Although women’s work is often invisible or overlooked, our mini-exhibition Glimpses of Black Women’s Work, curated by Krystal Appiah, uncovers the working lives of a few 19th-century black women. The section Laboring for a Living examines examples of the drudgery and vulnerability to abuse faced by working-class and enslaved black women, while Laboring for the Race highlights some of the philanthropic and public service activities undertaken by African American women to strengthen black communities in racially hostile environments.
Laboring for a Living examines the practice of whitewashing, a fairly common occupation for urban blacks of either sex in the first half of the 19th century. However, most whitewashers did not achieve the success of Elleanor Eldridge, a free woman who established a lucrative whitewashing and painting service that allowed her to purchase several pieces of property. Elleanor nearly lost the accumulations of her hard work to swindlers who unlawfully seized her land. She tenaciously pursued the matter in court, and the sale of her memoirs helped offset the debt she incurred to regain her property. In an engraving on view, the muscular forearms of a female whitewasher are evidence of the physical demands of the occupation.
Laboring for the Race examines groups such as the African Female Benevolent Society, which sought to create “a company of sisters united to support and assist each other.” Prior to the creation of public assistance programs, mutual aid societies such those featured in this section of the exhibition provided their members with financial assistance in times of unemployment due to sickness or other unexpected crises. The Troy Society also served as a literary society, where “daughters of a despised race” could improve and cultivate their minds.
African American churches were often the only black-run institutions in a community. Founded in 1844, St. Luke’s Episcopal Church is the nation’s third oldest Episcopal Church with a predominantly black congregation. As with most churches of the era, black women’s leadership roles were usually limited to auxiliary committees, where they played vitally important but behind-the-scenes roles. The ladies of the St. Luke’s Society Sisterhood of the Good Angels committed themselves to ambitious goals including financially supporting their “colored clergymen,” paying off the church’s debts and liabilities, establishing Sunday schools, and nursing the sick.
Glimpses of Black Women’s Work is on view at the Library Company through To learn more about the latest exhibitions, programs, and events related to African-American history, visit www.librarycompany.org/paah/.