A missing link in history: rare image found of Quebec's famous, Black, high-society barbers of the 1800s
Most people strolling along Saint-Louis street, in old Quebec, pass by the well-known restaurant Aux Anciens Canadiens with no idea of just how much history is held within its walls -- or what it represents about the longstanding Black presence in Quebec City.
Also known as The Jacquet House, it’s one of the oldest buildings in Quebec, dating back to the late 1600s. It was once widely believed to be General Montcalm's headquarters, but local historians say that’s just a myth.
The truth is, it’s where a Black man named John Williams made a name for himself as a prominent barber, working in partnership with his younger brother, James.
“They practiced there from 1870 until 1920. That's 50 years, that's half a century. And as far as Quebec City goes, there was no other Black institution. That was it,” said Frank Mackey, an author and independent researcher.
“The barbershops at the time, of course, were places where people would gather and chat and exchange news."
Williams, the eldest of 11 children, was born in Quebec City in 1834. His father, Thomas Williams, was Jamaican, and his mother, Catherine Quinn, was Irish.
While the Irish presence in Quebec City is well-documented, perhaps the notion of a Jamaican immigrating to Quebec in the 1800s seems more surprising. But according to Webster, a Quebec City historian and hip-hop artist, this wasn’t so uncommon.
“The thing that we forget is that Quebec City was a port city – a lot of people, a lot of boats, a lot of trade. So I think that’s how a lot of people of African descent from the British Caribbean came to Quebec City,” he said.
John Williams’s clientele included British military officers and other members of high society who enjoyed coming to his barbershop because it served as much more than just a place where they could get a haircut and a beard trimming.
Williams paid more than $100 a year for subscriptions to all the major French and English newspapers in Canada, and the major U.S. dailies, too. That elevated the prestige of his establishment, which came to be known as a gathering spot for the cultured class.
“[There was] a French-Canadian newspaper saying that his shop is one proof that Quebec is the intellectual centre of North America,” said Mackey. “I saw that and I remember thinking, ‘Whoa!’”
Mackey said this was particularly remarkable for a Black-owned Quebec business in the 19th century.
“[In] what other place would a white person comment that a Black enterprise was sign of cultural sophistication? It just didn’t happen.”
Williams, ever the colourful entrepreneur, also grabbed attention using terms like "cranium manipulator" and "capillary abridger" in his advertising.
“You look at that and you think, ‘Oh, he’s a clown.’ But he’s not a clown. He knows how to get attention for his business,” said Mackey, noting that tourists flocked to his barbershop just to get his business card.
IMAGE HIDDEN IN PLAIN SIGHT
Quebec City history enthusiasts uncovered these facts and anecdotes about Williams through old documents such as census records, newspaper articles and obituaries.
Just one thing was missing: a picture, or any kind of image of this successful Black businessman.
That's until Quebec City historian Jean-Francois Caron found something unexpected online. You could say it was hidden in plain sight: Caron stumbled across an image of an engraving on eBay, published in a British illustrated journal.
The engraving itself was nothing new; it had been circulating for a while. But Caron was the first person to take a closer look at the details of the barbershop scene depicted and to connect it to Quebec city. He spotted Williams’ name in an advertisement on the wall, along with a sign claiming the shop was once General Montcalm’s headquarters.
More importantly, there was one barber who stood out.
“I started looking closely at the people in the engraving, and one of the barbers was Black. There was no mistaking it. It had to be John Williams, the famous barber,” said Caron.
Caron shared his discovery with Webster, who said he was stunned.
“To be honest, I almost cried," Webster said. "I had goose bumps... I was like, ‘Oh man, I can't believe it.’ Because there are not a lot of pictures of people of African descent in Quebec City in the 19th century."
For Frank Mackey, it’s clear that Williams made a mark on his community, and beyond.
“It showed when he died. There were those obits in the newspapers that were very flattering, talking about him as being one of the best-known characters around Quebec," said Mackey.
"Everybody liked him and respected him."
Yet today, most people don’t even know he existed. There are two plaques on the Jacquet House on Saint-Louis Street. They pay tribute to Francois Jacquet, the man who built it, and Philippe Aubert de Gaspe, an author who later bought and sold the property.
But de Gaspe never actually lived in it, according to researchers. So what about John and James Williams?
“There's no nothing. There's no acknowledgment of them being there,” said Webster.
For Mackey, it’s a shame that there is no recognition of the barbershop that was once the talk of the town.
“It's almost as if, [when] you're looking into it, you sort of see these desperate efforts to associate some great white man with this historic building,” said Mackey.
“And there is no great white man associated with this historic building. There are two Black brothers…Irish-Jamaican brothers.”