to help in his uncle’s barbershop and with the underground railroad effort. Throughout the pre-Civil War decade, uncle William Taylor’s small group helped to free slaves. Rich slave owners would visit Saint Paul for a summer vacation in Minnesota’s cooler climate and bring their slaves along. Taylor’s group would help the slaves escape.

As an older man, Joseph Farr recounted his experiences in two newspaper interviews. The first is a 1895 story in the Saint Paul Pioneer Press, brought to my attention by a Ramsey County Historical Society publication: Joseph Farr remembers the Underground Railroad. The second was a 1905 Saint Paul Globe story that draws out additional details. These two interviews are part of the limited record of underground railroad activities that always leave me wanting to know more.

In this drawing, I illustrate Joseph Farr’s recollections. Places mentioned in the interviews are depicted in the medallions. Sometimes the sources were based on photographs from the Minnesota Historical Society, but some medallions are educated guesses based on a variety of sources. Each medallion is tied to a location in downtown Saint Paul, the map of which compares the town in 1885 to today. I chose 1885 since Joseph Farr was nearing the end of his decades-long career as a barber. He lived at 59 East Eleventh Street with his wife Sarah and four children. His eldest daughter, Minnie T. Farr, had already been the first Black person to graduate from high school in Saint Paul and the first Black person to teach in the Saint Paul public school system. I imagine Joseph Farr reminiscing over a city that had already changed so much and contemplating what the future might hold.

For more details, see Minnie T. Farr, William Taylor’s Barbershop, and Second Street.

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