Elleanor Eldridge, businesswoman amid oppression
*Elleanor Eldridge was born on this date in 1785. She was a Black entrepreneur.
Eldridge was from Warwick, RI, the youngest of seven daughters and two sons born to Hannah and Robin Eldridge. Her father and two uncles, Africans brought to Rhode Island on a slave ship, earned their freedom by fighting in the American Revolutionary War. They had been promised 200 acres of land in New York. Instead, they were given a worthless sum; her father was eventually able to save for the purchase of a small parcel of land and build a home in Warwick. Her mother, who was part Indian, died when she was 10. Much to her father's disdain, young Eldridge began washing clothes as a live-in servant for the Baker family of Warwick, one of her mother's former clients.
This young girl, a favorite of Elleanor Baker, her namesake, made 25 cents a week doing laundry for the family. She also became skilled at spinning, arithmetic and weaving and became an accomplished weaver by age 14. Three years later, Eldridge began working as a dairy woman for the family of Capt. Benjamin Greene. She quickly became well-known for her premium quality cheeses. When Eldridge was 19, her father died and she put her skills and savvy to use settling his estate. She continued to work for Capt. Greene for five more years until his death. Eldridge then went to live with her sister in Adams, Mass. While there, she and her brothers and sisters started a business of weaving, washing and soap boiling.
Money from that venture enabled Eldridge to buy land and build a house, which she rented for $40 per year. After three years, she returned to Providence, where she contracted herself out for whitewashing, wallpapering and painting during warm months and laundering and miscellaneous work for private families, hotels and boarding houses during the winters. By 1822, she had saved enough to purchase another lot and built, for $1,700, a house for herself and a renter. While Eldridge did not marry, she made her mark in the community as an entrepreneurial force; her work was highly praised and she was much respected. Within five years, she bought two more lots and a house in Warwick.
In 1831 at the age of 46 Eldridge suffered from her second bout with typhus fever. While recuperating, Eldridge's condition a rumor circulated that she had died. Upon her return several months later, Eldridge discovered that a deceitful opportunist to had petition to have all her property sold, to pay off a $240 loan she had acquired just before her illness. The sale never combined her properties which were valued at more than $4,000 and were illegally auctioned off without family notification. She was able to claim rights to the property and Eldridge took her case to court to expose the law officials who lied about the process. Outraged friends charged that such theft would have never happened to a white man and certainly not a white woman.
During this time despite her own troubles, Eldridge did not abandon her desire for care giving. During a Providence cholera epidemic in 1832, many families escaped to rural areas in seeking safety. Eldridge escorted a family to Pomfret, Conn., where she cared for their sick child. In 1837, she represented herself in court and was able to regain her property for $2,700, in an out-of-court settlement.
Eldridge wrote “Memoirs of Elleanor Eldridge” in 1838; the book is one of few narratives of free Blacks in the 1800’s. It is believed that Eldridge died in 1865 at the age of 80.
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