When diving into the rich history of the Tri-Town, one's mind may naturally gravitate towards the illustrious shipbuilding legacy of Mattapoisett, the agricultural roots embedded in Rochester, and the enduring legacy of Elizabeth Taber that characterizes Marion. These stories often conjure images of the affluent, the entrepreneurs, the summer sojourners, and the patrons who steered the course of the region's history. However, amidst these well-told narratives lies a tapestry of lesser-known tales — those of the diligent laborers, the skilled shipwrights, the devoted servants, the formerly enslaved, and the enterprising immigrants who contributed their unique threads to the local narrative. Through a series of blog posts, my aim is to unearth and celebrate the hidden stories of the Tri-Town, recognizing the remarkable individuals whose stories have gone untold. The first being the story of Abraham Skidmore and his lasting legacy in Mattapoisett.
The name Abraham in Hebrew means "father of the many," it also may bring to mind Abraham Lincoln, the United States president who abolished slavery. Perhaps, 13 years after Abraham Lincoln's assassination, when Abraham Skidmore's parents decided on a name for their son in 1878, they chose Abraham for the man who gave them their freedom.
Abraham Skidmore was born in 1878 in Oxford, North Carolina, just 13 years after the abolition of slavery, to Ferry Skidmore and Jinny Nelson, who were formerly enslaved. They lived near a military academy, and when Abraham was small, he would prance behind the sweating cadets at close-order drills. Abraham and his friends fought the Civil War on the hills behind the town, and he beat the drums as their voices echoed long-gone battles.
During the late 19th Century and into the mid-20th Century, Jim Crow laws enforced racial segregation in public facilities, transportation, schools, and other areas, intending to establish and maintain white supremacy. Racial violence, including lynchings, was disturbingly common during that time. African Americans were often subjected to violence and intimidation, with little recourse to legal protection. Racial sentiments of the time may have been the reason why Abraham left the South as a young adult, staying briefly in New Jersey before traveling farther North to Massachusetts. He lived in New Bedford for a short time, where he learned the barber trade.
In 1899, at the age of 21, Abraham saw an advertisement in the newspaper about a barber shop being for sale. He hopped on the train to Mattapoisett with his belongings packed neatly in a trunk, tipped the man who brought it from the depot 25 cents, and never left, calling Mattapoisett his home for the next five decades.
His first shop was in the dilapidated Purrington Hall, which would soon be demolished to make way for Shipyard Park in 1919. He had shops in Abbe & Griffin Store, Shaw & Barrows Store, and finally settled in his most remembered location on Church Street.
For 55 years, Abraham was the only barber in town. His shop on Church Street was very simple; it had one barber chair, a large mirror, and an old-fashioned clock with the date 1899 penciled in.
"I bought that clock when I came here, and it's been on my shop wall ever since."
There were also a few battered chairs and a table littered with magazines for the adults and comic books for the kids.
Abraham married Anna Calhoun in New Bedford in 1903. Anna was from Newport, Rhode Island, where she once worked as a servant at the U.S. Naval War College. They settled on Pine Island Road in Mattapoisett, "the third house on the left" from Marion Rd. In good weather, Abraham would walk to work; in bad weather, he would take the trolly. They lived a simple life, Anna tending to her garden and Abraham cutting hair.
Abraham was a soft-spoken man with a big personality. He could talk for hours with anyone sitting in his chair. His haircuts were 15 cents, and his shaves were 10 cents. He said, "Most barbers charge a dollar, but I could never do that."
In the 1910 census, Abraham was listed as living with his wife, Anna, her great-aunt Alice, and four boarders, John McBurnett, aged 10, Matlize McBurnett, aged 8, Willard McBurnett, aged 6, and Roseland [Rosalie] McBurnett, aged 5. Their parents, who had both died, were from Rhode Island and South Carolina. Perhaps the children's father was a childhood friend of Abraham's, and Abraham, being the kind-hearted person he was, took the children in, and gave them a home when they had none. Sadly, Roseland and Willard died of tuberculosis in 1911 and 1915, respectively.*
Abraham organized the Mattapoisett Cornet Band before World War I and The Hobo Band before World War II. Both times the war broke up his bands, but Abraham kept drumming. He would drum in parades, drum to collect money for the less fortunate, and drum to keep the children of Mattapoisett out of trouble. He once helped a widow whose husband died with no insurance. He went up and down the streets of the village collecting money for her. Nobody refused "Skid" when it came to donating to help someone in need. He raised money for the town band and the American Legion, who honored him with a steak dinner. Abraham didn't do this for attention; he did this out of the true kindness of his heart. He would pass around a coal bucket at baseball games to raise money for balls and bats for the children's team.
