From slave’s daughter to landlord: “Free woman of color” became successful businesswoman

Special to The Ellsworth American

In the 19th century, chicken usually contained just chicken meat or chicken parts sauced with gravy and baked in pie pastry. I found a more interesting vintage recipe that brings to mind two remarkable Rhode Island women who shattered expectations for women of their time.

One, Elleanor Eldridge, was the daughter of Robin Eldridge, the son of a slave who had served in the American Revolution. Over a long and industrious life, she became an entrepreneur. The other, Frances Green, was a reformer and a professional writer. The lives of the two women intersected when Green heard that Eldridge had been defrauded and decided to take up her cause.

Frances Green wrote “The Memoirs of Elleanor Eldridge” in 1838 and sold copies as a charitable fundraiser to help Eldridge recover property that had been illegally seized. The author also thought it was important to publicize “an example of industry and untiring perseverance” who was African-American. The book was an “as told to” biography.
Elleanor Eldridge (1785 ca.-1865 ca.) was one of nine children of a poor family and had no opportunity for schooling. Family lore said that her great-grandfather was Congolese. When she was 10, her mother, Hannah Prophet, who was half Narragansett, died. Elleanor left home to work as live-in domestic help. That first job lasted more than five years. Besides doing laundering, child care and housecleaning, she learned spinning and skilled weaving. Over her next few jobs, she did more skilled weaving, learned dairy work, made cheese for the market, and painted and wallpapered houses. For years, she saved every penny that she could.

In 1812, when Eldridge was 27, she moved in with her oldest sister. The two of them made soap for sale. Eldridge worked in a hotel, in private families and in boardinghouses. Clearly, she was frugal. With her savings, she bought a small lot, had a house built on it and rented it out.

Between 1822 and 1827, she bought multiple lots in Providence and had a house built on one to rent out, reserving a

wing for herself. She obtained a private mortgage. On a visit to family, Eldridge fell sick, perhaps with typhus. Upon her recovery and return, she found that she had been declared dead, the mortgage holder had died, and that her most valuable house and property had been seized by the lender’s brother and sold at well below its market value.

Eldridge sued in court to regain possession. Though three male witnesses testified that the sale had never been posted as required by law, the sheriff testified against her, and she lost her court case. Frances Green and the supporters who bought the book by subscription helped raise most of the $2,700 that Eldridge needed, which enabled her to buy back her property in an out-of-court settlement.

In the antebellum period, it was rare for an African-American woman to become a property owner and landlord and to solicit written testimonials from former employers, as Eldridge did. In Chapter 1 of Green’s book, 14 people who had employed Eldridge wrote endorsements vouching for her character. Eldridge stands out as a woman of perseverance, ambition, and industry despite her lack of access to schooling or to the legal protections that white citizens enjoyed.

Frances Green (1805-1878) became one of the few American women in the first half of the 19th century able to support herself by writing. A social activist, Green wrote in support of abolitionism, workers’ rights, and political reform. She also was a poet and novelist and the author of “The Housekeeper’s Book,” published a year before “The Memoirs of Elleanor Eldridge.” This book of domestic advice included recipes. I adapted her recipe for chicken pie with mushrooms and ham.

The design motifs in Gouldsboro artist Camille Boisvert’s illustration reflect Elleanor Eldridge’s dual heritage. The five diamonds in the upper right are from a Congolese textile. The triangle and dots are from a Narragansett ceremonial piece. Boisvert’s work can be seen at:

Chicken Pie with Ham and Mushrooms

Two pie crusts for a 9-inch pie

3 Tbsps. butter
1/3 yellow onion, peeled and chopped
1½ cups mushrooms, sliced
3½ cups cooked chicken breast, chopped
½ cup cooked ham chopped

3 Tbsps. unsalted butter
3 Tbsps. flour
1 cup low-sodium chicken broth
¼ cup heavy cream
1/8 teaspoon sea salt
¼ tsp. white pepper
¼ tsp. nutmeg

Melt the butter in a large skillet over medium heat, add the onion and mushrooms and sauté them until soft. Put the mixture in a large bowl and add the chopped chicken and ham.
Preheat the oven to 425 degrees F.

In a heavy saucepan, melt the tablespoons of butter and add the flour. Whisk over medium low heat until the mixture turns golden brown. Still whisking, pour in the chicken broth and heavy cream, raise the heat until the mixture boils, then reduce heat to medium low. Whisk until the sauce thickens a little, then turn off heat and stir in the salt, pepper, and nutmeg. Stir the sauce into the chicken mixture and taste for seasoning.

Fit the bottom pie crust into a pie pan and trim the edges. Pour in the filling. Fit the top crust over the pie, trim and flute the edges. Make several slashes in the top crust. Bake for 20 minutes. Reduce oven temperature to 350 degrees F and bake another 45 minutes or until the top is golden brown and the filling bubbles a little at the slashes.





Merry Post

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