Monday, June 24, 2024

Edward Everett wrote of Charles Lenox while recalling his undergraduate days at Harvard. (Photo: Mathew Benjamin Brady via Wikimedia Commons)

Charles Lenox, “laborer,” died in 1852 in his house in Harvard Square a rich man – by some accounts, the wealthiest Black man of his time in all of Massachusetts. And yet today, he is totally forgotten. How had he built his fortune? And why would Cambridge forget such a success story?

Lenox’s success – and also, probably, a reason for his obscurity – hinged on his connection to Harvard. His first appearance in Harvard-related literature occurs in The Rebelliad, a popular mock-heroic poem written by a student soon after an epic food fight that broke out in 1818 in University Hall. The writer assumed that any Harvard reader would recognize this scene in the Yard: 

Hallow’d and bless’d be the Liberty Tree:
Where Lenox his pies, ‘neath its shelter hath vended,
We Sophs have assembled, and sworn to be free.

As always, Harvard students were a linchpin of Cambridge’s economy. Lenox and his pies were the equivalent of the food trucks found on the science plaza today. But these pies also connect Lenox to an important element of his story: his sister. 

Lenox had an advantage over most Black people in Massachusetts of his time in that he was raised by his own parents among his own siblings. Many Black men, women and children living in Cambridge and the rest of New England had been ripped by enslavers from their families in either Africa or the Caribbean to live alone or in very small groups in white households. Even children whose parents lived in New England were often separated from their mothers by the age of 4 to be trained for work in white households; this cruel practice continued after legal slavery ended in the 1780s in Massachusetts if towns deemed Black parents unable to support their children. 

It’s not known how Cornelius and Susannah Lenox, Charles’ parents, put the money together – some probably came from Cornelius’ Revolutionary War service – but they owned their own home in Newton. They and their children maintained close ties to each other, even as they fanned out over Eastern Massachusetts. Charles or his wife, Cinthia, probably baked his Harvard Yard pies, but they may also have been supplied by his younger sister, Nancy, and her husband, John Remond; before her marriage, Nancy was known as a talented baker and, after marrying in 1807, she and John built up one of the largest restaurant and catering businesses in the Northeast at Hamilton Hall in Salem. 

Although selling pies probably produced the seed money, pies alone would not build Lenox’s fortune. The next clue to his financial success comes from Edward Everett, writing in the 1850s about his undergraduate years, which started in 1807: “One or two persons got their living about college as general boot-blacks. Charles Lennox [sic], a respectable colored man, became in this way, I have heard, the richest man of his complexion in the State. He used to bring in his bill so much for brushing bootes.”

Everett brings Lenox into closer personal contact with students than simply selling pies would suggest, but polishing boots, like selling pies one by one, rarely leads to riches. It was the relationships that Lenox developed through his work in and around the Yard that were the key.

Charles Lenox was a visitor to the home of Dr. John Warren, seen as painted by Rembrandt Peale. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

In 1874, Edward Warren published a biography of his father, Dr. John Warren, who had been an army surgeon during the Revolutionary War and a founding faculty member of Harvard Medical School. Although, according to Edward, John Warren objected strongly to slavery and the slave trade, his wife inherited two Black men, Cuff and Quaco, from her father, Rhode Island Gov. John Collins, upon his death in 1795. (The 1790 census shows Collins as the enslaver of 13 people.) These men could not have been legally enslaved in Massachusetts at the time; Edward portrays them as faithful and happy servants, a common white description of formerly enslaved people in New England. Edward writes:

“Your father was always the friend of black men,” said Charles Lenox to me, in 1822. Those whose college recollections go back to about that time or ten years later, will recollect this important character, “Dr. Charles,” as he was sometimes called. He was for many years a faithful attendant of the students who employed him; and by dint of blacking boots, making fires, bringing water, etc., as well as by saving cigar ends, empty bottles, old boots, etc, he succeeded in accumulating a snug little property; and at the period I speak of, he was able to loan money to those professors whose narrow salaries compelled them to borrow.

Charles Lenox had been in the habit of visiting Cuff and Quaco….

Ah, then. Lending money and charging interest on it – much more than selling pies, blacking boots, or reselling cigar ends and empty bottles – is, properly managed, a way to build a fortune. 

At this time, individuals had few ways to borrow money other than by going to other individuals. The first mutual savings banks were just being chartered; Cambridge Savings Bank, the first in Cambridge, wasn’t chartered until 1834. Although Lenox may have been in the habit of visiting Cuff and Quaco at the Warrens’ large house in Boston, one suspects he was actually visiting Edward’s father, whom – from his compliment to Edward – he clearly knew well; it’s less likely he would independently know the two men from Newport. 

And the visits to Warren or the various medical students who worked and studied at the Warrens’ house may have been to collect interest on loans.


About the Cambridge Black History Project

The Cambridge Black History Project is an all-volunteer organization of individuals having deep roots in Cambridge. We are committed to researching, accurately documenting, preserving and illuminating the journeys, accomplishments and challenges of Black Cantabrigians, and to raising awareness of their stories through educational outreach to the Cambridge community and beyond.

Special thanks for research help to Charles Sullivan and the staff at the Cambridge Historical Commission and Alyssa Pacy at the Cambridge Public Library Cambridge Room.