INTRODUCTION

Many factors would have stood in opposition to Chloe Russel being a savvy businesswoman. The existence of her text, The Complete Fortune Teller and Dream Book, is evidence that Russel knew how to market her craft well enough to amass an audience, support herself and her family, and acquire property and wealth. Research into the economic conditions of the black community in Boston during the Antebellum period (1800-1860) will provide the proper context to understand the challenges that a female entrepreneur, like Russel, would have faced.

The short autobiography at the beginning of the text in conjunction with the scholarly essay written by Eric Gardner (1) provide the most information on Russel. Five factors, listed below, of Russel’s identity and her environment have been researched from an economic perspective. Then, the known evidence about Russel will be examined against the research presented to create a fuller understanding of the context that Russel lived and worked in. 

1. BOSTONIAN

2. FEMALE HEAD OF THE HOUSE

3. AFRICAN NATIVE

4. PROPERTY OWNER

5. ENTREPRENEUR

1. BOSTONIAN

Boston and the New England area were believed to be a “mecca” for free black people due to the many opportunities for advancement that were made available. For example, historian George A. Levesque wrote in his book, Black Boston: African American Life and Culture in Urban American, 1750-1860, that between 1820-1860,  “Blacks could vote, hold public office and testify in court; schools were desegregated, anti-miscegenation laws abolished, jim crow carriers abandoned, personal liberty laws enacted and noticeable inroads were made in striking down prohibitions which barred the social intermingling of the races in restaurants, hotels, clubs and theaters…” (2)

However, these advancements did not necessarily translate into economic opportunities. In fact during this period, the economic condition of blacks was distressing. The economic structure of Boston proved to be a confining space for black people to attempt to acquire gainful employment. Research into the probate records of antebellum Boston conducted by Carol Stapp reveal that, “Boston had little other than its port to offer in employment for the blue collar worker. The majority of black men therefore found work as mariners and dock laborers, both low-paying and irregular occupations…” (3) Furthermore, Levesque’s research expresses the reflections of the following prominent leaders in the black community who believed that racism and oppression were the primary causes of their dismal economic conditions.

Dr. John S. Rock (1825-1866)

By the age of 27 Rock was a practicing dentist, physician, lawyer, and speaker for the abolition movement living in Boston. He was also the first African American lawyer to argue a case before the U.S. Supreme Court (2). Rock concluded that contrary to the social and political advancements, one should not conclude that northern blacks did not have to face oppression or racism comparable to those in the South (2). Prejudice in the north resulted in minimal occupational opportunities. For example, even though blacks could attend school in Boston, Rock testified to the fact that;

“…there is no field for these men…not enough…in the whole United States to sustain, properly, a half dozen educated colored men,” it was, “ten times as difficult for a Negro mechanic to get work in Boston as it was in Charleston,” and, “menial employments…plentiful enough fifteen or twenty years past, were dying up.” (2)

This led people within the community to question if the political and social advancements were truly amounting to progress. Lastly, Rock argued that in a country based on capitalism, economic equality was the key to black people achieving true equality. 

William C. Nell (1816-1874)

Born and raised in Boston, Nell was an activist, abolitionist, and historian. He was mentored by William Lloyd Garrison while working as a member of the Juvenile Garrison Independent Society. Nell led the campaigns to desegregate the Boston railroad and Boston performance halls in 1843 and 1853 respectively. He was also one of the founders of the New England Freedom Association in 1842 (4). Nell was not as extreme in his criticism of the economic conditions as Rock and others were. He believed that the “spirit of caste” (2) that restrained economic advancement for black people would one day be mitigated as long as progress on the political and social end continued. However, similarly to Rock, he did acknowledge that black mechanics and merchants were not given equal opportunity to work in their field. Thus, Nell used his position of power in the community to open a “Registry for Help” at 21 Cornhill Street for black people who were seeking employment (2).   

