Community Figures: Black Women Entrepreneurs

Female-owned boarding houses did not simply stem from an ethic of care. In submitting advertisements to newspapers, Black women drew from a need to earn a living and, oftentimes, also from their desire to engage in racial uplift. Historian Juliet E. K. Walker indicates that about five percent of free Black women operated boarding houses, and that through advertising in the antebellum Black press they competed heavily, charging lower rates and offering more amenities. Competition such as this likely did not contribute to group survival, but "community based social activism" became extremely important to prevent fracturing. This kind of activism took place at the intersection of an issue important to the everyday lives of community members and a public issue.

Boardinghouses were central institutional structures where much of this social activism took place. Women entrepreneurs often functioned as community brokers, that is, they served as conduits between the polititcs expressed in formal meetings, and the planning, deliberations and discussions that could help these women to affect the changes they sought to see within and beyond their walls.

Household Leverage: Women's Political Engagement

By hosting boarders, and convention delegates in particular, Black women often used their homes for building avenues of political power. While they could not directly participate in the official discourse of the convention, feeding and sheltering Black men allowed that discourse to continue in their homes. As hostess, it was part of the woman's role to facilitate, interject, and participate the conversation around the dinner table. This informal participation gave women the opportunity to shape the votes and political decisions of the delegates, remaining part of the discourse.

While provisioning, women were also forming networks and exchanging information. They discussed political issues while preparing meals and in sewing circles.  They lobbied husbands, sons, male relatives, and guests and helped one another to formulate plans for encouraging and nudging the men in their lives to make important decisions in political affairs.  If women could not debate issues on the convention floor, they could certainly do so in their parlors, kitchens, and other rooms of their house. 


Researched and written by Jenn Briggs. Edited by Dr. P. Gabrielle Foreman.


  • Juliet E.K. Walker, "Boardinghouse Enterprises and Property Ownership," in The History of Black Businesses in America, 143-146.

  • Lois Horton, "Community Organization and Social Activism: Black Boston and the Antislavery Movement," Sociological Inquiry 55.2 (April 1985), 184.