This project will focus on contextualizing the significant upward economic mobility of Chloe Russell by first examining the economic context of black people in Boston to see what kinds of employment black people held and what was available specifically for black women. It will then examine the important role of black women in a black household’s survival and how the necessity of work barred black women from participating in “true womanhood”. The project will then provide context to Chloe Russell’s different successes as a fortune teller, homeowner, and businesswoman by examining other women in Boston during the 19th century who worked in these areas and accomplished similar success.

Section 1: The General Economic Context of Black People in 19th Century Boston

By the 1850s, domestic work was the most frequent job for black people in Boston Most of the black labor force, 71.5% by 1860, were either low or semiskilled workers. Less than a third of black Bostonians were skilled workers. For those in this group, the most common jobs were hairdressers or barbers, blacksmiths, and used clothing dealers. The number of black people in professional roles like doctors, lawyers, teachers, or ministers was tiny—only 2% in 1860. For black women, in particular, domestic work in the homes of wealthy families was their primary source of employment. Unlike white women who may have had the luxury to choose not to work, black women played a crucial role in the survival of their households by bringing in necessary additional income to supplement that of their husbands’. Other domestic jobs for women included working in boarding houses and being a laundress.

Black Occupational Levels

Source: Black Bostonians: Family Life and Community Struggle in the Antebellum North, by James Oliver Horton and Lois E. Horton

Map of Beacon Hill (Ward 6) Source: Boston Athenaeum

Being that most of the black labor force was made up of semi or unskilled workers, steady employment was hard to find for the majority of black people in Boston. In Antebellum Boston having lighter skin was advantageous and evidenced in the greater employment and skill level of Boston’s mulattoes. “Boston’s mulattoes were generally more skilled, held more property, and were a bit less residentially separated from the white security than the darker members of their race” who were heavily concentrated in Beacon Hill. In 1850 mulattoes made up 18% of the black workforce but 25% of the most skilled laborers. By 1860 this only increased as they made up 34% of the black workforce but 52% of the most skilled (Horton).
Black people also experienced competition for both employment and housing with immigrants such as the Irish immigrants who arrived in Boston in the 1850s. Oftentimes, when these Irish immigrants moved into a neighborhood the black population in that area decreased as a result of this competition as well as an effort by black people to protect themselves from hostility and harassment (Horton). Additionally, black men who sought work or tried to go into business in Boston and other major cities such as New York, Philadelphia, and Cincinnati were always at a disadvantage when facing white competitors for the same jobs and faced resistance or objections from them (Horton). On top of this, the seasonal nature of black men’s work made it challenging to find reliable employment making it nearly impossible for a black household to be supported by one salary.

“Racism helped create economic conditions that made it impossible for black men to support their families without the supplementary incomes of their wives . . .” (Horton).

Boston harbor and East Boston from State St. block, by Soule, John P., 1827-1904 Source: Robert Dennis Collection of Stereoscopic Views

Section 2: Black Women and the Economic Vitality of Black Families, Constraints from the Cult of Domesticity

“Under the cult, women could work for wages if pressed by economic necessity, but it has never been quite respectable for them to do so. Even stronger disapproval was directed at married women, and especially mothers, working for wages outside the home” (Geschwender).

