Arthur Crumpler escaped slavery and overcame the fact that slaves were prevented from learning to read or write; he attended night school when he was in his sixties. The article in The Boston Daily Globe in 1898 about him as a good student was a well-deserved bonus but he had already lived a full and productive life.
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Arthur Crumpler’s Early Life
Crumpler was born a slave in Southampton County, Virginia. He belonged to Robert Adams who owned the estate where his mother worked. Arthur’s father, Samuel, a slave on a neighboring plantation, was owned by a white man named Benjamin Crumpler. While Arthur belonged to his mother’s master, he took his name from the surname his father must have used.
When Arthur was nine, his master died unexpectedly. Because Robert Adams had several sons, his estate (including the slaves) needed to be sold to apportion the wealth among his children.
Arthur had liked living on the Adams estate, so he came up with an idea that he thought might get the attention of Robert Adams’s oldest son, John. Arthur approached John and said, “John, I can wrestle you down!” as he told a Boston reporter many years later.
John didn’t believe that a nine-year-old slave boy could take him down, but Arthur was strong and tough. Before long the young white master had had enough. Arthur’s gamble paid off as he had hoped—he earned John’s admiration. All of the other slaves were sold, but John kept Arthur for himself.
John Adams took Arthur with him to Smithfield, Virginia, for a year. Then Adams decided it would be more profitable to lease Arthur to other men. He made a deal with a slave trader to take Arthur for four years. It is not clear what work this entailed, but at the end of the four years, Arthur was returned to John Adams. By this time, John had married, and his in-laws needed help. John gave them Arthur.
Crumpler Lent to Others
While working for John Adams’s in-laws, Arthur worked at harvesting and processing apples. Arthur described to a reporter from The Boston Daily Globe an improvement he made to an apple-paring machine used on the plantation.
John Adams stopped by to check on things one day. He observed what Crumpler could do with the mechanism he had fashioned.
He removed Arthur from the in-laws’s apple farm and told Arthur he would give him his pick of a new trade. Arthur could choose carpentry, shoemaking, blacksmithing, or brick-laying.
While no one quite knows what transpired here, Adams may have
realized how capable Arthur was and wanted to put him in a job where Adams could make money from his work. But there is also the possibility that John Adams saw a way to profit from Arthur’s improvements on the device. By rewarding him with other options, it might keep him from telling others about his invention. There is no patent for an apple-parer that would match Arthur’s or John Adams’s dates or location, but it is still possible that Adams found a way to sell or benefit from Arthur’s accomplishment.
Crumpler as a Blacksmith
Blacksmithing was Arthur’s choice of a the new trade he wanted to
learn so Adams arranged for him to apprentice to the local blacksmith. Arthur earned $250 per year and clothing (it would have been usual for the master to take the money). Arthur learned blacksmithing, but soon seemed restless. Adams set him up in his own shop to try to keep him from running away as other slaves were doing.
Attack at Fort Sumter
When the Civil War began with the attack at Fort Sumter in 1861, the slaves in the Smithfield area saw their opportunity to escape.
Crumpler and many others ran from their masters. They made their way to the Norfolk Navy Yard where they took refuge on the The U.S.S. Cumberland. The gunboat soon went on to Fort Monroe where many of the former slaves disembarked. Crumpler got a job at Fort Monroe to shoe horses, and he proved to be of great value to the Union in that capacity. Later he worked for Union General McClellan on the Virginia peninsula.
By July 1862, Crumpler was ready to leave Fort Monroe and go to Boston where he knew other slaves had settled. He was supposed to collect $160 from the Union Army for his services. The quartermaster had to inform him that they couldn’t begin to pay him that much. Why didn’t he settle for $40?
Crumpler was eager to move on, so he agreed. The Army wanted him to sign an agreement to accept $40 as compensation. “They took hold of my hand and held it while I made an ‘X’ to something.”
It was then that Arthur made a promise to himself: “I made up my mind I would never make an X again beside my name written by someone else, and I have kept my word. I have learned to write.”
