Early Years and Fire Rescues
Hunt was born enslaved at the Piping Tree, a tavern in King William County, about twenty miles northeast of Richmond. He told a biographer his birth year was about 1780, while his death notice and census data suggest he was born anywhere from 1775 to 1782. The names of his parents are unknown. His owner, whose name is also unknown, ran the tavern and was, according to Hunt’s recollection, “a gentleman of considerable wealth.” At some point, Hunt accompanied the tavern keeper’s daughter to Richmond, where her new husband built carriages. Hunt trained as a blacksmith and was sold at least twice over the next few decades but remained in Richmond.
By 1811, Hunt had a wife. She labored as a domestic servant for Elizabeth Carrington Mayo Preston, a Richmond native who had recently married General John Preston, the treasurer of Virginia. On the evening of December 26, 1811, Hunt walked to his wife’s quarters after attending the First Baptist Church, an integrated congregation at the corner of College and H (later Broad) streets. Nearby, at the corner of H and Twelfth streets, stood the Richmond Theatre, then packed with more than 600 mostly elite white Richmonders.
Soon after arriving home, Hunt later recalled, “I was startled by the cry that the theatre was on fire.” His wife’s mistress told Hunt that her daughter, Louisa Mayo, was at the theater. Mayo was then about seventeen and had taught Hunt to read. Out of concern, he raced to the theater. When he arrived, he saw people hurling themselves from windows, and ran to the nearby home of Sy Gilliat, an African American fiddler. He asked Gilliat to lend him a mattress to cushion the fall of fire victims, but Gilliat refused. “I then got a step-ladder and placed it against the walls of the burning building,” Hunt recalled.
Above him, Dr. James D. McCaw broke out the sash of a second-floor window and yelled for Hunt to catch women as he dropped them down. McCaw and Hunt together saved about a dozen women, including the doctor’s sister. When McCaw finally jumped, he severely injured his leg, and according to Hunt and a contemporary white historian, Hunt took him to safety just before the building toppled. McCaw’s 1846 obituary, however, attributed that act of bravery to an unnamed son of McCaw.
At least seventy-two people died in the fire. Among the victims were Governor George William Smith, and Hunt’s acquaintance, Louisa Mayo. Hunt returned to the site the next day. “I went to the scene where such awful sights had been witnessed,” he later wrote. “And oh! how my heart shudders even now at the things which then and there met my eye.—All that remained of the theater and those that perished in it was a mound of smoldering ash.”
Demand for Hunt’s blacksmithing skills increased during the War of 1812, as he was called upon to hammer out grappling hooks for naval boarding vessels, pick axes, guns, horseshoes, carriage parts, and cannon balls for the military. Hunt’s owner evacuated Richmond for a time and left Hunt and several other men behind to man the forges. Hunt kept guard over his owner’s home and shop.
On August 8, 1823, the Virginia State Penitentiary, in Richmond, caught fire, and Hunt participated in rescue efforts as a member of the city’s volunteer fire brigade. “When I got there,” Hunt later wrote, “the flames were rapidly doing their work. The wind was high, and we found it impossible to get any water. The fire was then burning furiously around the front entrance, shutting off all possible means of escape.”
On the governor‘s orders, Captain Samuel Freeman climbed onto Hunt’s shoulders and cut an opening in the wall of the penitentiary through which prisoners could exit. None of the 244 prisoners perished during the fire. “The next day I spent in making hand-cuffs for the poor fellows,” Hunt wrote. “I didn’t think, the night before, I should have this to do.”
By 1829, Hunt had purchased his freedom for more than $800. His wife likely either dead or sold away, Hunt resolved to immigrate to Liberia. The American Society for Colonizing the Free People of Color of the United States had begun settling free blacks, many of them educated and relatively secure financially, on the West African coast in 1821. Many of the earliest settlers were Virginians, including another free black man from Richmond, Lott Cary, who became leader of the colony in 1828. He died in November of that year. On February 9, 1829, Hunt departed Norfolk on the ocean brig Harriet, arriving in Monrovia on March 24, 1829.
Hunt later recalled that the African natives he encountered in Liberia, while “almost in a state of nakedness,” were nevertheless polite and “much more intelligent than I had expected.” He remembered being told, “If you come from Mr. Carey’s country you will be treated with kindness,” referring to Lott Cary.
