John W. Birney and his family: early African American residents of La Crosse

Posted by Scott on June 29, 2018

(written by Jenny DeRocher, Archives staff)

Many of the first European-descendant settlers who are credited with establishing La Crosse were fur-traders, loggers, and merchants. Not far behind them in the 1850s were steamboats traveling up the Mississippi, carrying passengers wishing to settle in places like La Crosse. At the time, there were many promising opportunities for people moving north or “west,” to places like Wisconsin, which was fairly uncolonized. Some steamboat passengers and earliest La Crosse settlers were African-Americans, moving to northern states, attracted to the same opportunities as others coming into the area.

In 1857, three of these passengers were the Birneys: John W., his wife Penelope, and their young daughter Mary Ella. The family was moving from Louisville, Kentucky. At the age of twenty-four, Birney hoped to continue his career as a barber, which he had learned through apprenticeship back in Louisville. At the time the family arrived, La Crosse’s population was doubling at a fast rate. In 1855, the population was reported as 1,637. Just five years later in 1860, it was listed to be 3,860.

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John W. Birney was born in December 1834. He was a barber, businessman, and a wealthy African American resident of La Crosse, Wisconsin in the late 1800s.

 

The Birneys were not the first African Americans to settle in La Crosse, though they were among the first few. According to a 1924 La Crosse Tribune article, Birney was the second Black barber to establish a shop in the city. After owning shops with a variety of other African American men in town and floating to a few locations in his first few years here, Birney eventually settled in his own shop at 301 Main Street in 1865, where he stayed until 1885.


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301 Main Street is the NE corner of 3rd and Main, now Verve Credit Union's parking lot     (1884-85 La Crosse City Directory)

 

African American-owned barbershops were a national trend in the late 1800s and a common business venture for African Americans in La Crosse. This was a difficult service job that required a good mind for business as well as the craftsmanship of barbering. Shops owned by African American men (and sometimes women) were especially held to high standards because in most cases, they were expected only to service white clientele. On top of that, there were also white-owned barbershops serving only white clientele. Though this was a common profession for African Americans in the 1800s, the Birney family does have a unique story. Birney, on top of being a barber, was very successful in land speculation.

After arriving in La Crosse, Birney quickly pounced on land development opportunities and purchased a number of empty lots to construct houses and resell the properties. By looking through City Directories and newspaper articles—both found in the LPLA’s collections—you can easily track down the properties Birney owned, developed, and sold. You can also trace the many downtown buildings that he conducted his barbershops in, as well as the people he went in and out of business with.

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Birney and his family, taken sometime before December 1878 when their oldest daughter Mary Ella died from tuberculosis at the age of 22. Their youngest daughter, Alice—age 3—died earlier that year in January after falling ill. Both Mary Ella and Alice are buried at Oak Grove Cemetery. The rest of the family would leave La Crosse a few years later for Louisville, Kentucky to be with their second-oldest daughter, Florence, who attended a state university there. Florence went on to be an instructor at this university, the Eastern Colored School. Another child, John W. Jr. would die in 1890 at the age of 19, also from sickness, while attending Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee.

 

Besides his success as a local businessman, he was also well-regarded at a state level. In 1884, the Wisconsin Governor invited Birney to represent the state at the World’s Fair (titled, “The World’s Industrial and Cotton Centennial Exposition” that year) in New Orleans as an example of one of two African American business owners in Wisconsin. To put his importance into perspective, he was joined by millionaire and Milwaukee businessman F.D. Holton.

Though the Birney family left La Crosse in 1884 and moved back to Louisville, John W. Birney’s impact on the city was notable. Besides his wealth, he was popular in town. According to a few sources, he was a founding member of the Old Settlers Association of La Crosse, which was a group devoted to celebrating the town’s founding and the people that made it happen. This organization eventually became what is today the La Crosse County Historical Society.

The 1924 La Crosse Tribune article also tells a story about when Birney was scheduled to depart La Crosse (about a year after his family):  

Before leaving the city Mr. Birney was presented with a handsome gold watch as a token of appreciation by seventy-seven of our leading citizens. The idea was conceived by John Moss and O.H. Smith, who raised the money amounting to $125. The evening before leaving, his former shop was filled with old friends and the presentation was made by the late I.L. Usher.

 

In Louisville, Birney continued as a barber. He and Penelope are listed in the 1910 U.S. Census, but both must have died shortly thereafter.

Photographs and more information about the Birney family, African American settlers in La Crosse, barbershops, and other La Crosse businesses can be found at the La Crosse Public Library Archives. To learn more, please feel free to call the LPLA at (608) 789-7136, email at archives@lacrosselibrary.org, or stop in at 800 Main Street, where you can find the Archives and Local History Department on the second floor.