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Breaking Barriers: 6 Daring Black Women Entrepreneurs from the 19th Century

The 19th century was a time of great social, political, and economic upheaval in the United States. The country was expanding westward, the Industrial Revolution was transforming the economy, and the Civil War struggled on the issue of slavery. Despite the many challenges Black and Brown women faced during this period, some still managed to establish and run successful businesses, often in the face of discrimination and limited opportunities. This article will highlight some of these remarkable women and their achievements.

1. Rebecca Lee Crumpler (1831-1895)

Source: Wikipedia

Rebecca Lee Crumpler was a pioneering African American physician and the first Black woman to earn a medical degree in the United States. While her career as a physician is well known, Crumpler was also successful in her business pursuits.

After completing her medical studies in 1864, Crumpler moved to Richmond, Virginia, where she established her medical practice. She faced numerous challenges as a Black woman practicing medicine when discrimination and racism were rampant, but she persisted and built a successful practice.

Crumpler's business success was partly due to her innovative healthcare approach. She focused on preventative medicine and health education and made house calls to patients who could not afford to come to her office. She also provided medical care to women and children, often neglected by male physicians.

Crumpler's success in business and medicine inspired many, particularly Black women, who aspired to be in medicine. She used her position to advocate for the rights of African Americans and women, and she was an essential voice in the fight for social justice.

Thus, Rebecca Lee Crumpler's success as a physician was remarkable, but her achievements as a businesswoman were equally impressive. She overcame significant obstacles to establish a successful medical practice and used her success to improve the lives of others. Crumpler's legacy is an inspiration for Black women in medicine and beyond.

2. Elizabeth Keckley (1818-1907)

Source: Library of Congress

Elizabeth Keckley was an accomplished seamstress and fashion designer who lived from 1818 to 1907. She was born into slavery in Virginia but bought her freedom and established a successful business in Washington, D.C.

Keckley's success as a businesswoman was partly due to her exceptional seamstress skill. She began sewing at a young age and quickly developed a reputation for meticulous craftsmanship and attention to detail. She was hired by some of the most prominent women in Washington, D.C., including Mary Todd Lincoln, the wife of President Abraham Lincoln.


Keckley's relationship with Mary Todd Lincoln was significant to her business success. She became the first African American woman to own and operate a dressmaking business in the capital. Her association with the First Lady brought her widespread publicity and a steady stream of high-profile clients.

Keckley also used her success to advocate for the rights of African Americans. She established the Contraband Relief Association, which provided support to formerly enslaved people who had escaped to freedom in Washington, D.C. She also wrote a memoir, "Behind the Scenes, or, Thirty Years a Slave, and Four Years in the White House," which provided a rare glimpse into the lives of African Americans during the Civil War era.


Lastly, Elizabeth Keckley's success as a businesswoman was a testament to her exceptional talent as a seamstress and her ability to navigate the complex racial and gender dynamics of her time. She used her success to advocate for the rights of others and to promote social justice, leaving behind a legacy that continues to inspire and empower.

3. Susie King Taylor (1848-1912)

Source: Wikipedia

Susie King Taylor was an African American nurse and teacher who lived from 1848 to 1912. She was the first African American army nurse and the only African American woman to publish a memoir of her wartime experiences.


While she did not have a business of her own, Taylor's success was in her advocacy for education and her work as a teacher. After the Civil War, she established a school for formerly enslaved people in Georgia. She continued to teach throughout her life, providing educational opportunities to African American children who had been denied access to formal education.

4. Emilie Davis (1839 - 1899)
Source: Nps.gov

Emilie Davis was an African-American entrepreneur who lived in the 19th century. She was born in 1839 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and worked as a seamstress before becoming a successful businesswoman.

In 1863, Davis began keeping a diary documenting her daily life, including her business activities. She owned and operated a dressmaking business catering to Philadelphia's upper class, including many African American community members. She created high-quality, fashion-driven clothing for her clients, which helped her gain a loyal customer base.


Davis also worked as a teacher and was active in her church and the African American community. She used her position as a successful businesswoman to help other African Americans in Philadelphia by providing financial support and donating her time to charitable organizations.


Davis's diary provides a glimpse into the life of a successful African-American entrepreneur in the 19th century. It highlights her challenges as a woman and an African American in a primarily segregated and discriminatory society. Despite these obstacles, Davis built a successful business and became a respected community member.


Emilie Davis's legacy as an entrepreneur and community leader inspires many. Her story serves as a reminder of the resilience and determination of African-Americans in the face of adversity.

5. Mary Fields (1832-1914)

Source: Wikipedia

Mary Fields, also known as "Stagecoach Mary," was a pioneering African American businesswoman who lived from 1832 to 1914. She was the first African American woman to work for the U.S. Postal Service and to run her own business in Montana.


Fields' success was due in part to her remarkable strength and resilience. She was known for her tough demeanor and ability to handle difficult situations. She was a skilled markswoman and could hold her own against men in a fight.


Fields' business success came from her ownership of a restaurant in Montana. She provided food and lodging to railroad workers and travelers passing through the town. Her restaurant was known for its delicious food and friendly atmosphere. The community respected her hard work and entrepreneurial skills.


Fields' legacy as a trailblazing businesswoman and community leader continues to inspire and empower African American women today. Her life demonstrated the importance of perseverance, resilience, and self-determination in achieving success in the face of adversity.


6. Lydia Newman (1885)

Source: Wikipedia

Lydia Newman was an African American inventor and entrepreneur best known for inventing an improved hairbrush in 1898.


Newman was born in 1828 in New York and worked as a dressmaker before turning her attention to becoming an inventor. She was frustrated with the hairbrushes of her time, which were uncomfortable to use and often damaged hair. In response, she designed a new hairbrush with curved bristles that would not scratch the scalp and a detachable handle that made it easier to clean.


Newman filed a patent application for her invention on November 15, 1898, and was granted US Patent No. 614,335 on November 22, 1898. She became the first African American woman to receive a patent, and the much-improved hairbrush quickly gained popularity.


Newman founded the "Newman Manufacturing Company" and began manufacturing and selling her hairbrushes. She also expanded her product line to include other beauty and grooming products, such as hair dye and scalp treatments. Newman's business was successful, and she continued to innovate and improve her products throughout her career.


Despite facing significant challenges as a woman and a person of color in the 19th century, Newman persevered and succeeded as an inventor and entrepreneur. Her legacy lives on as a pioneering figure in the history of black entrepreneurship and women's rights.


It's important to note that these Black and Brown women faced challenges with limited access and resources, but they persevered and became immensely successful. They left a legacy still intact today and an inspiration for today's Black and Brown women entrepreneurs.

Did we forget someone? Let us know! Also, we strive for accuracy. If you notice an error please email us at contact@blackgirlventures.org.


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