Abraham truly was the "father of many," he had a soft spot for the kids in town. They would come to borrow comic books from his shop and sit in clusters on the front porch with heads bent to read them. In inclement weather, he would let The Standard-Times newspaper boys wait inside the shop for their newspapers. Parents even asked him to relay messages to their children who passed by his door after school. If anyone needed money or missed the bus, Skid would give them what they needed to safely see them home.
On July 4, during World War II, Abraham led a one-man parade through town. People were home thinking about their sons and daughters fighting in the war, not about celebrating the 4th of July. He marched through town, his nimble fingers making the drumsticks dance, with an American flag stuck in his hat. Skid ensured Mattapoisett had its parade, the shortest but most sincere Mattapoisett has ever had.
Abraham was honored by Center School in a special ceremony for his friendship with the children of Mattapoisett and his cooperation in community affairs. They gave him a framed photo of himself standing in front of his barber shop and a trophy for his kindness and outstanding citizenship.
Kids got into all kinds of mischief on Halloween, and Abraham wanted to keep the kids behaved and out of trouble. In October of 1949, Abraham, dressed in one of his fanciful costumes and carrying his snare drum, led a march from his shop on Church St. around the village. The children were “dressed as witches, ghosts, and all the other usual characters.” Abraham led about 125 children and their parents on the first Halloween Parade, a tradition that still carries on today.
In 1950, the parade had grown to about 300 children and followed the same route as the previous year, with parents carrying red flares at the head and rear of the parade. At the lead of the parade was, once again, Abraham Skidmore. After the parade, a party was held for the children at the Congregation Church, where they played games and had refreshments. The older children, presumably junior high and high school, had a party at Town Hall, where they participated in square dancing and games. Twelve children received prizes in a costume judging contest.
Sadly, his wife, Anna, died in 1951, leaving Abraham all alone. He put his time and energy into tending her garden and working in his shop.
Skid was still participating in the July 4th festivities at the age of 75, leading the parade with his drum. He could never turn down the needs of the town.
By 1954 the parade was considered a tradition, and Skidmore once again led cowboys, Dutch girls, black cats, Mickey Mouse, and many other costumed children through the streets on Halloween, but Skid was getting tired and older.
Later that fall, Skid became sick with pneumonia. While at work one day, he went home ill, and a friend called an ambulance. He was admitted to Tobey Hospital in Wareham and never recovered. Abraham Skidmore passed away at age 76, leaving behind a tradition that would continue to thrill children for generations to come and is still active to this day.
It was reported in the newspaper that only six people attended Abraham's funeral, and for all he did for the town and its inhabitants, that is a sad number for sure. He is buried with his wife, Anna, in Pine Island Cemetery.
Abraham's life was bookmarked by the abolition of slavery at his birth and the US Supreme Court's ruling in the case of Brown v. Board of Education, declaring state laws establishing separate public schools for black and white students to be unconstitutional at his death.
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed 10 years later, a landmark piece of legislation that prohibited discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin, and specifically addressed discrimination in public accommodations and effectively ended segregation in restaurants, hotels, theaters, and other public places.
While these legal changes were significant steps toward ending racial segregation, the actual implementation and the full realization of desegregation took time and continued to face resistance in some areas. Racial disparities and issues related to racism persisted even after these legislative changes, and the struggle for civil rights and racial equality continues to this day. It is evident in the police brutality towards BIPOC individuals and recent book challenges in our schools. In the last few years, especially, more and more people are feeling entitled to spew hateful vitriol towards people of color and the LGBTQ+ communities when previously they would have been silent.
The persistent white narrative of our local history is damaging.
According to the 2020 census data out of almost 7,000 people residing in Mattapoisett only 25 individuals identify as black only with about 6,000 individuals identifying as white only.
Tri-Town Against Racism would like to celebrate Abraham's life and legacy with a celebration on April 29, 2024, on what would be Abraham's 146 birthday. We hope you will join us.
*I am still working on finding out more information about the children.
“Abraham Skidmore.” The Standard Times (New Bedford, Mass.), 1954 Dec 13.
D’Agata, Doug. “Abraham Skidmore, Mattapoisett’s Best Loved Barber.” Unpublished. Collections of the Mattapoisett Museum (0500.2.345).
DeCicco-Carey, Kyle. “History of the Mattapoisett Halloween Parade.” The Wanderer (Mattapoisett, Mass.), 2015 Oct 29, p. 3-6, 8-10, 12.
“Hallowe’en Paraders.” Presto Press (Mattapoisett, Mass.), 1971 Nov 3, p. 24-25.
“He Belongs to Mattapoisett.” The Standard Times (New Bedford, Mass.), 1953 June 28.
"Mattapoisett Historical Society Fifty-Third Annual Meeting 2011." The Crow's Nest (Mattapoisett, Mass.), p. 4.
Note: The author, Jessica DeCicco-Carey, wrote a similar article for the Mattapoisett Museum in 2021. Images from the MM's collection.