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Henry Boyd was born enslaved in Kentucky in 1802. The young African American eventually earned freedom from the slave trade through hard work and carpentry skills. The pioneering African American established a woodworking business and created the innovative “Boyd Bedstead” design.

Despite facing challenges, including arson attacks and being unable to patent the invention due to race, Boyd’s company thrived. Eventually, Boyd became a wealthy and respected member of the community. To help others, Boyd actively aided the Underground Railroad until passing away in 1886.

Boyd’s life exemplifies the resilience of the African American community and the fight for equality during the era of segregation and Jim Crow laws. Commemorate the stories of remarkable individuals like Boyd, who overcame adversity and significantly contributed to the African American experience and the civil rights movement.

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Born Into Bondage

Henry Boyd was born on a Kentucky plantation as a slave in 1802. Boyd’s parents were part of the African diaspora. For the first 18 years of life, the young African American remained an indentured slave of the Southerners.

Boyd had a tremendous talent for carpentry.

A cabinet maker took Boyd as an apprentice. Through woodworking skills and a strong work ethic, Boyd would find a path from slavery and poverty. The arduous path would lead to that of a free Black man with a spot in African American history.

Earning Freedom Through Craftmanship

Boyd earned freedom by accepting additional work assignments. For example, Boyd worked for a salt works company. At the salt works company, Boyd chopped wood and kept an eye on the boiling pots, reducing the salt.

Boyd’s journey from servitude to freedom was arduous, fueled by determination and a relentless pursuit of fundamental human rights.

Related Article: Abolitionist Henry Bibb

Overcoming Racial Barriers

At 24 years old, in 1826, Boyd arrived in Cincinnati. Although Ohio was a free state, Cincinnati bordered the slave state of Kentucky. Cincinnati was not a welcoming city for blacks.

Although Cincinnati was bustling with employment for whites, it was not as advantageous for Black people or the Black community. Arriving nearly broke, the skilled carpenter set about finding a means to support himself.

No one would hire the young man for a skilled position. One shop that considered hiring Boyd backed down when its white workers threatened to quit. Boyd’s experiences highlight the disparities and racist attitudes that African Americans faced, even in northern states.

To make ends meet, Boyd found work on Cincinnati’s riverfront. In the 19th century, many African Americans and Irish found employment there. The immigrants worked for stores as stevedores, unloading cargo from the many steamboats at the city’s public landing.

Boyd’s hard work and commitment enabled the easement of this backbreaking work. Eventually, becoming a janitor at a store.

Entrepreneurial Innovation

One day, when a white carpenter showed up too drunk to work, Boyd built a counter for the storekeeper. This impressed Boyd’s boss so much that the shop owner contracted the apprentice for other construction projects.

Through word of mouth, Boyd’s talent began to break down the racism initially encountered. The gossip enabled the acquisition of more contracting jobs, working alongside white carpenters.

With the money earned from store jobs and side carpentry projects, Boyd put aside money for something unique. No, it wasn’t to further a career or make life more comfortable in the Queen City. It was to purchase the freedom of Boyd’s brother and sister.

Boyd’s actions were a testament to the strong bonds within the African American community and the community’s determination to fight for the liberation of loved ones.

Henry Boyd accumulated enough money to purchase a workshop for woodworking. The workshop soon grew to encompass four buildings at the corner of Eighth and Broadway in Cincinnati. Boyd would build and assemble a custom-designed bedframe, the Boyd Bedstead.

One of Henry Boyd’s famous bedsteads.
(Photo by Steve Preston)

The Boyd Bedstead

The Boyd Bedstead utilized a right and left wood screw process with swelled rails, making it sturdier to endure stress. Boyd developed this revolutionary new design that exemplified the ingenuity and craftsmanship that have long been hallmarks of African American culture.

Despite the groundbreaking invention, the racist barriers of the time prevented Boyd from receiving due recognition. The African American craftsman could not obtain a patent due to a skin color bias.

In 1833, a cabinet maker, George Porter, patented the design used in Boyd’s beds. Whether Boyd assisted in this process remains uncertain.

Despite these barriers, the groundbreaking bed and the shop that made it flourished. The wealth accumulated from this work allowed the purchase of a house for the rest of the Boyd family on New Street in downtown Cincinnati.

Not only was the bedstead breaking new ground, but so were Boyd’s work practices. The African American businessman operated an integrated workplace employing 20-50 people at any time.