David Walker (1785-1830)

Born free in Wilmington, North Carolina, Walker moved to Boston in 1825 where he became a leader in the abolition movement. Most famously he wrote, David Walker’s Appeal in Four Articles; Together with a Preamble, to the Coloured Citizens of the World published in 1829. Walker quickly gained recognition for his militancy as he continued to give speeches and write for the anti-slavery movement. (5) Walker frequently commented on the lack of employment opportunities that were available to black people and encouraged them “to aspire to higher attainments than wielding the razor and cleaning boots and shoes.” (2) However, he recognized that the real issue was not the lack of ambition from the black community, it was that, “A colored man, however intelligent, is not allowed to pursue any business more lucrative than that of a barber, a shoe-black, or a waiter.”(2) Walker concluded that the effects of racism and slavery were to blame for the economic condition of black people.  

Furthermore, significant demographic changes mainly due to the dramatic influx of poor, white, Irish laborers starting in the 1830’s worsened the economic condition of the black community. Between 1830 and 1850 the entire foreign born population in Boston increased by approximately 200,000. (2) Not only did the increased competition make it more likely that blacks faced unemployment, it also made it more likely that they would have to accept low-paying jobs. Stapp writes that;

Boston’s blacks can thus be described as both integral and peripheral to their city’s economy. Shut out from competition with white Yankees, squeezed even more by the influx of Irish in the mid-1840s, blacks provided a pool of labor that could be hired or fired at will when commerce fluctuated. (3)

Continually, historians and authors, James and Lois Horton, have written specifically about the black Boston community. In the first chapter of their book, Black Bostonians: Family Life and Community Struggle in the Antebellum North, it states that by 1860, the per capita wealth was $131 for the recently immigrated poor Irish community; whereas it was $91 for the black community (6). This combination of discrimination and increased competition ensured that the majority of black Bostonians belonging to the workforce would not rise above the position of servitude. These harsh realities that many faced reflected that generally, white Northerners believed free black people to be a “menacing threat to the economic (and moral) well-being of white labour…” (2). The statistician Jesse Chickering wrote in 1846 in regards to the black Boston population;

A prejudice has existed in the community, and still exists against them on account of their color, and on account of their being the descendants of slaves. They cannot obtain employment on equal terms with whites, and wherever they go a sneer is passed upon them, as if this sportive inhumanity were an act of merit. They have been, and still are, mostly servants, or doomed to accept such menial employments as the white decline. Thus, though their legal rights are the same as those of the whites, their condition is one of degradation and dependence. (2)

Lastly, the lively black community of Boston drew many to migrate to the city. Those who migrated into Boston from the south or other countries experienced an additional level of discrimination from within the black community. Author Lorraine Roses accounts in her book, Black Bostonians and the Politics of Culture, 1920-1940, that in the nineteenth century, “The infusion of southern blacks irritated longtime residents who saw them as outsiders and who wished to associate only with those of a similar social status.” (7)

 

Evidence About Chloe Russel

“Both the 1820 and 1830 federal censuses and eleven of the thirteen Boston directories from 1821 through 1833 list a Chloe Russell (usually with two l’s) living on Belknap Street, at the heart of Boston’s lively black community.” (1)

“In a few weeks after we landed in Virginia, where we were sold at public auction — I was purchased by Mr. George Russel, a Planter, near Petersburg…” (1)

Summary

Contextually speaking, Boston was not a place where many could experience the full level of advancement they would have hoped for due to the economic conditions. Russel who migrated from Virginia to Boston would have been in a vulnerable position from a socioeconomic standpoint. Therefore, it is reasonable to conclude that in order for Russel to experience the level of success she did as a businesswoman she had to overcome many obstacles. 

