William Fleurville (Florville)

Fleurville-mdWilliam Fleurville (1807-1868) was a Haitian-born barber and businessman whose shop on Adams Street between Fifth and Sixth streets became a regular meeting place for Springfieldians, including Abraham Lincoln.

The spelling of Fleurville’s last name is inconsistent; he often used the Haitian/French “Fleurville” in advertisements, for instance, but he signed his famous letter to Lincoln as “Florville,” and both William and his wife Phoebe are buried — separately, William (a Catholic) at Calvary Cemetery and Phoebe at Oak Ridge Cemetery — under the last name “Florville.” (As was common for African Americans at the time, Fleurville also acquired a belittling nickname, “Billy the Barber,” which has stuck into the 21st century.)

Fleurville, who had lived in Baltimore, New Orleans and St. Louis after leaving Haiti as a child, came to Springfield in 1831.

John Carroll Power claimed that Fleurville first arrived at New Salem, where “a tall man wearing a red flannel shirt, and carrying an axe on his shoulder” befriended him and recommended Fleurville go on to Springfield. As the story goes, of course, the tall man turned out to be the young Abraham Lincoln.  (Another version of Fleurville’s journey to Springfield suggests that it arose from a Baltimore acquaintanceship with Dr. Elias Merriman, who had moved to Springfield and also was a friend of Lincoln.)

fleurvilleadFleurville was successful in Springfield, apparently with the help of some flamboyant early advertising (left). A canny businessman, he at one point owned nearly the entire block of Washington Street between Eighth and Ninth streets. Fleurville also reputedly operated Springfield’s first dry cleaners.

However Fleurville met Lincoln, there seems to be no question that Fleurville served as Lincoln’s barber for virtually all the 24 years Lincoln lived in Springfield and that, in return, Lincoln served as Fleurville’s lawyer in several real estate matters.

The Lincoln-Fleurville connection extended beyond the Springfield years, as well. Fleurville wrote a letter of appreciation after the death in 1862 of the Lincolns’ son Willie that showed the two men were on familiar terms.

… I was surprised about the announcement of the death of your son Willie. I thought him a smart boy for his age, so considerate, so manly, his knowledge and good sense far exceeding most boys more advanced in years. Yet the time comes to all, all must die.

I should like very much, to see you, and your family, but the priviledge (sic) of enjoying an interview, may not, if ever come.  …

Tell Taddy that his and Willie’s dog is alive and kicking, doing well. He stays mostly at John E. Rolls with his boys who are about the age now that Tad and Willie were when they left for Washington. Your residence here is kept in good order. Mr. Tilton has no children to ruin things(Ed.: Lucian Tilton rented the Lincolns’ Springfield house after the family moved to Washington.)

Fleurville was an honorary pallbearer at Lincoln’s funeral in Springfield. When Fleurville himself died three years later, Phoebe Fleurville inherited “a considerable property, consisting of fifteen business and tenement houses in Springfield and a farm of eighty acres in Rochester township,” Power reported.

Grandchildren of William and Phoebe Fleurville included George Richardson, whose arrest on a false charge of rape ignited the Springfield race riot of 1908, and Col. Otis B. Duncan, the U.S. Army’s highest ranking black officer in World War I. Many other descendants of the couple continue to live in the Springfield area.

Note: Lawyer/historian Richard Hart has thoroughly demolished some widespread misconceptions about Fleurville, in particular that he was Springfield’s first black resident and Lincoln’s sole black acquaintance prior to his presidency. For detailed information, see Hart’s Early African American Population of Springfield Illinois. Hart also presented a somewhat easier-to-follow synopsis  in the Winter 1999 issue of the Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association.bridge

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16 Responses to William Fleurville (Florville)

  1. Alex says:

    My Father, Robert J. Smith was William Florvilles Great, great, great, great Nephew, my Dad passed in November 2013. I’m currently in trusted with Mr. Florvilles violin, is their anyone who can authenticate this instrument, my Sister and brother own 1/3 of this gift.
    I can be reached at taraismith@aol.com
    Thank You
    Alex

    • editor says:

      Alex: I’ll reply by email too, but my suggestion is that you start by contacting James Cornelius, curator of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library. Here’s his info:
      James Cornelius
      Lincoln Curator
      Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library & Museum
      112 North Sixth Street
      Springfield, IL 62701
      Phone: (217) 785-7954
      Fax: (217) 558-1574
      Email: james.cornelius@illinois.gov
      Good luck. If it can be authenticated, that’s a fantastic piece of memorabilia.

