Book: Against the Tide: The Turbulent Times of a Black Entrepreneur

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Hear from an author of a new book that tells the story of her great grandfather, a black Virginian steamboat captain who became a very wealthy man but who lost all of his boats to arson, some possibly burned by the Klan. Julie Sullivan will talk about her book, Against the Tide: The Turbulent Times of a Black Entrepreneur, which tells the life story of Captain Hansford Bayton.

Ted Simons: Captain Hansford Bayton was a successful black entrepreneur in the decades after the end of slavery. Bayton owned several steamboats in the tidewater area of Virginia, but lost his wealth as his boats were burned in a series of arsons. Now, his story is being told by his great-granddaughter, a Scottsdale resident, in a new book titled "Against the Tide, The Turbulent Times of a Black Entrepreneur." We welcome the author, Julie Sullivan, to "Arizona Horizon." Good to have you here.

Julie Sullivan: Great to be here.

Ted Simons: This was such an interesting story. I'm kind of from the area, a little north, D.C. area, it kind of -- tell us who was captain hanks?

Julie Sullivan: He was my great-grandfather, an African-American of mixed race, his father was a Powhatan Indian and he lived in eastern Virginia and he became a very, very wealthy and successful steamboat captain. He owned all of his boats but tragically each one was burned down one by one under very mysterious circumstances.

Ted Simons: Let's talk about that in a second here, what did it take for him to be successful at that time, at that place?

Julie Sullivan: Yeah, that's a very good question. And the answer is education. I mean, he was able to actually take -- he was able to access some of the resources that were provided during reconstruction. So as you know, after slavery ended, 4 million freedmen were without any kind of education or housing and so forth so there's something called the freedmen's bureau that was established to ensure that the millions of people that had not had access to education were actually educated. And he was actually one who had access to education so he and his children were educated. It meant he was able to become a very successful entrepreneur. He actually by the time he was in his late 20s, he became an election judge in Tappahannock. By the time he was 31 he was one of five trustees appointed to govern the town under a new charter and he just wanted to be an entrepreneur. if you want to look at it, you think about the fact that after slavery ended you have millions of people who happen to be African-American that were without any kind of schooling or housing. There were federal laws that were in place during reconstruction to ensure that people were educated but not everybody got educated. He was one of a fortunate few and he wanted to be an entrepreneur.

Ted Simons: I want to say what also sounds what also drove him was his mom.

Julie Sullivan: His mother was a driver in his life because I think, in fact, his father was an Indian and that actually made him feel like he was an outsider. He was actually raised by his step-father who was an African-American freed black prior to the end of slavery and he had an option of working on his step-father's farm or going into the water trades. He chose the water trades and in 1896, he identified a demand for mail service between Middlesex and Lancaster counties to speed up the process of mail delivery and out of that he actually got a U.S. mail contract. He was the first Virginian white or black to actually have gotten a mail contract.

Ted Simons: We have a photograph of him with his children. And you look at folks back in the day and you look at people today, this looks like a serious minded individual. He looks like someone who is driven, not a lot of down time it looks like.

Julie Sullivan: Exactly. I think that's one of the takeaways of the stories for both blacks and whites. He did face prejudice. As we worked during the Jim Crow era, there were positive aspects of living in that small steamboat town. He did get support and respect from both blacks and whites but he was determined, every time a boat was burned down, he would build another one and he was a target in a sense because he was a leader in the community. He was also well respected by the people who financed his boats. So he had to actually balance both groups. I think that's what gave him some of the struggle that he had. He could vote. He paid his poll tax. And there were very few blacks in that area who could actually vote. So it meant that he did become in a sense targeted by people who were concerned about his rise.

Ted Simons: And we have a shot of the boat as well, one of the steamboats. And again, they were -- all of these boats were burned. It seems like he was such a successful man and it seemed like the reaction to him was relatively positive but it just takes a few doesn't it?

Julie Sullivan: It really does take a few. I think that what people need to realize is that those were very difficult times. You had a great number of people who were without access to education; there was a lot of feeling of jealousy within both black-and-white communities. When he bought this huge home, he bought this home called Lofton Bay Farms that sat on a bluff.

Ted Simons: Look at this place, it's gorgeous.

Julie Sullivan: And it's still there today and as a child, I wanted to get in, but I wrote the story for my late mother, we would go and visit the farms and my parents always told us whenever you feel slighted, just remember who you are. You're the captain's great-grandchildren.

Ted Simons: The story didn't necessarily end all that happily for him. Talk to us about that.

Julie Sullivan: Right. Well... Each boat that he built would be burned down. I mean, in one case in 1901, the first boat that was burned was burned at the wharf and the newspaper reported on it the next day, directly under an article about announcing the new Jim Crow law so it was more than a hint that, you know, maybe you should find a different line of work. But he kept at it. He had bought the house so at that point he really needed to earn the money to keep the home. He would end up actually losing the home. And so with each boat that was burned, I think he just trusted people, not in a naive sense but he had gained the respect of people, prominent oyster planters that would continually stand up for him. But he would lose his boats. But truly what happened is that he went against the grain in a sense when he began captaining integrated excursions. The boat that some of your viewers saw was a boat that was a 90-foot boat that had several saloons, it's not apparent from the photo but he would actually sponsor integrated excursions, in 1896 when Plessy versus Ferguson upheld the constitutionality of segregation, he continued to be the captain of these integrated excursions. That was not something that people who were decision makers in the communities necessarily agreed with.

Ted Simons: We've only got about 30 seconds left here. It's such a wonderful book. Did you learn anything?

Julie Sullivan: Yes. Yes, I learned -- I learned that color is skin deep and that people of all ethnicities, you know, strive, they struggle, they face obstacles and the common theme is, you know, tenacity, perseverance, not giving up. He never gave up. He never gave up and that's what the story is about.

Ted Simons: He didn't and it sounds like the family that came in generations to come have quite the stories, as well.

Julie Sullivan: Just want to say one thing, shout-out to ASU, I'm an adjunct faculty at the college. I'm very privileged.

Ted Simons: Thank you so much.

Julie Sullivan: Likewise, thank you, Ted. Great to be here.

Ted Simons: That's it for now. Thank you for joining us, you have a great evening.

Video: "Arizona Horizon" is made possible by contributions from the Friends of Arizona PBS, members of your PBS station. Thank you.

Julie Sullivan: Author of Against the Tide: The Turbulent Times of a Black Entrepreneur

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