2. FEMALE HEAD OF THE HOUSE

It is not a surprise that many of the historical accounts and research in regards to the economic condition of the black community specifically speaks about men. This can be contributed to sexism and that record keeping during those times was inconsistent and oftentimes incomplete. The Hortons acknowledge that in regards to the Boston community, census records only report a few working black women (6). However, this does not mean that women did not play a role in the economic vitality of the black community. Black women held a unique position as they not only had to deal with racism that excluded black people from economic advancement, they had to deal with sexism that confined them to domestic labor (3). Research into the historic records that are available indicate that “Black women in antebellum Boston made up 90 percent of the occupational category of domestics, the category accounting for 20 percent of the entire black workforce” (3). Despite the fact that black women accounted for a fifth of the workforce, it did not equate to significant power outside the home for the majority of them. Stapp explains the “ironic” position black women held; 

 

It is now recognized that the ordinary Afro-American woman has borne a double burden. Being female and black, she has been required not only to live out gender ideals of deference to men but also to carry out economic and social roles — to raise her family and elevate her race — without questioning patriarchy or seeking autonomy. (3)

The economic hardship that black Bostonians faced forced women to have to play this complex role of “breadwinner” and the lesser gender. Racism and prejudice made it difficult for black men to have consistent employment that brought in a steady income to support a family. Thus, the financial support that working women provided was a major contributor to the survival of the black community. Also, the economic struggles increased the number of households run by single women. While the destruction of the black family is mainly seen as a legacy of slavery, Stapp poses the argument that a greater strain was put on the black family do the economic discriminations associated with the urban environment in the North. Continually, sexism proved to be nearly an insurmountable barrier that combined with racism “made total independence for black women all but impossible even as limited economic opportunities for black men made wifely dependence unpractical”. (3) Even though black men would oftentimes leave their home in search of better employment, leaving the responsibility of the house to the woman, black women were still not perceived as independent beings. 

Black women were forced to accept menial jobs that according to societal standards were proper for their race and gender. For instance, analysis of newspapers, letters, tax lists and additional records from the antebellum period in Boston indicate that taking in wash was the primary source of income for women. (3) While the 1850 census does not record any single black washerwomen, the “Boston city directory indicated that there were at least twenty-five black women who took in laundry…the 1860 census listing thirty black washerwomen” (3). These numbers are believed to be a gross underestimation of the actual number of black washerwomen.

Portrait displaying black washerwoman in the nineteenth century

Evidence About Chloe Russel

“The 1821-1825 directories note that Russel was a widow, and her appearance in the 1820 and 1830 censuses (which only listed heads of households) confirms that, if not widowed, she was either unmarried or separated…Russel was probably supporting a family…” (1)

“The directories for 1821-25 list Russel’s occupation as a washerwoman, while those for 1829 through 1833 identify her as a cook. Both of these were sustenance-level occupations commonly filled by African American women.” (1)

Summary

Chloe Russel living in Boston during this time would not have been immune to the societal constraints that racism and sexism placed on her as a black female. The evidence that points to her being the head of the house, supporting a family, and that she either worked as a washerwoman or cook is indicative of the fact that Russel had to succumb to the realities of her community’s economic condition. However, the existence of her text shows that Russel was able to gain a level of autonomy that would have made her the exception and not the norm. Russel had to carry the burden of being the “breadwinner” and being perceived as the lesser gender, but she did not let that confine her solely to the areas of society deemed appropriate for her.  

3. AFRICAN NATIVE

Scholars who study and research the history of the black experience, whether from a historical or literary perspective, continually fight against the racist notions that the black community was monolithic. This argument has taken many shapes and forms such as research into the socioeconomic differences within the black community. For instance, scholars have found that “…pertinent socioeconomic differences — occupation, geographic origin, skin color — within antebellum Boston’s black community that correlate with differences in residence, job skills, and association.” (3) Furthermore, there is evidence of “disproportionate wealth and power” (3) associated with those of fair skin or characterized as mulattoes. The distinctions within the black community in terms of color were reflective of the overall societal standards of the nineteenth century. The Hortons summarize that these standards, “equated beauty with light, even pale skin. For some black Boston men, women who most closely approximated the white American image of beauty seemed particularly attractive” (8). 

