Benjamin Cleggett; Civil Rights Activist

October 1st, 2021

By Becky Chapin, Archivist

While doing research for the Glenwood cemetery tour this year, I read more about Benjamin Cleggett than I had before. He’s a prominent figure in the Make a Way Somehow book by Kathryn Grover, however his story is not fully explored. I ended up writing a full blog post’s length of information for the tour, but cut some for time so I wanted to share an extended version of Benjamin’s story and how he influenced the upstate New York region and the Geneva community.

Handwritten enlistment record for Benjamin Cleggett

Benjamin Cleggett’s enlistment record from 1864

Buried somewhere in Soldier’s Hill, though there is no stone that has yet been found, Cleggett served in the US Navy, enlisting at the Brooklyn Naval Yard as a landsman on September 14, 1864 at age 35. According to his pension file, he served on five vessels during his 13 months in the Navy and was discharged from the USS Vanderbilt in Philadelphia Naval Yard on October 13, 1865.

Cleggett’s father David was a self-emancipated Black man born in Maryland who moved his family often from the 1830s through the 1840s, making stops in Amboy NY, Manchester NY, Toronto Canada, and eventually settled in Rochester, NY. During their time in Toronto, Benjamin learned his trade as a barber, continuing his work in Rochester before moving to Geneva with his family in 1856.

His first wife was Frances Nell whose brother William was an assistant editor of the North Star, a newspaper under the management of Frederick Douglass. Frances and Benjamin had eleven children together before her death in 1875, six of whom were still living in 1876 including Benjamin Jr., Fannie, Mary, Ira, and Lucretia.

He married his second wife Letitia Haley, of Canandaigua, in November 1877 and they had two children, Alice and Laura, who died in infancy. Letitia’s father was born under slave status in Virginia, self-liberated, but was captured and remanded into slavery for a short time after.

Benjamin was a part of various organizations in Rochester and Geneva. His obituary in the Democrat and Chronicle from January 13, 1917 says that he helped enslaved persons from America to Canada on the “underground railway.” While we can’t confirm this, Benjamin was very involved in improving the lives of the African American community in Rochester from 1847 through when he left for Geneva.

He served as secretary at a meeting in 1853 in which Black citizens of Rochester met to challenge the Board of Education’s appointment of a white teacher for the city’s “colored school” so they could replace him with a qualified black teacher. Benjamin helped found two debate clubs solely for African Americans: the Union Literary Society in Rochester, and the Ontario Debating Society in Geneva.

Pension form for Benjamin Cleggett

Benjamin Cleggett’s pension file from the United States Navy

Benjamin also became involved in organizing the Emancipation Celebrations in Geneva which celebrated the end of slavery both here and in the British Empire and served as president numerous times. He was chosen as a delegate to the State Convention of Colored Men in 1876 along with George Bland, and alternates Theodore Duffin and William Kinney.

Benjamin spent time in Geneva enlisting men for black regiments during the start Civil War and was Frederick Douglass’s Geneva contact in 1863. After Douglass’s visit, Benjamin enrolled 17 potential recruits before joining up himself in September 1864. He wrote of his efforts in March of 1864 to The Anglo-African newspaper out of NYC:

I think we have the right to claim the honor of being the banner town of the State, for out of a total population of about two hundred, we have sent fifty-nine recruits into the service, which is over one half of our male population…We deeply feel the loss of so many out of our limited community. We miss them in our churches, schools and quiet firesides…We are often greeted with pensive look and anxious countenance by some aged parent, loving sister, nephew, cousin, or anxious friend.[1]

Upon his return to Geneva in October 1865, Benjamin was named in the Geneva Daily Gazette as “deserving of this handsome notice from our neighbor. He is a modest, sensible, and gentlemanly man who will be warmly welcomed to his old home.”

Shortly after, it was announced that Benjamin had partnered with Benjamin Jupiter in the Shaving and Hair Dressing business; Jupiter had also served but in the 26th US Colored Troops out of Geneva. The newspaper wrote “Mr. Cleggett has already a host of friends, his former customers, and Mr. Jupiter by his excellent shaving and the taste he evinces in dressing hair, is fast gaining them. We advise all who wish a good shave or scientific hair-cut to give them a call.”

Jupiter and Cleggett must’ve been partners until 1875 when Benjamin and Theodore Duffin announced their partnership and together they moved to 17 Seneca Street where the business remained for over forty years. For a short time, Benjamin had moved to Washington DC to be a messenger for Genevan Charles J Folger’s treasury department. He started in January 1881 but had resigned by November, claiming in a letter to Folger that the position “was no longer compatible with my interest.”[2]

He was so dedicated to his barber shop that, according to an obituary, “on the morning of his death, Mr. Cleggett had gone to work in his barbershop as usual. He returned home for his noon meal and before he could remove his outside garments he fell to the floor and expired of heart disease” at the age of 89.

Newspaper advertisement for Mary Kenney's Chiropodist Business

Ad for Mary Kenney’s chiropodist business on Seneca Street.

His daughter Mary, who was college educated and ran her own chiropodist/beautician shop, married Arthur Kenney who shined shoes at Cleggett’s shop on Seneca Street. Her two sisters Fannie and Alice also carried on their father’s trade as beauticians. Benjamin’s home at 236 William Street stayed in the family until 1960.




[1] Many thanks to a book I stumbled across called “African American Freedom Journey in New York and Related Sites 1823-1870” by Harry Bradshaw Matthews for fully printing a number of letters written to Black run newspapers, and from where I retrieved Benjamin’s words. It contained an incredible amount of interesting information and provided access to writings by Black Genevans I would have never been able to see otherwise.

[2] According to Kathryn Grover’s book, Make a Way Somehow, the National Archives has Cleggett’s employment questionnaire and resignation.

Historic Geneva tells the stories of Geneva, New York.  Discover  these stories online and in person through the Geneva History Museum, Rose Hill Mansion, and Johnston House.


4 responses to “Benjamin Cleggett; Civil Rights Activist”

  1. Jack Bryan says:

    Fascinating and not so long ago. Mr. and Mrs. Kenney were depicted in the recent HWS vignettes, From Beyond: Geneva’s Unheard Voices, that HG helped sponsor.

  2. Harry Bradshaw Matthews says:

    Good evening Ms. Chapin: It was pleasant to see your article about Benjamin Cleggett and the citing of my book as a reference source. I was once employed at Hobart & William Smith Colleges during the early 1980s before relocating to Gettysburg College. My book was written while I was employed at Hartwick College in 2008. I have since retired from there in 2020. There are several other references to the USCT from Geneva that was published in the Syracuse Post-Standard in February 2012.

    Harry Bradshaw Matthews, (retired) Associate Dean & Director of the Office of Intercultural Affairs, Hartwick College, and Founding President, USCT Institute for Local History and Family Research

    1. Becky Chapin says:

      Thank you, I found the article and will add it to our files. I have enjoyed your book immensely, it has really helped put together more stories about our community. I did notice in your author bio you were once at HWS which was a great connection to make!

  3. Harry Bradshaw Matthews says:

    While exploring items in the privately owned Matthews Collection, I noticed on the funeral card for Frederick Douglass, 1895, that B.F, Cleggett was listed as a member of the Monument Committee. Also in my collection is a first edition of J.W. Thompson’s1903 book, AN AUTHENTIC HISTORY OF THE DOUGLASS MONUMENT. Benjamin F. Cleggett of Geneva, New York appears on page 40. He might also appear on other pages in this extraordinary book about FD and his family and colleagues.

    Harry Bradshaw Matthews

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