Crumpler in Boston
When he arrived in Boston, he was taken in by a man by the name of
Nathaniel Topliff Allen who ran a school in Cambridge. Crumpler slept in the barn, and did chores to earn his keep. It is around this time that he must have met his future wife, Rebecca Davis Lee Crumpler. (Rebecca had been previously married to a fellow named Wyatt Lee. Lee passed away in 1863.)
Rebecca had been a student at Allen’s School, and Nathaniel Allen may have introduced the two. At any rate, Rebecca and Arthur were married in St. John, New Brunswick, on May 24, 1865. In 1870, Rebecca gave birth to their only child, Lizzie Sinclair Crumpler.
Rebecca set up a medical practice in Boston (she was the first African American female doctor), and Arthur may have switched from being a blacksmith to being a porter at this time. His work involved taking care of stores in Boston—an occupation that he pursued for many years. Both Arthur and Rebecca were devout and involved church members.
Rebecca recognized Arthur’s interest in learning, and she encouraged him to sign up for night classes early in their marriage. But he became frustrated. To ease his discomfort, Rebecca offered to read and write for him—and she did so until her death in 1894.
Crumpler On His Own
From an article in The Boston Daily Globe on April 3, 1898, we learn how Arthur Crumpler learned to manage on his own.
“When she [Rebecca] passed away, I found that I should have to depend upon myself if I wanted to learn anything. I could not read the newspapers during the last war, but if we have a war now, I shall be able to read all about it myself. I can do my own signing, and I am not making any more crosses.”
The reporter writes that Arthur had spent the previous three years attending Franklin Evening School, a school that attracted a diverse immigrant student body as most people worked during the day and then took classes at night.
“I find considerable pleasure in reading my Bible and papers and
books. I sit down and practice my writing lessons, and write my own letters, and then I sit down and add up, subtract, multiply, and divide my figures all by myself. There is nothing to excuse any colored man or woman in the city of Boston from learning how to do these things,” said Arthur to the reporter.
The headline for the article was “Boston’s Oldest Pupil.” (The article states that he was age 74 but in working through his personal details, it is more likely that he was 64 as he was probably born in 1834 or 1835.) The headline also could have been “Boston’s Happiest Pupil.”
Tried to Find Family
Only once did Crumpler return to Virginia. He attended a reunion of the Grand Army of the Republic in Washington. He returned to Virginia afterward, looking for a sister. On the last day he had before returning to Boston, he heard news of her: she married and moved to Tarboro, North Carolina, and had several children.
Before 1898 (when the article was published), Arthur re-connected with one family member. One of his sister’s children came north and located Arthur.
Crumpler at Home
In 1898, Crumpler was living in a one-room apartment on Piedmont Street. The apartment was filled with books and one well-displayed Bible. These must have given Arthur enormous pleasure.
When Arhur Crumpler died in 1910, he left all his possessions to his niece Maggie King of 50 Hickory St. Orange, New Jersey. (Perhaps this was the child of his sister whom he met later in life.)
As his executor, Arthur Crumpler named the reverend of the church he attended, the Calvary Baptist Church in Boston.
Arthur Crumpler’s story has come to my attention most recently by H. Lee Price, a mathematician who was investigating the stories of Arthur and Rebecca Crumpler. He found some wonderful information on Arthur, and he made Arthur’s story irresistible. Tony Neal with the Bay State Banner also spurred interest in the story. Thank you to both of these men. Thanks, too, to the number of readers who have been curious about Rebecca and her husband.
Rebecca Davis Lee Crumpler was the first African-American woman doctor. To read her story, click here.
In July of 2020, The Friends Hyde Park Library and the Hyde Park Historical Society held a ceremony honoring Rebecca and Arthur Crumpler by replacing their tombstones. The two organizations raised the needed funds, and the tombstones were celebrated at a ceremony at Fairview Cemetery in 2020.