Cult of Domesticity and Its Consequences

In the 19th century, ideas about women’s participation in the workforce were heavily defined and influenced by the Cult of Domesticity or the Cult of True Womanhood. As the name suggests, the Cult (short of culture) of Domesticity was an ideology about women that aimed to relegate their sphere of influence to home and family matters; it prescribed that women should possess four key features: piety, purity, submissiveness, and domesticity.
The rise of this ideology can be linked to the working-class struggle for a family wage (one wage that supports an entire family). The working-class recognized that wages were lower when the potential supply of labor was larger, this is, when women, children, and husbands worked as opposed to just husbands. While the pursuit for a family wage established a greater standard of living that would not have been possible for the working-class if all members of the family were working, the idea that every male worker was entitled to a family wage reinforced the cult idea that a woman's place was the home and a woman’s work was in the home or with children. “[Women’s] earnings represented ‘extras’ since husbands and fathers were expected to support them” and stigma surrounded women who did work because it implied their husbands could not support them (Geschwender).
The repercussions of the cult ideology largely affected women who had to work and included an intensification of sexist practices within and without the family and power and resources being inequitably distributed within the family. Protection of the family wage was also used as the rationale to oppose women’s entry into the labor force, to support revising the poor laws, and to support protective labor legislation. For those women who did work, most often out of necessity, the cult of domesticity and the family wage led to the denial of access to skilled jobs, lower wages, subordinate positions in the workforce. Most of the women who fell in this category of women were black women who were greatly impacted by the job segregation promoted by the Cult of Domesticity that relegated women to the least skilled and most poorly paid jobs.

The Nuances of Black Women’s Labor

After slavery, both black men and women believed that freedom should reestablish the tadeonal gender roles disrupted by slavery and they wanted a return to “proper family life” (Horton). The underlying belief was that slavery had emasculated the black man and it was the job of the black woman to rebuild black musicality by conforming to traditional gender roles. These aspirations were in line with the prescriptions of the Cult of Domesticity and there was strong advocacy for this shift in the antebellum North but the financial realities of black families limited their ability to participate in this ideal. Racism created conditions that prevented black men from accessing the family wage that would’ve allowed them to support their family through one source of income. “Thus, [black] women were an extremely important part of the financial life of the black community” (Horton). Black women’s domestic work in the homes of wealthy people was essential to supplement their husband’s wages. Domestic work was also often more stable and consistent than the sometimes seasonal nature of the work that black men would find.
In this way, black women performed an essential role that white women did not have in the family structure, lending them greater importance in family economy and community. They gained increased independence and exercised greater authority in their household because of this importance. But alongside these gains remained cult ideas discouraging black women from working outside the home unless “absolutely driven by economic necessity” (Geschwender). “The fact that Afro-American women were so driven did not alter the perception that their working was undesirable and that they should withdraw from the waged labor force at their earliest opportunity” (Geschwender).
Consequently, the necessity of work for black women inherently denied them participation in the Cult of Domesticity. “The limitations under which all blacks labored brought poverty that made it impossible for black women to be ‘true women’ in the full nineteenth-century sense of that term” (Horton). And it wasn’t only the ideal of womanhood that black women were denied but the economic security and possibility of upward mobility that white people were afforded as well. “The limitations imposed on women combined with those on blacks to all but foreclose the possibility of an enterprising woman becoming a true economic success,” making the achievements of outliers like Chloe Russell and other successful businesswomen and property owners all the more significant (Horton).

“For most blacks of antebellum Boston, as for most blacks in other cities, the romanticization of womanhood which left females free from the necessities of employment was as inapplicable as it was for poor women generally.” (Horton)

Section 3: Contextualizing Chloe Russell: Fortune Teller, Homeowner, Businesswoman

“Russell was not so much an activist as an entrepreneur” (Gardner).

Who Was Chloe Russell?

The question of Chloe Russell’s mere existence is one that has yet to be concretely answered. The information that we do know about her comes from the autobiography included in her famous book The Complete Fortune Teller and Dream Book. We can approximate from census records that she was born in 1785 in West Africa. As a child, she was kidnapped into the Atlantic Slave Trade and sold in Virginia to Mr. George Russell. She describes him as a kind and humane master but after he died she fell under the control of his son who she described as tyrannical. She writes that she gained her prophetic abilities through a dream that featured her father the day before the cruel treatment from her master drove her to attempt suicide.
Through her abilities was how Russell’s upward mobility began. She had her freedom purchased by a man who she helped find hidden treasure. He bought her freedom for $400 and paid her $500 which she used to buy the home she ran her business in. As she worked in Boston she began to gain credibility and establish a reputation for herself; in her autobiography she writes that as she became more credible and her abilities clear, “great numbers began to flock for information” (Russell). Over 10 years of working she accumulated $3,000 which she says she used to free other slaves. According to Boston tax records, Russell was one of only six women in Boston who owned property. It is also possible that Russell had a catering business that she was able to start through the profits she made as a fortune teller.
The publishing of this book is very significant because if Russell wrote this book herself or at least contributed to it, it signals her awareness of the public’s interest in black and Native American “cunning people'' and the stereotype that black and native people possess prophetic abilities or are more closely connected to the spiritual world. Even more significant may be her ability to capitalize off the assumptions held by white people and make significant profits off of them that then enabled her to run a successful business, buy property, and even help free other slaves. This awareness “suggests a smart businesswoman who knew her market” (Gardner).
Information on Russell and her book are limited to Eric Gardner’s text but information about her significant upward mobility and her work as a fortune teller and successful businesswoman can be contextualized by examining other women who experienced similar successes.

