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Eldridge, Elleanor

Black Women in America

Vivian Njeri Fisher

Eldridge, Elleanor 

(27 March 1784; d. 1845?), a skilled businesswoman and amateur lawyer who labored industriously to become respected in the black community.

She excelled in her crafts and business ventures, and as an amateur lawyer she assisted her brother, George, in securing an acquittal of charges that he “horsewhipped and otherwise barbarously treated a man on the highway.”

Elleanor Eldridge was born in Warwick, Rhode Island. Her father, Robin Eldridge, was an African who was captured with his entire family and brought to America on a slave ship. Her mother, Hannah Prophet, was a Native American. Eldridge was born free in part because of the “gradual emancipation” law passed in Rhode Island in 1784. Robin Eldridge and two of his brothers had fought in the American Revolution. They were promised their freedom and two hundred acres of land apiece in return for their service. When the war ended they were pronounced free, but because they had been paid in worthless old Continental currency, they were unable to take possession of their lands.

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Elleanor Eldridge

was a skilled businesswoman and the author of a memoir (1838) that is among the few narratives of the lives of free African American women. Duke University, Rare Books, Manuscripts, and Special Collections Library

Eldridge was the youngest of seven daughters, only five of whom lived to maturity. After her mother died when she was ten years old, Eldridge was invited to live with the family of Joseph Baker, for whom her mother had worked as a laundress. Despite the protest of her father, she accepted, receiving wages of twenty-five cents a week, and remained for six years. During these years with the Baker family, she became skilled in spinning, weaving, arithmetic, and all types of housework. She was considered a fully accomplished weaver by the age of fourteen and made carpets and bedspreads, among other things. At the age of sixteen, she went to work for Captain Benjamin Green and his family, first as a spinner and later as a dairy worker, making cheeses recognized as of “premium quality.”

After Eldridge’s father died when she was nineteen, she traveled 180 miles to Adams, Massachusetts, where her aunt helped her to obtain letters of administration of her father’s estate. When she returned to Warwick, she settled the estate and went back to work for Captain Green, where she remained until his death in 1812. She then returned home to live with her oldest sister, Lettise.

Eldridge and her sister went into business, weaving, nursing, and making soap. Eldridge was so successful that she purchased a lot and built a house, which she rented out for forty dollars a year. After three years, she was persuaded by another sister to come to Providence, Rhode Island, where she would reside for almost twenty years.

She continued various business ventures, and by 1822 her whitewashing, painting, and wallpapering business was such a success that she had saved $600. She purchased a lot and built a house costing $1,700, with an addition on the east side for herself and on the west side for a tenant.

She borrowed $240 at 10 percent interest in order to purchase two more lots. She agreed to renew the note annually and to purchase a house for $2,000 with a down payment of $500, the balance to be paid within four years. After she contracted typhoid fever in September 1831, it was reported that she had died, and so the holder of the note for $240 filed an attachment to her property. When she returned to Providence from visiting friends in Massachusetts, she discovered that all of her property had been auctioned off to pay the note. Friends persuaded her to enter a lawsuit before the Court of Common Pleas in January 1837 for trespass and ejectment because the sale at auction had not been legally advertised and she had not been notified. Although she lost the lawsuit, her conduct during the legal proceedings won her the admiration and respect of friends and neighbors. Eldridge was entitled, however, to recover her property after payment of $2,700 since there was no record of advertisement.

The Memoirs of Elleanor Eldridge was first published in 1838, one of the few narratives of the life of a free black woman.


Dannett, Sylvia G. L. Profiles of Negro Womanhood, 1619-1900. Yonkers, NY: Educational Heritage, 1964-1966.Find this resource:

    Greene, Frances Whipple, ed. Memoirs of Elleanor Eldridge. Providence, RI: B. T. Albro, 1838.Find this resource:

      Loewenberg, Bert James, and Ruth Bogin, eds. Black Women in Nineteenth-Century American Life: Their Words, Their Thoughts, Their Feelings. University Park: Penn State University Press, 1976.Find this resource:

        Sterling, Dorothy, ed. We Are Your Sisters: Black Women in the Nineteenth Century. New York: Norton, 1984.Find this resource:

          Vivian Njeri Fisher