Elleanor Eldridge was an African-American woman born free in Rhode Island because her father fought in the American Revolution.
During a lifetime of hard work and thrift, she ran several successful businesses, accumulating an estate worth $4,800. In middle age, she had to defend herself in court against white people who tried to take her property from her.
An aristocratic white woman named Frances Whipple helped her win her property back with an autobiography that became a best seller.
Robin Eldridge, Elleanor’s father, had been enslaved, but he fought in the American Revolution in exchange for his freedom. He had’ also been promised 200 acres of land for fighting, but only got worthless Continental money. Nevertheless, he saved enough after the war to buy a small piece of land and build a house.
Elleanor Eldridge was born in March 26, 1785, in Warwick, R.I. She had six older sisters and two older brothers. Her mother, who was part Narragansett Indian, did laundry for a family named Baker. Elleanor’s mother died when Elleanor was just 10, and she went to live as a servant with the Baker family.
Her father disapproved of Elleanor’s choice. Elleanor, however, learned skills from the Bakers that would serve her well: spinning, weaving, cheesemaking and arithmetic.
At 17, Elleanor Eldridge went to work in the dairy belonging to Capt. Benjamin Greene in Warwick Neck.
She left Greene in her mid-20s to live with her sister Lettise in Adams, Mass. There, she and her siblings wove cloth, boiled soap and took in laundry. Elleanor also cared for her brothers and sisters and their children when they fell ill. She made enough money to buy a piece of land and build a house, which she rented out for $40 a year.
Three years later, Elleanor Eldridge moved to Providence, where she went to work painting and wallpapering as well as doing laundry and housework.
During the coldest winter months, she worked as a servant in private homes or boarding houses. One of her employers, Royal Taft, served as governor of Rhode Island. In her autobiography, Whipple emphasized “Elleanor has always lived with good people.”
She saved her money, and in 1822 she built a house for $1,700. She took in a tenant and continued to work hard and save. But she also borrowed money to buy several more house lots.
At the age of 47, Elleanor finally had to slow down because she came down with typhus. She returned to her family in Massachusetts, and rumors spread in Providence that she died. Her lender petitioned to sell her property so he could recover $420 he loaned her. Elleanor intervened and stopped the sale.
But then the next year a cholera epidemic broke out in Providence. She left the city again to accompany a family with a sick child to Pomfret, Conn., in order to escape the disease. When Elleanor fell behind in her loan payments, the unscrupulous lender had her house seized and sold.
At that point, Frances Whipple stepped in to help right the wrong done to Elleanor Eldridge. Whipple came from a prominent Rhode Island family, but dedicated herself to radical causes such as women’s rights and abolitionism. She also wrote poetry and, like Elleanor, was a single woman who supported herself.
In 1838, she anonymously published, The Memoirs of Elleanor Eldridge, which recounted the injustice done to Elleanor.
In the book, Whipple attacked the lender as racist, sexist and full of ‘willful malignity.’ She wrote that the attachment of Elleanor’s house was disproportionate to the debt and that the sale hadn’t been advertised as required by law. Finally, she argued the auctioneer sold the property worth $4,000 to the first bidder for $1,500 because Elleanor was a ‘laboring colored woman, who was then away.’
Justice for Elleanor
The book sold well. From 1838 to 1992 it went through 11 editions. It also made enough money to allow Elleanor to fight back.
As a person of color, she faced a huge challenge. At the time, for example, white men could — and did — assault black men with impunity on the streets of Providence.
Elleanor Eldridge sued the buyer, but she lost the case because the sheriff lied that he had advertised the sale.
She then hired two private detectives to find someone who actually saw the supposed advertisements. The detectives, of course, came up empty handed, and Elleanor Eldridge sued the sheriff for perjury.
The day before her case was scheduled in court, the buyer offered to sell Elleanor back her property for $2,100 and two years’ rent. Elleanor agreed to pay him that amount, but when she offered him the money he raised the price. Finally she had to buy back her property for $2,700.
Whipple recounted those developments in Elleanor’s Second Book. She wrote the books to demonstrate to ‘the colored population’ an example ‘of industry and untiring perseverance.’
The date of Elleanor Eldridge’s death is unclear. Some put it at 1845, while others believe she died during the Civil War.
In 2002, Elleanor was nominated to be memorialized by a statue in Rhode Island, one of only 35 to receive such an honor.
This story about Elleanor Eldridge was updated in 2023.