The Complete Fortune Teller and Dream Book Cover

Commissioned Harriet E. Wilson Memorial by ​Fern Cunningham in Milford, NH
Source: The Harriet Wilson Project

Harriet E. Wilson: Trance Reader and Medium

Harriet E. Wilson is well known for the publishing of her novel Our Nig; the book is taken as an autobiographical account of Wilson’s life. Later in life, Wilson also became well known as a trance reader and medium apart of the Spiritualist Movement and worked in Boston as one for 30 years. She began her career as early as 1861 after the death of her son in 1860 but she first appeared in the Banner of Light, a prominent Boston spiritualist weekly newspaper in mid-1867. The paper described her as “the earned and eloquent colored trance medium” and details her participation in a spiritualist convention where she spoke in a trance about labor reform and child education (Ellis and Gates). Wilson continued to rise in spiritualist circles and her growing status in the spiritualist movement is evidenced in 1868 when she was elected to the Finance Committee for the Third Annual Convention of the Massachusetts Spiritual Association where she was in charge of looking after the convention’s monetary matters (Ellis and Gates). It is also reported that she volunteered to lecture for the Association meaning she was working for the movement for free. This is a noteworthy difference from Russell who made a business out of fortune telling but it is likely that Wilson’s free work was a part of her networking efforts and a way to gain approval into a white-led organization. It is only later that Wilson profits off her trance work when she shifts to in-home sessions.
A highlight of her career as a medium and trance speaker were her engagements as a platform speaker. The height of which was marked by the several months she spent touring in Maine in the fall and winter of 1868 as a speaker. She also spoke three times at a Spiritual Camp Meeting in Cape Cod and when she returned to Boston she was in demand as a speaker. The Banner of Light credits her success to the compelling nature of her speeches and this ability propelled her within the Spiritualist Movement.
As she grew older, Wilson shifted to mostly doing private sessions in her home. During this time other, more sensational, types of spiritualism such as test mediums were growing in popularity and affected the trance work that Wilson was doing. Test mediums were mediums who could call up spirit guides not just through hearing their voices and passing their messages in a trance like trance readers, but they could also relay the spirit guides’ material manifestations, including physical appearances (Ellis and Gates). The more spectacular the test or claim, the more the test spiritualist thrived. In response to this shift, Wilson’s claims grew more ambitious. She went from advertising herself as a “Lecturer and the Unconscious Trance Physician” to claiming she could treat chronic diseases with great success by May of 1869 (Ellis and Gates). This activity later waned and as she decided to not compete with the test mediums her profits also decreased. In 1881 she described her private sessions as “an old-fashioned healing and developing circle” (Ellis and Gates). Additionally, embracing the rise in interest of test mediums would have been difficult for her because her race made her status in the Spiritualist Movement more vulnerable.

