Much of Cambridge’s white entrepreneurial class was financed by this Black ‘laborer’ at Harvard
When Charles Lenox died in 1852, he left no will. It’s a curious lapse for such a savvy businessman. And savvy he was: His probate documents show that his estate was assessed as worth $14,911.43, or more than $500,000 today, at a time the average wage for a Boston laborer – Lenox’s recorded occupation – was less than a dollar a day.
His house on South Street was valued at $2,500. Its itemized contents included necessities and luxuries, totaling a few hundred dollars in value. There was $300 in the bank, plus $25 in interest accrued. He had a bit more than $400 cash in bills and coins.
The bulk of his estate was made up of “notes of hand” – IOUs – plus interest; the loans totaled more than $10,000, the smallest being $200 and the largest $1,550. On the list of borrowers were Cambridge merchants, a cigar maker and a carpenter, among others. One note, dated April 12, 1842, was for $500 plus interest owed by Oliver Hastings, the well-known housewright, lumber wharf operator and land speculator who built tens of houses in Cambridge, including 38 Kirkland St. in 1842 and his own house in 1843 at 101 Brattle St., placed conspicuously next to the Longfellow House.
In other words, Lenox was financing a significant segment of Cambridge’s white entrepreneurial class. To give some notion how much trust Cambridge men must have invested in Lenox, included on the list was Sidney Willard, the son of a Harvard president and a man who had held a number of elected offices, including mayor. This probate list included only loans current when Lenox died; we don’t have lists of all those students, professors and others who had borrowed in decades previous but paid off their IOUs.
All this information suggests three reasons for the historical disappearance of Charles Lenox. First, like small-town bankers who want to maintain their customers’ trust, Lenox probably maintained a high level of discretion regarding his business dealings. People in business don’t mind advertising their profits, but they rarely advertise their debts – or want them advertised by their lenders.
Second, there may have been strain between Lenox’s freelance business on the Harvard campus and his family ties. Lenox was likely a silent partner or at least somehow financially interdependent with Nancy and John Remond and their Salem enterprises. The Remonds were ardent and public abolitionists and involved in virtually every civil rights campaign in Massachusetts. By the late 1820s, their eldest son, Charles Lenox Remond – no doubt named for his uncle – was appearing at anti-slavery events as a public speaker. By the mid-1840s, he was perhaps the most-recognized Black abolitionist speaker in the country, and his arguments against slavery and discrimination were unforgiving. His siblings, particularly Sarah Parker Remond, were also outspoken activists. Whatever individual Harvard faculty members may have thought about slavery, institutional Harvard in this period actively discouraged abolitionism. Much of the college’s financing came directly or indirectly from donors and activities making money from slavery, and many of its wealthier students came from the South. Staying quiet on these issues may have protected Lenox’s business activities, which may in turn have allowed him to contribute in some way to his relatives’ activism.
Third, Charles Lenox was a Black man lending large sums of money to white men. Massachusetts had outlawed slavery around the time he was born. But in the following decades, public schools in Boston would not admit Black students, and public transportation services regularly refused service to Black men and women. While Lenox cleaned up after white Harvard students who neglected their studies and engaged in various forms of ruffianism, including, of course, destructive food fights, his brilliant nephew could never be admitted to the university. And yet, Lenox – written down as the pie vendor, the boot-black, the cigar-end saver – had managed to gain power of the purse over white men in need of cash, sometimes lots of cash.
The discomfort this may have caused white Harvard and Cambridge lingers in Samuel F. Batchelder’s “Bits of Harvard History,” published in 1924. Lenox appears in the chapter “Wanted! College ‘Characters,’” which had first been printed in the Harvard Alumni Bulletin in 1922, the same year Harvard was wrestling with whether it should continue to ban Black students from living in the dorms. Batchelder recycles Edward Warren’s description of Lenox, often using Warren’s phrases but adding fillips of early 20th-century racist humor:
… with a conscientious recognition of the sources of his wealth, he was always ready to place his funds at the disposal of the College. Many a hard-up student gratefully repaid at a later day a “small loan” from Dr. Charles; and the story goes that more than one professor in temporary financial difficulties was not too proud to grasp the helping hand of his dark-skinned brother in the educational vineyard.
When Charles Lenox died, he was buried in the Old Burial Ground. An impressive white marble stone was erected in his memory next to Susan’s stone. Acid rain has erased its inscription.
If you look at many of the old houses and buildings in and around Harvard Square or skim histories of early 1800s Harvard and Cambridge and wonder how some person or business managed an unexplained leap over a financial obstacle, you may be reading that invisible inscription, a tribute to one of the Black founders of modern Cambridge.
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.