020206ind History

The view from Academy Cove in Wickford shows the area where little Willie Weeks was eventually found after tragically drowning.

This week, we are going to delve into the story of Uriah Weeks, one of the first barber/hairdressers who served the large black community that lived here in South County during the middle part of the 19th century. He is by no means the most famous member of this small group; that title falls to Christiana Babcock, a woman of mixed black and Narragansett heritage who later in life became Madame Christiana Carteaux, the owner of a chain of hairdressing shops in both Boston and Providence and the  eventual wife and financial supporter of black artist Edward Bannister. But Uriah was most certainly the hair care specialist who served this community for the longest period of time. Very few folks know anything about him now and that’s a shame.

Uriah Weeks was born in Warwick in 1821 to William and Sarah Weeks; across the years he appears to have changed the spelling of his surname as later in his life he and his family are often identified as “Wicks” or “Wickes.” He next shows up in the historic record in an 1855 state census in New York City, married to Sarah, who is listed as a native of Connecticut; at that time he is working as a barber/hairdresser. In 1856, they have their first child, a son they name Willie. By 1858, they relocated back to Rhode Island, where Uriah opened up a barber shop in Wickford. In 1859 Uriah and Sarah have their second child, a daughter they name Ida. Tragedy strikes the family in July of 1862 when their six-year-old son accidentally drowns. The sad tale is picked up by the national press and run all over the nation. The unwanted publicity that this tragedy elicited may very well be the reason behind Uriah and Sarah’s decision to change the spelling of their last name. This excerpt from a newspaper in New Bern, North Carolina is typical;

“Willie, son of Uriah Weeks, the barber of Wickford, left his home just before night on Tuesday, with his toy boat to sail it on the cove, and while engaged in his sport, slipped in and was drowned between the two bridges. His body was recovered on Wednesday morning; he was six years of age.”

Uriah Weeks served the hairdressing needs of the black community in South County from 1858 until 1871 and was prominent and successful enough to warrant listing in the Providence business directory for many of those years. During this period Uriah and Sarah had three more children, all sons, Frank D., Arthur W. and Ernest G. In 1872, the Weeks family, now using the name Wicks, moved to Providence where Uriah opened up a new barber/hairdressing establishment. Two years later, Uriah contracted pneumonia which led to his sudden death on May 3, 1874. He was only 53 years old. The family shows up in the historic record in the 1880 census with Sarah living on Cushing Street in Providence and sharing her home with her adult daughter Ida Monro, Ida’s two young daughter Louisa May and Nina, and her sons Frank, Arthur and Ernest. Frank at 18 years of age was employed as a hotel bellboy, Arthur at 16 was an apprentice wheelwright, Ernest was in school, and Sarah and Ida worked together as laundresses and housekeepers. The very last record found concerning this family is a death record noting Ernest’s death in 1895 from typhoid fever. He was 23.  I would love to learn more about this intriguing family. If anyone knows anything further, please pass it along to me and I will share it with all of us.

The author is the North Kingstown town historian. The views expressed here are his own.

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