SIU Department Name | Page Title

siu logo siupress logo

SIU logo


Main Content Area

Fight Like a Tiger

Fight Like a Tiger

Conway Barbour and the Challenges of the Black Middle Class in Nineteenth-Century America

Add to Cart

Victoria L. Harrison


Paperback (Other formats: E-book)
184 pages, 6 x 9, 20 illustrations


Additional Materials

  • Table of Contents
  • Supplemental Materials

Table of Contents

Table of Contents

Supplemental Materials

Book Flier

About the Book

Focusing on the life of ambitious former slave Conway Barbour, Victoria L. Harrison argues that the idea of a black middle class traced its origins to the free black population of the mid-nineteenth century and developed alongside the idea of a white middle class. Although slavery and racism meant that the definition of middle class was not identical for white people and free people of color, they shared similar desires for advancement.
Born a slave in western Virginia about 1815, Barbour was a free man by the late 1840s. His adventurous life took him through Lexington and Louisville, Kentucky; Cleveland, Ohio; Alton, Illinois; and Little Rock and Lake Village, Arkansas. In search of upward mobility, he worked as a steamboat steward, tried his hand at several commercial ventures, and entered politics. He sought, but was denied, a Civil War military appointment that would have provided financial stability. Blessed with intelligence, competence, and energy, Barbour was quick to identify opportunities as they appeared in personal relationships—he was simultaneously married to two women—business, and politics.
Despite an unconventional life, Barbour found in each place he lived that he was one of many free black people who fought to better themselves alongside their white countrymen. Harrison’s argument about black class formation reframes the customary narrative of downtrodden free African Americans in the mid-nineteenth century and engages current discussions of black inclusion, the concept of “otherness,” and the breaking down of societal barriers. Demonstrating that careful research can reveal the stories of people who have been invisible to history, Fight Like a Tiger complicates our understanding of the intersection of race and class in the Civil War era.


Victoria L. Harrison is an instructor in the department of historical studies at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville. She has published essays in the Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society and Ohio Valley History.


“Victoria L. Harrison tells the interesting and complicated story of ambitious former slave Conway Barbour. She carefully places this story within the contexts of racial mores, sectional politics, and gender roles in nineteenth-century America. Harrison blends a sophisticated understanding of Barbour’s multifaceted character with a portrayal of an emerging black middle class.”—Stanley Harrold, author of Lincoln and the Abolitionists
“In Fight Like a Tiger, Harrison brings to light the singular Conway Barbour, a mid-nineteenth-century man on the move. Her meticulous research and lucid prose lead readers into Barbour's previously hidden life; in the process she challenges how we think about class, race, and place.”—Dana Elizabeth Weiner, author of Race and Rights: Fighting Slavery and Prejudice in the Old Northwest, 1830–1870