At the time, most workplaces practiced segregation. The unique working environment was significant for civil rights and work after plantations.

Boyd’s bedstead became extremely popular. Prominent Cincinnatians of the time, including Charles Cist, purchased the bedsteads.

Other carpenters began duplicating Boyd’s bedstead. As a countermeasure, Boyd started stamping the family name on each frame so people would know it was the real “Boyd Bedst.”d.”

The H Boyd Company catered to hotels and individuals. In 1844, the company produced over 1,000 beds. By 1855, the H. Boyd Company had expanded to include a showroom displaying the shop-made parlor furniture.

Boyd’s entrepreneurial spirit and innovative designs solidified a place in American history as one of the first African American businessmen to achieve widespread success and recognition.

Related Article: Public Service Pioneers

Challenges and the Underground Railroad

Some did not appreciate the popularity and success of the fully integrated H. Boyd Company. Boyd’s factory was the target of arsonists. The African American shop owner rebuilt the shop after fires burned it to the ground twice.

Sadly, after a third fire destroyed the business, insurance companies would no longer insure a policy.

In 1862, Boyd closed the doors of business for good. Boyd had acquired enough wealth to live out retirement comfortably on New Street. The successful business venture with the Boyd Bedstead would not be the only successful operation.

Boyd was stubborn and determined to assist the Black population and those of African descent in escaping the enslavement of the Southern States and freeing blacks.

Throughout the years leading to the Civil War between the Confederate and Union Army, Boyd had been active in the Underground Railroad as a conductor, similar to Harriet Tubman, helping fugitive slaves and runaways with other abolitionists.

The African American carpenter was well-known as an activist in abolitionist circles. Boyd would house runaway slaves in an alleged secret room. This room could shelter up to five people.

Boyd tirelessly participated in the Underground Railroad with other activists until the Emancipation Proclamation and the abolition of slavery. The Boyd house became a safe haven for freedom seekers reaching Ohio by river.

Boyd’s generosity extended beyond fugitives. As an activist, Boyd opened doors to Black men, Black women, and anyone in need, including a story about caring for an abandoned elderly man.

Related Article: Race Relations Books

Legacy

Boyd, an astute and observant man, believed that the 1832 cholera outbreak was waterborne. Local newspapers posted the warnings, but no one heeded the public service announcements. Boyd would live comfortably at the New Street residence.

On March 1, 1886, Henry Boyd, an equality pioneer, passed away at 83. Despite experiencing success and prominence within the community, survivors buried Boyd in an unmarked grave at Spring Grove Cemetery.

Boyd’s aid of escaped slaves and pioneering entrepreneurial success inspire modern historians to ensure recognition of the invaluable contributions. One must honor trailblazers who shed light on African Americans’ vital role in shaping American life.

People may forget Boyd’s resting place but have not forgotten the Boyd bedstead. Collectors and historians seek out Boyd’s beds which demand top dollar at auction.

Sources

Bed frame designed by Henry Boyd | National Museum of African American History and Culture

Black History Month Wood artist spotlight: Henry Boyd – | Arrowmont School of Arts and Crafts

Digging Cincinnati History: Henry Boyd – Former Slave and Cincinnati Entrepreneur

Our Rich History: Henry Boyd, once a slave, became a prominent African American furniture maker – NKyTribune | NKyTribune

About the Historian

Steve Preston, the Executive Director and Curator of History at Heritage Village Museum, provided invaluable insights into Henry Boyd’s life and the African American experience during this period. With his MA in Public History from Northern Kentucky University and extensive knowledge of African American history and culture, his expertise helped shape this compelling narrative.

William Fisher Avatar

The Voice of Black Cincinnati is a media company designed to educate, recognize, and create opportunities for African Americans. Want to find local news, events, job postings, scholarships, and a database of local Black-owned businesses? Visit our homepage, explore other articles, subscribe to our newsletter, like our Facebook page, join our Facebook group, and text VOBC to 513-270-3880.

Images provided by Steve Preston.

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Written by William Fisher

William Fisher is a dedicated writer at The Voice of Black Cincinnati, focusing on workforce development, jobs, community events, and local history. With a deep appreciation for Cincinnati's rich heritage and vibrant community, William's work offers invaluable resources and insights, helping to connect residents with their city's past and present opportunities. His expertise and dedication make him a vital part of the team. Connect with William on LinkedIn to explore his work and impact on the community.

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