This value placed on fairer skin resulted in tangible advantages from an economic perspective. The Hortons note that Boston was unique in the demographic breakdown of its black community because in comparison to other northern black cities, there were proportionately more mulattoes in Boston (6). Mulattoes were still a minority within black Bostonians in terms of numbers, but they were a majority in terms of wealth and power. For example the Hortons write;

Although mulattoes were only 18 percent of the black workforce in 1850, they accounted for one-quarter of the most skilled. By 1860 this overrepresentation was even greater. While mulattoes were 34 percent of the black workforce, they were 53 percent of the skilled workers. (6)

Not only did a lighter complexion result in improved occupational opportunities, it was also related to property ownership. During the antebellum period, owning property was a rare occurrence. However, Stapp’s research indicates that mulatto women in Boston, whether married to a mulatto man or a black man, experienced a level of economic security that made property ownership more likely for them in comparison to women of darker complexion.

Front Cover of Russel Text

Evidence About Chloe Russel

“I am a native of Africa, of the Fuller nation, and was born about the year 1745, about three hundred miles south west of Sierre Loen.” (1)

Summary

Russel was originally born in Africa. Thus, her darker skin tone would have been an additional barrier to her success. Internalization of colorism within the black community is not inconsequential; fairer skin was more valued and equated to economic advantages. Therefore, it is reasonable to assume that Russel faced further discrimination on account of her complexion. 

4. PROPERTY OWNER

Owning property was and still is a signifier of wealth. It can reflect the socioeconomic conditions of individuals, families, and communities at large.  The rates of property ownership in Boston reflect the overall trend of property ownership in the country among black people that;

Afro-Americans were not in general amassing substantial amounts of wealth in the form of personal and/or real property. Systematically denied — either by law or custom — equal access to economic opportunities that would have yielded a comfortable income, or even an adequate one, blacks were not in a position to accumulate much in the way of personal and real property. (3)

The Hortons corroborate this claim. Firstly, black families most likely lived in homes that were not their own. (6) Additionally, by 1850 only 1.5% of single adults and family heads owned property. The rate increased to 4.5% by 1860 but that was believed to represent improvements in data collection and not actual increases in property ownership. (6) Furthermore, as a result of the economic adversity that the black community was facing in Boston, the practice of taking in boarders increased. In 1850, approximately one-third of households had boarders; by 1860 that increased to about 40 percent. (8) Traditionally, boarders were young, single adults who would only live with a host family until they married. However, “as financial opportunities dwindled, the period of boarding extended beyond the twenties so that by 1860 there was a rise in the number of those in their thirties and forties who were still boarding.” (8) The table pictured to the right provides statistics on the increase in the rates of boarding between 1850-1860. 

Lastly, Dr. John Rock compares the difficulty of home ownership in Boston with another prominent northern, urban city. He stated that, “It was five times harder for a black to get a house in a good location in Boston than in Philadelphia…” (2)

Evidence About Chloe Russel

“In her study of Boston tax records, however, Adelaide M. Cromwell noted Russel as one of only six black women listed as property owners.” (1)

Summary

Russel would have owned property during a time when economically speaking, the housing market in the black community was on a downward trend. The difficulties associated with being a black female in America during this time would have made property ownership very unlikely on its own. The additional barriers that were presented due to financial hardships of the black community in Boston would have made Russel owning property an even greater anomaly. 

5. ENTREPRENEUR

During the early nineteenth century, black men in Boston mainly worked as unskilled or semi-skilled laborers accounting for 75% of the workforce. (6) Less than one-third were considered skilled-laborers or shopkeepers. (6) Achieving an occupational status above this was an aspiration for many but only a reality for few. As the Hortons note;

Most at the bottom of the economic scale remained there throughout the antebellum period. Insofar as there was occupational mobility within black society, it occurred within the low-level occupational group — as the unskilled sometimes became semi-skilled. The rise of a worker into the skilled or entrepreneurial group was extremely rare. (6)

Unfortunately, achieving the status of skilled worker or entrepreneur did not make one immune to the economic trends as some reverted back to working lower skilled occupations. Furthermore, Levesque gives a more detailed description of the discrimination that black entrepreneurs faced that, “…operated to exclude them from the better paying industrial trades. Not only did whites refuse to teach blacks trades, ‘they combine to oppress, defraud and plunder a successful black mechanic or tradesman…and turn public sentiment against him by abuse and slander.’” (2)

Evidence About Chloe Russel

“The possibility that the text copies from other works suggests a smart businesswoman who knew her market — a position not discussed in histories of early African American literature.” (Gardner 267)

