Hancock, William H. (ca. 1803-after 1888)


North Carolina, USA


  • Chicago, Illinois
  • New Haven, Connecticut
  • New Bern, North Carolina


  • Carpenter/Joiner

William H. Hancock (ca. 1803-after 1888) was a free black house carpenter who began his career in New Bern and later moved to New Haven, Connecticut. He learned his skills and came of age during New Bern’s early national period era of fine building and opportunities for artisans of color. It is not known whether he was born free or freed as a child, nor have his parents been identified. He was probably connected to the white Hancock family, who had lived in Craven and Carteret counties since the early colonial period; in adulthood his middle initial H. distinguished him from the white William Hancock in town. He is almost certainly the William Hancock, a free boy of color, aged 14, who on September 12, 1817, was apprenticed to Uriah Sandy to learn the carpenter’s trade along with other local youths. In 1819 Sandy undertook construction of one of the city’s most prestigious buildings—the First Presbyterian Church—which was dedicated in 1822. As Sandy’s apprentice William Hancock likely executed some of the lavish woodwork detail of the church.

A leading member of New Bern’s community of free artisans of color, William affiliated with Christ Episcopal Church, where he and his wife Mary Ann had their children baptized, including Richard Mason Hancock (1832-1899), who learned the house carpenter’s trade from his father. In 1850 the census taker recorded William, aged 45, as head of a household that included Mary and their seven children from Richard, a carpenter aged 18, down to the baby, Colston. The parents and older children were all literate. William H. Hancock trained other free black youths besides his son Richard, including Charles McLin, aged eighteen, and Stephen Bragg, seventeen, both carpenters in his household in 1850. William had the unusual distinction of becoming a member and tyler of the (white) St. John’s Masonic Lodge in the late 1840s.

According to John Patterson Green’s memoir, Fact Stranger Than Fiction, Hancock had “planned and constructed some of the most ornate buildings in our home town, before he deserted it.” (Green gives the name as “Richard W. Hancock,” but Richard (M.) Hancock would have been too young to have done this work before he left New Bern; more than likely Green, who was a small boy at the time he encountered Hancock, meant William H. Hancock.) The only building with which he is associated as carpenter is the William Hollister House begun in 1839; Hollister’s records note his name but not what work he accomplished.

In the early 1850s William H. Hancock and his family joined other leading free families of color in moving to the North; the Hancocks and several others selected New Haven, Connecticut, where William continued at the house carpenter’s trade. During the 1880s, he moved to Chicago to join his son, Richard, who had trained and worked briefly as a house carpenter but became a manager in a large pattern making factory in Chicago. William was still alive in 1888; the date of his death has not been established.

  • Catherine W. Bishir, Crafting Lives: African American Artisans in New Bern, North Carolina, 1770-1900 (2013).
  • Christ Church Records, New Bern, North Carolina.
  • John Patterson Green, Seventy-five Years of a Busy Life, with Reminiscences, of Many Great and Good Men and Women (1920).
  • New Haven City Directories.
  • William J. Simmons, Men of Mark: Eminent, Progressive and Rising (1887).