The land, Hunt wrote, was “as beautiful as any I ever saw.” On a river trip west, he encountered a vessel of enslaved Africans bound for Cuba. “It made my heart sick to witness the cruelty with which they were treated,” he wrote. “They were all securely ironed to prevent their escape, and put up in stalls and fed, like cattle, on wheat bran.”
The colony in Liberia faced deadly outbreaks of malaria, internal political disagreements, and diplomatic challenges with its neighbors. Although a biographer passed along a story of Hunt being swindled by natives, it is unknown why he left Africa after only about eight months. He returned to Richmond by way of Philadelphia and, according to an American Colonization Society official, refused to recommend that others immigrate.
Church and Controversy
In the 1840s, Hunt was appointed a deacon of the First African Baptist Church, a position that allowed him to offer prayers, sit on grievance committees, hear judicial cases, and help determine the recipients of financial assistance. His service as a deacon came with some controversy. In 1842, for example, Hunt was charged with fighting Abel Jefferson, another member of the church. Hunt offered his resignation as a deacon, and although the church’s white minister, Dr. Robert Ryland, recommended the deacons keep Hunt, they accepted the resignation anyway. So, too, did the more than 2,000 members of the congregation when the question came to a vote. In 1844, the congregation reversed course and elected Hunt to serve again as a deacon. In June 1849 an investigation exonerated Hunt after his fellow deacons accused him of circulating a petition to exclude black trustees from the church deed. On another occasion the deacons threatened him with exclusion from the church for an outburst of what one church member described as “a most unlovely temper.”
In addition to run-ins with church authorities, Hunt fell afoul of the law. On February 8, 1847, he was summoned to appear in the Richmond Hustings Court on the charge of “selling by retail ardent spirits to be drunk at the places where sold, without license.” He never appeared, even after another order to do so was issued on September 15. The charges were dropped in May 1848.
On January 23, 1848, Hunt was one of twenty free black Richmonders who formed the Union Burial Ground Society. The group established a cemetery and provided free blacks the chance to purchase burial lots by subscription for $10, in which they could inter either free or enslaved African Americans.
By 1850, Hunt was married to Matilda Hunt, a free, fifty-year-old African American woman and likely his second wife. The census valued Gilbert Hunt’s property at $1,500 and, a decade later, at $2,000. During this period, he also may have owned two slaves, possibly family members. State law mandated that all newly freed slaves leave Virginia within a year, making voluntary enslavement an imperfect means of preserving the family. A report in the Richmond Daily Dispatch on August 27, 1857, mentions “David Smith, slave of Gilbert Hunt.”
By the 1850s an elderly Hunt was beginning to attract notice as what one paper called a rare “connecting link” that bound past and present Richmond. He was profiled in the Penny Post of Richmond as early as 1854 and appeared as “A Colored Hero” and an “African hero” in various papers in the years that followed. In 1859, the author Philip Barrett, a pseudonym of Thomas Ward White, published Gilbert Hunt, the City Blacksmith. The thirty-four-page pamphlet sold for 50 cents and was designed to raise money for Hunt. On May 13, 1859, the editors of the Richmond Whig appealed to people in the city to financially support Hunt, recalling his role in the theater and penitentiary fires and his blacksmithing during the War of 1812. “Shall we neglect him in his old age, when the arm which defended, and the hand which saved our fathers and mothers are palsied with age?” they wrote. The pamphlet tells Hunt’s story largely in his own words, with special emphasis on his role, in the words of the Whig, as a “meritorious negro.”
The historians Marie Tyler-McGraw and Gregg Kimball have noted that an impoverished Hunt is at odds with census records, which indicate considerable assets. In addition, the brochure’s depiction of the blacksmith as meek, patient, and loyal is at odds with his many church disputes and in particular his willingness to voice his opinion to black and white men alike on the issue of Liberia. His exploits in the Richmond fires notwithstanding, Tyler-McGraw and Kimball argue that what set Hunt apart from others was not “his physical courage but his existential courage in speaking his mind.”
Hunt died on April 26, 1863, and a notice in the next day’s Richmond Dispatch described him as “a useful and respected resident of Richmond.” He was buried at Phoenix Burying Ground, later Cedarwood Cemetery and eventually part of Richmond’s Barton Heights Cemeteries.