By 1856 Dabney had married Elizabeth Foster, who was also enslaved. Virginia law did not recognize slave marriages, and the union produced no documentary record. With earnings from his bartending, Dabney enlisted the aid of sympathetic white men in purchasing his wife from her owner, who intended to sell her out of Richmond. He arranged for her to be freed, probably late in the 1850s and certainly before mid-1864, and it is possible that he also arranged for his mother's freedom. Dabney and his wife had five sons and four daughters. Two sons and two daughters died young. Their surviving daughters became Richmond schoolteachers; one son, John Milton Dabney (originally Milton Williamson Dabney), played baseball professionally before becoming a postal worker; and another son, Wendell Phillips Dabney, became a musician, writer, and founding editor of two Cincinnati newspapers, the Ohio Enterprise and the Union.
By the beginning of the Civil War, Dabney had paid DeJarnette part of the sum they had agreed on for him to purchase his freedom, but before he completed the payments the war and slavery had ended. Nevertheless, he later gave her the balance he owed. Praised for his honesty in fulfilling the obligation, Dabney reportedly could thereafter secure credit at any bank in Richmond. The episode, publicized in the summer of 1868, later inspired Thomas Nelson Page's poem "Little Jack" (which the author dedicated to Dabney) and continued to appear in the reminiscences of Richmond residents well into the twentieth century.
Dabney may have retired from managing his restaurant and catering business early in the 1890s, but he continued to work until the week of his death. John Dabney died at his Richmond home on June 7, 1900. All four of the city's daily newspapers reported his death, but none indicated in which of Richmond's African American cemeteries he was buried.
ca. 1824 - Around this time, John Dabney is born into slavery in Hanover County and is the son of Eliza, or Elizabeth, Dabney and London Dabney.
1856 - By this year, John Dabney has married Elizabeth Foster, who is also enslaved. They will have five sons and four daughters.
October 1860 - John Dabney serves a mint julep to the Prince of Wales (later Edward VII), who is visiting the United States.
Mid-1864 - By this time, John Dabney has arranged for his wife, Elizabeth Foster Dabney, to be freed.
November 1866 - John Dabney and his wife, Elizabeth Foster Dabney, purchase a large house near First African Baptist Church, of which they are members.
1868 - In this year, an account of the episode in which John Dabney repaid the balance he owed his former owner for his freedom, despite the end of the Civil War, is publicized.
Early 1870s - Around this time, John Dabney opens a restaurant, which is successful. Dabney's reputation spreads beyond the city of Richmond.
Early 1890s - John Dabney may have retired from managing his restaurant around this time, but he continues to work until the week of his death.
June 7, 1900 - John Dabney dies in his Richmond home.
Cite This Entry
- APA Citation:
Schwarz, P. J., & the Dictionary of Virginia Biography. John Dabney (ca. 1824–1900). (2013, December 11). In Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved from http://www.EncyclopediaVirginia.org/Dabney_John_ca_1824-1900.
- MLA Citation:
Schwarz, Philip J. and the Dictionary of Virginia Biography. "John Dabney (ca. 1824–1900)." Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, 11 Dec. 2013. Web. READ_DATE.
First published: April 9, 2013 | Last modified: December 11, 2013