Portrait of woman

Dressmakers and milliners were certainly aware of their contribution to Black female empowerment. Apart from relying on their craft to sustain a livelihood, they also provided African American women with garments that reflected the esteem with which they held themselves. Above is a portrait of a lady wearing a well-fitted dress. “Portrait of an unidentified woman,” 1855. Courtesy of African Americana Collection, Library Company of Philadelphia.

At 20, Margaret Court was already working as a milliner while tending to her children. She and her husband, Edward Court, were members of the free Black community. Margaret Court’s profession complemented her husband’s job as a clothes seller. It was crucial for both to work at the same time to support their growing family. The couple would eventually have three children. In the 1830s, the Courts lived in the center of Philadelphia’s Black neighborhood but moved to Camden, New Jersey, sometime before 1850. In the 1860s, Margaret Court ran her business in Philadelphia while her husband worked in Camden.

Delegates recognized the importance of the work of women like Margaret Court. The first convention held in 1830 lauded their improvement: “Their specimens in writing, needlework &c. &c. made a deep impression on the Convention,” they declared.1 Margaret Court’s work as a milliner spanned 30 years; it is likely that her craft sustained her family’s survival. She fully recognized the significance of her craft and provided her customers the ability to “[tailor] their public appearances to directly counter slavery’s visual culture, to reclaim rights to covering and to sacredness.”2 Apart from securing her children’s future, Margaret Court also donated money to church projects to support her community. Her name appears numerous times in The Christian Recorder’s “Dollar Money Record” from Camden, New Jersey.3

  1. Minutes and Proceedings of the 1830 “Constitution of the American Society of Free Persons of Colour, for improving their condition in the United States; for purchasing lands; ad for the establishment of a settlement in upper Canada.”
  2. Jasmine Nichole Cobb. Picture Freedom: Remaking Black Visuality in the Early Nineteenth Century. (New York: New York UP, 2015), 121.
  3. “Camden, NJ-Rev. F.J. Cooper, Pastor. -Mary L. Bell, Thomas F.” The Christian Recorder, 4 Jun. 1874. Accessible Archives.