Black Property Owners

Black workers and their families in Boston generally didn’t live in homes owned. In 1850 only 1.5% of black single adults and family heads owned property and by 1860 that percentage had only grown to 4.5%. In 1860, per capita property holdings for black people was $91 compared to $872 for the general population of Boston. Skilled and entrepreneurial workers such as clothing dealers who owned their own shops were more likely to own property but one’s occupation or economic class did not predict property ownership.
The few “Bostonians who succeeded in generating profits from their business enterprise used these profits to enhance their entrepreneurial activities” sometimes through investments in real estate like in the case of Chloe Spear (Black Entrepreneurs). Spear did domestic work for a prominent family in Boston and like many black women, her jobs did not stop there. After this work, she took over operations for the boarding house that her husband and her operated on top of taking care of her family and taking in washing during the night for extra money. She later expanded the business into a laundry and she amassed a considerable estate (Black Entrepreneurs). While it was customarily at the time, Spear did not place her wages under her husband’s management like women were expected to and controlled her own money. When she decided to buy a $700 home she also did so alone and with her own money. Her husband was only brought into the process because the law prohibited married women from buying property under their name.
Another property owner like Russell and Spear was Elleanor Eldridge who was also a businesswoman like the two women. Eldridge first worked numerous domestic jobs from being a laundress and weaver to an expert cheesemaker. She later bought a lot of land in Providence, Rhode Island and built a home on it that she partially rented out. She also bought two additional lots near the first for $1,500. She would've likely not been able to do this if she had been married because the property would’ve been under her husband's name like in the case of Spear.

Illustration of Elleanor Eldridge from The Memoirs of Elleanor Eldridge
Source: Documenting the American South Collection from the University Library of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Mary Edmonia Lewis
Source: Collection of the Boston Athenaeum

Black Businesswomen

In addition to all of the aforementioned women who were all businesswomen on top of their other title, there were also many more black women in/from Boston that achieved success in different areas. Two significant examples include Nancy Prince (1799-1859) and Mary Edmonia Lewis (1845-1911). Prince was a seamstress who lived in Russia for nine years operating a fine clothing business for babies and children. Her clientele included the Russian Empress and her business was successful enough that she employed other people as journeywomen and apprentices. After returning to Boston, she self-published an autobiography in 1850 titled Narrative of the Life and Travel of Mrs. Nancy Prince. Lewis was another businesswoman and sculptor that worked outside of the United States and achieved an international reputation as the first black and Native American professional sculptor. She worked in Rome as a successful artist from 1865 to the 1880s. As a businesswoman, she is also known for the innovative strategies she used to sell her work such as newspaper advertising, subscription campaigns, and actions (Black Entrepreneurs).

Works Cited

Black Entrepreneurs of the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries. May. - Sep. 2009, Museum of African American History, Massachusetts.

Blakely, Julia. “Her Story, Her Wrong: Elleanor Eldridge, the Narrative of a Free Black in Antebellum New England.” Smithsonian Libraries / Unbound, The Smithsonian Libraries and Archives, 4 Feb. 2020, blog.library.si.edu/blog/2020/02/04/her-story-her-wrong-elleanor-eldridge-the-narrative-of-a-free-black-in-antebellum-new-england/.

Ellis, R. J., and Henry Louis Gates. “‘Grievances at the Treatment She Received’: Harriet E. Wilson's Spiritualist Career in Boston, 1868—1900.” American Literary History, vol. 24, no. 2, 2012, pp. 234–264. JSTOR, www.jstor.org.ezproxy.neu.edu/stable/23249769. Accessed 9 Dec. 2020.

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, 2005, pp. 259–288. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/30045526. Accessed 5 Dec. 2020.

Geschwender, James A. “Ethgender, Women's Waged Labor, and Economic Mobility.” Social Problems, vol. 39, no. 1, 1992, pp. 1–16. JSTOR, doi:10.2307/3096908. Accessed 10 Dec. 2020.

“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, 1999, pp. 15–26.

Horton, James Oliver. “Freedom's Yoke: Gender Conventions among Antebellum Free Blacks.” Feminist Studies, vol. 12, no. 1, 1986, pp. 51–76. JSTOR, doi:10.2307/3177983. Accessed 7 Dec. 2020.

“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, 1999, pp. 1–13.