Overlooked No More: Elizabeth A. Gloucester, ‘Richest’ Black Woman and Ally of John Brown



Here is an excerpt from an article by , featured as part of a series of long-overdue obituaries recently featured in The New York Times. In this instance, the subject is Elizabeth A. Gloucester. With a fortune built largely from operating boarding homes in Brooklyn and beyond, shed was considered by many to be the richest black woman in America at her death at age 66 on Aug. 9, 1883.

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Attending her funeral was “a congregation of people such as has seldom come together,” The Brooklyn Daily Eagle reported, made up of “richly dressed white ladies, fashionably attired gentlemen and a number of well-known colored people.”

Whether her fortune of about $300,000 (the equivalent of about $7 million today) actually made her the nation’s wealthiest black woman may be impossible to prove. Some white women were much richer; the financial whiz Hetty Green was then building a net worth that might rival or exceed that held by President Trump today.

But Gloucester was notable for more than just her money. She was linked — for a time dangerously so — to the antislavery firebrand John Brown, whom some blamed for leading the nation into the Civil War. She also led efforts to raise money for New York’s Colored Orphan Asylum, which would be set afire in the deadly draft riots of 1863. In her final year she even managed to land a cameo role in a high-society scandal that made headlines across the country.

Though The New York Times did not, for whatever reason, take note of Gloucester’s death, it did bring up her “richest” reputation seven years later in a brief obituary about her husband, the Rev. James N. Gloucester.

Elizabeth Amelia Parkhill was born in 1817 in Richmond, Va., to a freedwoman who may have served as a cook. Little, if anything, exists regarding her father’s identity, but census records listed Elizabeth as “mulatto,” suggesting that she had white ancestry.

Her mother died when she was young. She was then placed in the Philadelphia home of the Rev. John Gloucester Sr., who founded America’s first African-American Presbyterian church. His youngest son would become Elizabeth’s husband in 1836, and they would have eight children, two of whom died before reaching adulthood.

They soon moved to New York, then a separate city from Brooklyn. James Gloucester “did not have a dollar in the world, but he had a good education, and a good-looking, business-like wife,” The New York World later wrote.

Elizabeth Gloucester began selling secondhand clothing, and then ran a furniture store on West Broadway. Acquiring boarding homes, which often offered furnished rooms, may have been a natural next step. She would eventually run 15 or more of them.

Her husband took a teaching job in New York but soon moved into the ministry and, in 1849, founded the Siloam Presbyterian Church in Brooklyn (which still stands). Elizabeth Gloucester helped pay to build it. The family moved to Brooklyn in 1855.

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Here is a direct link to the complete article.


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