The Lost Story of New York’s Most Powerful Black Woman

Elizabeth Amelia Gloucester appeared in the census for the final time on June 8, 1880. The census enumerators who crisscrossed Brooklyn Heights were no doubt surprised to find a wealthy Black woman presiding over Remsen House, the grand boarding hotel not far from Brooklyn City Hall that served the white professional classes.

Ms. Gloucester was a pillar of the Black elites who had prospered during the decades before the Civil War, when nine-tenths of African Americans were still enslaved. Remsen House was the jewel of the real estate portfolio she had established when she was a struggling young shopkeeper in bare-knuckled Lower Manhattan. By the spring of 1880, she was an aging Heights eminence, running her empire from the Remsen House residence she shared with her husband and children.

Elizabeth Gloucester presided over Remsen House, the grand boarding hotel that served the white professional classes.Credit…Brooklyn Daily Eagle/Brooklyn Public Library and the Center for Brooklyn History

Census workers were accustomed to listing women as the heads of households in which husbands had died. The decision to grant Ms. Gloucester this same designation — even though the Rev. James Gloucester was very much alive and present — reflected a rare recognition that she was the author of the family’s wealth and master of its financial destiny. This represented a victory for a woman who had come of age during a time when husbands subsumed their wives and their assets.

Ms. Gloucester was probably 63 years old on census day — not 60, as the census taker reported — and suffering from the heart disease that would kill her in August 1883. The residence at 144 Remsen Street was brimming with flowers on funeral day. The Brooklyn Daily Eagle described the mourners as a “congregation of people such as has seldom before come together in Brooklyn.” Fashionably dressed white people mingled with a who’s who of the colored world, including several prominent ministers.

Testimonials offered a glimpse of how the “wealthiest colored woman in the United States” had dispensed her largess. She aided the colored poor in both the North and South; conspired with forces that plotted the armed overthrow of slavery; she contributed to the Union effort during the war. The Daily Eagle praised her “marked energy and shrewdness in investing her earnings,” then reverted to the anti-feminist dogma of the day, endorsing the view that women “in the broader sense” were “better fitted” for the emotional rather than the practical side of life.

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