She ran boardinghouses whose lodgers included members of New York’s elite, raised money for an orphan asylum at the center of Civil War riots in New York City, and was active in the abolitionists’ cause as an ally of John Brown. And, yes, she was born in Richmond.
Editors’ Note: Excerpted from The New York Times, September 23, 2019. These are obituaries “about remarkable people whose deaths, beginning in 1851, went unreported in The Times.”
With a fortune built largely from operating boarding homes in Brooklyn and beyond, Elizabeth A. Gloucester was considered by many to be the richest black woman in America at her death at age 66 on Aug. 9, 1883.
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.
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.
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.
In 1857, after hearing John Brown lecture in Brooklyn, the Gloucesters invited him to stay with them whenever he was in town. By then, Brown had already drawn blood for the abolitionist cause when he led an attack on a pro-slavery settlement in Kansas.
Brown was apparently so impressed by Elizabeth Gloucester that he told her, “I wish you were a man, for I’d like to have you invade the South with my little band.” She responded with concern, “Perhaps you will lose your life.” He replied that he was an old man; his life wasn’t worth much.
The Gloucesters marveled at Brown’s spirit, the historian Stephen B. Oates wrote in a 1970 biography of Brown, “To Purge This Land by Blood,” and “promised to help him raise money and enlist support among New York City’s 15,000 black residents.”
Brown was apparently so impressed by Elizabeth Gloucester that he told her, “I wish you were a man, for I’d like to have you invade the South with my little band.”
She responded with concern, “Perhaps you will lose your life.”
He replied that he was an old man; his life wasn’t worth much.
Soon after, in hopes of inciting a slave rebellion, Brown and his men raided the United States arsenal at Harpers Ferry in what is now West Virginia, but they were quickly overwhelmed. In all, 16 people died in the assault, including two of Brown’s sons. Brown was hanged on Dec. 2, 1859.
Found in his carpetbag after his capture were many letters from his supporters, including one from Elizabeth Gloucester. It had come with a small contribution and had been personally delivered by Frederick Douglass, also a longtime friend of the Gloucesters’.
Elizabeth Gloucester soon turned her attention to helping the Colored Orphan Asylum, taking a leading role in an elaborate fund-raising fair.
The newspaper The Weekly Anglo-African gave the event glowing coverage, singling out Gloucester’s delegation for wearing nearly identical striped calico gowns.
But The Eagle seemed dismissive of the gathering. Apparently referring to Gloucester, it said, “The principal table is presided over by a big old colored lady, as downright in earnest as if she was disposing of clam-soup in Fulton Market.” Putting aside its racist tone, the article may have actually left us a portrait of Gloucester at her best: energetic, focused, in charge — and making lots of money.
Three years later, with the Civil War well underway, the Orphan Asylum, at 43rd Street and Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, was set afire and destroyed during the riots that had erupted over the institution of a military draft. The children escaped without injury.
Some years after the war, Gloucester spent a reported $3 million in today’s dollars to buy the elegant building that housed the Hamilton Club, an elite gathering place, at Remsen and Clinton streets in Brooklyn Heights.
The structure, which was renamed the Remsen House and later paired with an adjoining structure, was repurposed as a boardinghouse, attracting an affluent, largely white clientele. The Gloucesters made it the family’s home as well, and Elizabeth became its live-in landlady. Community groups sometimes held meetings there; Harriet Beecher Stowe, the author of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” and her brother, the clergyman Henry Ward Beecher, were said to be in attendance.
In early 1883, the Remsen House hosted a real-life drama involving a love triangle made up of a prominent anti-alcohol advocate, Eli Johnson; his wife, Mary, who stayed at the Remsen House while her husband crusaded in Europe; and their friend Henry A. Higley, a wealthy grain broker.
The theatrics, which included a violent confrontation in the Remsen parlor and the hiring of detectives to spy on Mary Johnson, became big news after her husband sued Higley, accusing him of romantic treachery. A Missouri newspaper blared: “LOST HIS WIFE / And Wants $100,000 From the Man Who Stole Her Affection.” An Iowa newspaper said: “THE SERPENT / Enters a Brooklyn Domestic Eden.”
Elizabeth Gloucester, by then ailing with congested lungs, was caught in the middle when Higley began visiting her to try to get her to divulge what she knew of his rival’s snooping.
Eli Johnson would be among the many guests at the Remsen House a few months later when it would host Gloucester’s funeral. In Gloucester’s obituary, The Eagle wrote, “She came to be known to every one in Brooklyn, New York, the State, and in fact throughout a great part of the country.”
Of course, wealth could not entirely shield Gloucester from the sting of discrimination. That was made clear three years after her death, when her name surfaced in an Eagle article concerning criticism of a “color line” in place at the Park Theater in Brooklyn.
“I called her aside in the lobby and told her that I would rather she would not use those seats and I would refund the money,” he said, “as many of my patrons objected to sitting in that part of the house with colored people.”
Gloucester became indignant, but “decided I was right,” Colonel Sinn insisted, after he asked if she would allow a black couple to “sit at the table with her white boarders.”
It was all, he concluded, just a matter of business.