COLORED CONVENTION HEARTLAND: BLACK ORGANIZERS, WOMEN AND THE OHIO MOVEMENT
Eliza Potter (1820–1893) was born in New York. She was a free woman of mixed racial heritage who worked as a hairdresser in Cincinnati. Eliza Potter was important to the 1858 Cincinnati Colored Convention. Though she was not directly involved with the convention itself, she was involved with the colored orphanage asylum serving as a lady manager and served on the board for the orphanage with Catherine Coffin. Eliza Potter was a well known and successful hair dresser in the Cincinnati area, however there seems to be no solid information about her direct involvement in the Colored Conventions. She was very distant socially from the Black community and due to her light complexion she was able to navigate through white spaces, if necessary. Eliza Potter was a very important woman in Cincinnati however she struggled to fit in socially in the Black community of Cincinnati. She was what could be considered well-off seeing as though she made a very nice salary as a hairdresser. Eliza had around $2,400 worth of property to her name when she passed, which was more than most women of color at the time had. She rarely spoke about her husband or children, but rather she wrote about her business ventures and other activities she participated in which were primarily in white spaces. Potter often navigated through white spaces which proved to be beneficial to other African Americans, for example she was a hairdresser for a southern white slave owner and attempted to convince the slave owner to release one of her slaves and that slave’s young child. Potter used her ability to go back and forth from white spaces to Black spaces to help other Blacks in Cincinnati gain more freedoms. Though there is little information given about how Potter is connected to the Colored Conventions it seems that some of her ambitions were similar to those who participated in the conventions, which were to help free enslaved Blacks and to better the lives of those who were already “free.”
Potter had a love for traveling and began her career at an early age. She traveled from place to place doing the hair of wealthy white women. Potter’s life biography allowed individuals to get a look into the life of a wealthy Black businesswoman during her time. Eliza, while she did travel from time to time later in her career she spent a lot of her time in Cincinnati. “In 1860 Potter was one of only four Black female hairdressers in Cincinnati.” (Taylor 135) Being that her profession was rare, Potter was able to find employment and be well paid for her work. Hairdressing was not the only important thing in Potter’s life. Being that Potter was a hairdresser for elite white women, she often encountered less fortunate Blacks who were enslaved as stated previously. Potter “Served as a trustee for the Colored Orphan Asylum and was arrested for assisting fugitive slaves to freedom.” (Taylor 136) Often times Potter used her privilege and her ability to navigate in and out of white spaces to help her fellow African Americans. While isolated from the general Black community, Potter did still have her family, though little is said about them in her biography. This being said Potter was often away from home with her clients which could possibly explain the lack on information given about her family and home life.
Potter was among the few wealthy in Cincinnati who were both Black and female. What can this be attributed to aside from her occupation being a well paying one? Potter’s light skin allowed for her to have far more access to things that her darker skinned counterparts did not have the ability to access. A large portion of the wealthy and elite Black class in Cincinnati was made up mostly of those under the classification of “mulatto.” Because Potter was under this classification she had access to education and she was able to establish her wealth fairly quickly, as well as her clientele of wealthy white women.
Written by Diamond Brown, Taught by Dr. Christine Anderson, Xavier University, Spring 2016.
Annual Report of the Manager of the Colored Orphanage Asylum. Rep. no. 11. N.p.: n.p., 1855-56. Print.
Beaulieu, Elizabeth Ann. Writing African American Women: An Encyclopedia of Literature by and about Women of Color. N.p.: Greenwood Group, 2006. Print.
Potter, Eliza. A Hairdresser’s Experience in High Life. New York: Oxford UP, 1991. Print.
Taylor, Nikki Marie. Frontiers of Freedom: Cincinnati’s Black Community, 1802-1868. Athens: Ohio UP, 2005. Print.