|Date(s):||March 1794 to 1799|
|Location(s):||Kent, Rhode Island|
|Tag(s):||Women, African American, Law, Freedom, employment, Female, Freed Slave, Liberty|
|Course:||“The United States: A Nation Divided, 1836-1876,” Wheaton College|
In 1815, at the very young age of ten, the heroine of our narrative, Elleanor Eldridge, lost her mother. Elleanor's life story was penned in her narrative, Memoirs of Elleanor Eldridge. Elleanor was born into a very perculiar set of circumstances. Born in Rhode Island, she was the daughter of a free African-American Man and a female descendent from the Narrahganset tribe. The death of Elleanor’s mother acted as a catalyst that began Elleanor’s life of “self-government and spirited action”(2). Being born into freedom, she was granted many advantages that others of her race still did not possess. However advantageous the circumstances of her birth were, it still did not negate the inferiority of her position within society. It cannot be forgotten that Elleanor was still an African-American girl living in a highly racialized society. She was also the oldest child of the single-parent household with several siblings that needed to be taken care of. While Elleanor was not a slave in the general sense of the word, she was still a slave to the society she was born into. The death of her mother caused Elleanor to sell herself back into a institutionalized version of slavery, where Elleanor was a commodity to the people she served.
Upon the tragic death of her mother, Elleanor packed all of her belongings into a small leather rucksack, kissed each of her brothers and sisters, said goodbye to her father, and set out on a long, dirt road to seek work at the home of her mother’s former employer, the Bakers. The Bakers were an affluent Rhode Island family, who had been very fond of Elleanor's mother. Elleanor, possessing much of her mother's beauty, skill, and charms, was the natural choice for her replacement. Yet, before agreeing to the generous terms of employment that the Baker family had offered her, the ambitious ten-year-old proceeded to bargain the terms of her employment. Through this, Elleanor had placed herself in the “space between person and thing”(1). She was no longer in complete possession of of her own circumstances, and by extension was guilty of selling herself as a commodity, which could be bargained for. However, Elleanor had taken control of the situation through making her own choice of employer. She felt satisfied with the choice she had made for the Bakers maintained a level of respect for Elleanor and possessed the uncommon view of their servants as “belonging to the same great family of man”(2). Elleanor was aware that not all masters shared the same ideals as the Bakers did. Most employers maintained the practice of treating their servants as objects, instead of “accountable beings--as persons indeed, capable of independent thought, feeling, and action--susceptible alike of pleasure and pain, they are considered as the mere appendages of luxury”(2). Through choosing her own employer, power over Elleanor changed hands in Elleanor's favor.
As many faithful years with the Baker Family passed by, Elleanor continued to affect the conditions of her servitude on her own terms. After a year’s work, Elleanor requested that her weekly wages be raised to two cents. From a very young age, Elleanor learned the value of her services and herself as a commodity. From there, she set higher standards for the type of employer she was interested in working for. She was able to have control over her employment circumstances, which was a rarity for her time. She may have had to place herself back into a system she had been lucky to escape at birth, but Elleanor was able to regain control of her own personhood and avocation. She used her circumstances to carve out a place for herself within society as an individual blessed with the freedoms and liberties granted to her.