“In the course of the next decade working as a seer, she accumulated three thousand dollars, which she used to buy the freedom of her fellow slaves.” (Gardner 263)

Summary

Russel is unique in terms of her entrepreneurial pursuits. Firstly, she was able to maintain a business as a fortune teller for an extended period of time and accumulate substantial wealth from it which was not the norm for black entrepreneurs. Furthermore, although she was not the only woman to work outside of the limitations that society has imposed on them, she is the only example of a black woman doing so in her line of work. One is more likely to find evidence of women who found autonomy in the realm of domesticity or who worked as political and social activists. Russel is a rarity in that her pursuits did not revolve around the home and were driven by personal ambition. 

CONCLUSION

The historical record could lead one to believe that the only choice presented to black women was to succumb to the societal constraints placed on them due to racism and sexism. However, Chloe Russel’s text stands in opposition to that notion. As a black woman living in Boston during the Antebellum period, discrimination and oppression were daily realities. While many questions remain in regards to who Russel was, by looking at the economic conditions of black Bostonians, one can begin to fill in the gaps of what life may have been like for her. Understanding the context of a black, female entrepreneur brings a level of fullness to the personhood of Russel. One can appreciate the determination that she would have had to display to gain enough recognition as a fortune teller to write and sell a book about her work. Russel did not let the societal structure that was designed to keep her confined stop her from aspiring and achieving more. Thus, she was not only exceptional during her time but is an exceptional treasure for the present. Contemporary historians, literary scholars and the like can look to Russel as evidence that historically, perseverance within the black community took many forms. Russel may not have been the activist that is so often championed from this period, but in her pursuit of personal advancement Chloe Russel offers a unique representation of the fighting spirit that has sustained black people for over 400 years in this country. 

Page created by Monae Cooper

References 

  1. Gardner, Eric. “‘The Complete Fortune Teller and Dream Book’: An Antebellum Text ‘By Chloe Russel a Woman of Colour.’” The New England Quarterly, vol. 78, no. 2, June 2005, pp. 259–288.
  2. “Is Boston Anti-Slavery?” Black Boston: African American Life and Culture in Urban America, 1750-1860, by George A Levesque, Garland Publishing, 1994, Google Books, www.google.com/books/edition/Black_Boston/Ze1GDwAAQBAJ?hl=en&gbpv=0&kptab=getbook.
  3. “Part I.” Afro-Americans in Antebellum Boston: An Analysis of Probate Records, by Carol Buchalter Stapp, Garland Publishing , 1993, Google Books, www.google.com/books/edition/Afro_Americans_in_Antebellum_Boston/5Y2EDwAAQBAJ?hl=en&gbpv=0&kptab=getbook.
  4. Ruffin, Herbert G. “William C. Nell (1816-1874).” Black Past , 14 Nov. 2019, https://www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/nell-william-c-1816-1874/.
  5. Gates, Henry Louis, and Valerie A Smith, editors. “David Walker (1785-1830).” The Norton Anthology of African American Literature, 3rd ed., vol. 1, W.W. Norton & Company , 2014, pp. 159–160.
  6. “Profile of Black Boston.” Black Bostonians: Family Life and Community Struggle in the Antebellum North, by James Oliver Horton and Lois E Horton, Holmes & Meier, 1979, pp. 1–13.
  7. “Where Is Black Boston? Geographies of Experience in the Cradle of Liberty, 1638-1900.” Black Bostonians and the Politics of Culture, 1920-1940, by Lorraine Elena Roses, University of Massachusetts Press, 2017, pp. 9–33. JSTOR, https://www-jstor-org.ezproxy.neu.edu/stable/j.ctv346v2f.5?refreqid=excelsior%3Aab14a41f8389b2528ba6e6f32711ae75&seq=1#metadata_info_tab_contents.
  8. “Families and Households in Black Boston.” Black Bostonians: Family Life and Community Struggle in the Antebellum North, by James Oliver Horton and Lois E Horton, Holmes & Meier, 1979, pp. 14–26.