Walkabout: The Gloucester Family of Brooklyn, Part 1

Elizabeth and James Gloucester and their six children were a remarkable family living in Brooklyn during the second half of the 19th century. James Gloucester was a Presbyterian minister, the son of a Presbyterian minister out of Philadelphia. In 1849, he became the founder and first minister of Siloam (pronounced Shiloh) Presbyterian Church, which was located for over sixty years on Price Street, between Willoughby Street and Myrtle Avenue, in Downtown Brooklyn. After several years as leader of his congregation, he left the pulpit and became an herbalist and diagnostician who had a successful practice and owned several drugstores in Brooklyn.

His wife, Elizabeth, was an amazing woman who during her lifetime had several businesses, and bought and managed property in Brooklyn and Manhattan at a tidy profit. She was best known for the very successful upscale boarding house on the corner of Remsen and Clinton Streets, called Remsen House, which she ran for many years. At her death in 1883, her estate was worth between $200,000 and $500,000, which in today’s money would be around $4.5 million on the low end. She donated money to build Siloam Church, and gave money to many church and social causes. When Elizabeth died, her name and her life story were mentioned in newspapers around the world. Why? Because Elizabeth and James Gloucester were African Americans, and Elizabeth had been the wealthiest Negro woman in America.

There are two versions of Elizabeth Gloucester’s early life story. The first is that she was born enslaved in Virginia, but that version seems to be total romantic fiction, to enhance her life story, which was certainly quite impressive enough without it. Most scholars and most of the research points to her being born to a free mother around 1817, in Virginia. Her mother was a servant to the Parkhill familiy of Richmond, which, after the mother’s early death, arranged for Elizabeth to be raised by the Gloucester family in Philadelphia. Reverend Gloucester was the first black minister to be ordained by the Presbyterian Church, and Elizabeth grew up with the Gloucester’s ten children.

Sometime in her teens, Rev. Gloucester died, and all of the children were scattered, making new lives for themselves. Some went on to higher education, and most got jobs to support themselves. Elizabeth, by the age of twenty-one, was working as a domestic for the family of John Cook, a prominent Philadelphia Quaker. As all of the literature proclaims, it was Mrs. Cook who was to have the greatest influence in Elizabeth’s life. Mrs. Cook taught Elizabeth about saving and banking, encouraging her to put some of her wages in a savings account at a bank. Elizabeth was an eager student, and began saving; her money, recorded in a bank book, was put in an account that she kept open for the rest of her life.

Soon afterwards, Elizabeth was reacquainted with John Gloucester, one of the children she had growth up with. They began courting, and would get married. Like his father, John Gloucester had also been ordained a Presbyterian minister, and was working in Philadelphia as a teacher. Elizabeth had taken some of her savings and had opened a second-hand clothing shop in town, which was doing well. The family decided to leave Philadelphia, and move north to New York City, as John had been offered the opportunity to start a church. Sometime between 1837 and 1843, the couple moved to New York.

John Gloucester’s new congregation was meeting in Brooklyn at various locations in Downtown Brooklyn, in the area that today is covered by Metrotech, Jehovah’s Witnesses’ buildings and the entrances to the Brooklyn and Manhattan Bridges, between Myrtle Avenue and Dumbo. This was where most of Brooklyn’s free black community made their homes, living alongside a large Irish and other recent immigrant populations. The fledgling Siloam Presbyterian Church joined other black churches, such as Concord Baptist and Bridge Street churches, in this populous area. By 1849, when the church was officially designated, they were holding services in a building on Myrtle Avenue.

But the Gloucesters were still living in Manhattan at this time. Elizabeth opened another second-hand clothing store on Seventh Avenue, and a furniture store. In 1850, the family consisted of the parents and four children: Emma, Stephen, Elizabeth and Eloise. The family would later expand to include two more children, Charles and Adelaide.

The family lived in a house Elizabeth had bought on Hudson Street. According to one account, written after her death, the Adams Express Company wanted to build their headquarters on this particular piece of land, and paid handsomely for the plot, allowing Mrs. Gloucester to expand her real estate holdings, both in Manhattan and Brooklyn. According to all accounts, she never made a bad investment, and was as business savvy as any man in the business.

By the mid-1850s, the family was doing very well. Elizabeth Gloucester had donated money to purchase land and build a permanent church for Siloam, on a plot on Prince Street between Myrtle and Willoughby. Siloam Presbyterian would remain there for over sixty years as Brooklyn grew up around it. By 1907, the building was in need of great repair, and was condemned. The congregation had plans to build a new building on its site, but the city was building the Manhattan Bridge, and the entire area was razed for entrances and ramps to the bridge. After a couple of other stops, Siloam would eventually find a home in Bedford Stuyvesant, on the corner of Jefferson and Marcy Avenues, where they remain today.

During the height of the Abolitionist Movement, preceding the Civil War, Siloam was an active anti-slavery church, donating money and backing anti-slavery causes. Reverend and Mrs. Gloucester were extremely active in the movement to end slavery and advance the cause for equality for black Americans. Elizabeth was active in organizing fund raisers for various causes, including the establishment of the Colored Orphan’s Asylum in Brooklyn, a refuge for black orphaned and destitute children, none of which were taken up by other orphanages in segregated charitable societies. She donated much of her own money to this cause, and was a co-sponsor of galas and other events that were attended by both black and white donors.

The Gloucesters became friends and colleagues with many of the Anti-Slavery Movement’s most well-known activists. Among them was the fiery John Brown, who had grown tired of the talk and rhetoric of Abolition, and was ready to go to battle to end slavery in America. One of his last stops before he and his sons went to Harpers Ferry was to visit the Gloucester home. That remarkable friendship, and the rest of Elizabeth and John Gloucester’s life stories, will conclude next time.

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