  2. Jamie Smith says:

    I am William De Fleurvilles great great great great great granddaughter and am trying to find other decedent’s of him.

    • editor says:

      Ms. Smith: Your best bet is to contact the Springfield & Central Illinois African-American History Foundation. They had an interesting exhibit a couple of years ago about the Fleurville family; I’m sure they can point you to some other Fleurville family members.

      Thanks for reading, and good luck.

    • Are you ? Interesting. Until last week I find out that William Florville was Abraham Lincoln’s barber. I am from Haiti My name is Rubens. William left Haiti in 1820 after the death of king Christophe in Cap Haitien who commited suicide on October 8, 1820. He shot himself. He Built the famous Fort called La Citadelle which still exist.

  3. mac and carolyn billups says:

    dear representative:

    we are trying to find background information and photos of rev. william a. johnson,
    who was in the 8th infantry regiment/the 370th infantry in france. he received
    the purple heart and the french croix de guerre. it seems that he might have been
    in “c” company under captain james h. smith. any assistance will be greatly
    appreciated!!! he was the pastor of our church, trinity baptist church, los angeles,
    ca 1933-35.

    thank you,
    mac billups

    • editor says:

      mr. billups: can’t help much, i’m afraid. rev. johnson was not from central illinois, which closes off my usual sources. he enlisted from toledo, ohio, according to a may 1, 1943, article in the new york age, a newspaper that reported on african-americans. look on page 12. the story has quite a bit of detail on him and his actions that reputedly earned him the croix. however, the age also said he received the u.s. distinguished service cross; but a list of dsc recipients doesn’t include him or any other johnson/johnston from the 8th or 370th.

      if he was in the 370th, he would have gotten the croix anyway; it was awarded to the entire unit. but, again, i can’t find a roster of enlisted men.

      sorry not to be more help.

      mike kienzler
      editor

  4. bob says:

    You might try ALPL AV dept., Guy Mathis collection

  5. Therese DeFlorville says:

    Good morning. I know this is an old post, but I have just now found it. My name is Therese DeFlorville. I live in Cleveland, Ohio. My great, great grandmother was Anna (Hannah) DeFlorville (Brady). While trying to trace my paternal family line I first found Anna in the Cleveland Registry for 1868 she claimed to be the widow of Samuel DeFlorville. Coincidentally my great grandfather, William, was born in 1868. It took me many years to find Samuel and when I did he was alive and well and living in Illinois when Anna claimed to be his widow. I make no judgements on Anna. All I am interested in finding out is if I am actually related to Samuel and if Samuel was actually related to the elder William. I have learned that he might not be. My father and all 3 of his brothers are deceased, so I had my brother take a DNA test. We have not received the results yet. One more thing I need to say with all respect to the elder William DeFleurville . . . if my family members have any Haitian blood it does not show. We are Irish on my mother’s side and my great grandfather William married an Irish woman (she thought his last name was beautiful). I have read all I can about William and find him to be a very interesting and industrious man. I will be disappointed to find out that we are not related, but I’ve had my doubts for some time now. I’ve read that William had a good sense of humor. I guess our’s could just as easily have been passed down from my mother’s family.

    One last thing. I’m really glad that Anna chose to keep the De at the beginning of our last name even if it isn’t legitimately ours. It’s been my name for 65 years and I think that Florville just sounds incomplete.

    Thank you for your time.

  6. Jesse colvin says:

    I am trying to trace how my mother Audrey Floriville was related to William de fleurville she had a brother named James a sister named rose and another sister named Evelyn. I also think she had a brother that died as a baby I do not know his name I think her father was Oakland larue

  7. Fabiola Fleuranvil says:

    Hi, I would be interested in finding out if Mr. De Fleurville’s last name is a deviation of my last name, Fleuranvil, which was common for many Haitian immigrants to adjust the spelling of their names. The biggest clue for me would be to trace back to Mr. De Fleurville’s parents & to see how they trace back to my paternal side, if any.

    I will contact the curator at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library & Museum and would be interested in a contact at the Springfield & Central Illinois African-American History Foundation.

    • editor says:

      Ms. Fleuranvil: At the African-American History Museum, you can start with Doug King. He’s the president and director. Museum phone numbers are 217-391-6323 and 877-757-2246. Good luck.

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