“Master of Ceremonies”: The World of Peter Biggs in Civil War–Era Los Angeles

This latest issue of the Western Historical Quarterly includes an article that I co-wrote with Professor Kendra Fields of Tufts University on Peter Biggs, a free African American man in 1850s and 1860s Los Angeles whose little-known biography illuminates a forgotten moment in the temporal and spatial history of American racial construction.

The former slave Biggs was arrested in Los Angeles for celebrating President Lincoln's assassination. He later described himself as the "The Black Democrat" in advertisements. Source: “Barber Shop and Bath House,” Los Angeles Weekly Republican, 14 December 1867.  

The former slave Biggs was arrested in Los Angeles for celebrating President Lincoln's assassination. He later described himself as the "The Black Democrat" in advertisements. Source: “Barber Shop and Bath House,” Los Angeles Weekly Republican, 14 December 1867.

 

Biggs was the subject of writings by William Tecumseh Sherman as well as three prominent diarists and memoirists of early Southern California. Newspapers verify his arrest for celebrating Lincoln’s assassination, and these same papers contain many advertisements for his barbershop and bath house. He was also party to a court martial, two civil cases, and one murder trial. Yet, while scholars of nineteenth-century California and the black West have made regular note of Biggs’s presence, none have mined the wealth of articles, court records, and other archival sources available on his life. 

Over the course of two decades in California, Biggs held numerous positions and identities—from enslaved soldier of the U.S.-Mexican War to free African American barber, from “Don Pedro,” the “Master of Ceremonies,” to “the Black Democrat.” Like most other ex-slaves throughout the antebellum United States, Biggs’s precarious experience of freedom was highly contingent upon kinship connections and social and economic networks. But Biggs’s experience was also shaped by geography—the collision of South and West that characterized Civil War–era Los Angeles. Our article suggests that Biggs’s economic and political capacity in slavery and freedom in the West depended upon his ability to mobilize his longstanding connection to and understanding of proslavery Southerners and the U.S. South.

You can read the full article here.