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Former slave Priscilla Henry made her wealth in US prostitution. Who was she?

By b0oua Apr 20, 2024
News

It was Priscilla Henry. This is a name that is completely meaningless to the majority of people in the United States and the rest of the world.

An African-American woman who lived in the 19th century, on the other hand, had a life that was worthy of being portrayed in a Hollywood film.

It was in slavery that Henry was born and spent the majority of his life. Nevertheless, once she was liberated, she started to collect one of the most significant fortunes of her era, which enabled her to buy the plantation where she was born. This was the beginning of her journey into the world. And all of this is due to the fact that he was the driving force behind the contentious activity of prostitution, which was controlled by white people up until that point.

BBC World conducted an investigation into the life of Henry, who is considered by some to be not only a supporter of racial integration but also a pioneer of female entrepreneurship and an advocate of sexual freedom. The investigation was conducted by consulting specialists and studying records.

Ashley B. Cundiff, a professor at the University of Wisconsin (United States), states in his PhD thesis on the culture of brothels in this North American nation that Henry was born in 1819 on a plantation in the town of Florence, which is located in the southern state of Alabama.

This woman, who was the eldest of six children, continued to work in the fields of southern landowner James Jackson Jr. until at least 1865. This was due to the fact that he refused to release her and other individuals who were under his authority. This occurred in spite of the fact that the administration of Abraham Lincoln had officially abolished slavery two years earlier with the signing of the Declaration of Emancipation.

“Mound City” was the moniker given at the time to the city of Saint-Louis (Missouri), which is located approximately 615 kilometers north of her native state of origin. The woman traveled there as soon as she was able to regain her freedom and began working as a domestic helper.

Julius Hunter, an American journalist and author of the book “Priscilla and Babe: From the Shackles of Slavery to Millionaire Madams in Victorian St. Louis,” noted that Henry moved to St. Louis because, at the time, laundresses made a better livelihood there than they did in other parts of the country.

During the course of his investigation into Henry and another madam of the period, Sarah “Babe” Conor, the journalist spent a total of six years seeking information from public and church archives, as well as libraries and archives of local newspapers.

However, the liberated woman does not spend a lot of time doing things like washing clothing and cleaning hotel rooms and living rooms since she quickly learns that sex is a much more satisfying and lucrative pastime.

Prostitution was a lucrative industry in St. Louis, just as it was in other communities along the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers.

Even though there were only 350,000 people living in St. Louis at the time, Mr. Hunter claims that there were as many as 5,000 prostitutes in the city throughout the 19th century.

The increase in the sex trade can be explained by the fact that the city became a magnet for disillusioned veterans, former slaves, adventurers, and gold prospectors after the Civil War. Because of the lucrative nature of the profession, in the year 1870, local authorities began charging registered prostitutes and brothels, as well as briefly legalizing the performance of sexual acts.

Henry’s venture into this region was not a deliberate decision but rather the outcome of a tragic event: the hotel where he worked caught fire, and he found himself at a boarding house where women who sold their bodies lived.

Because of her relationship with Thomas Howard, a former Confederate soldier who was also her lover, she was able to enter the world of paid sex. This was despite the fact that she did not possess any extraordinary physical qualities; on the contrary, several articles from the time period simply described her as powerful or robust.

However, this romantic and professional connection took a negative turn for the worst. Howard, who had come to administer Henry’s possessions, was accused of committing fraud against her and even of killing her for his actions. According to the findings of Professor Cundiff’s investigation, a niece of the lady asserted that the former uniformed officer had intentionally poisoned Henry with the assistance of Florence Williams, who was his personal cook.

The woman began operating a brothel that employed five black women between the ages of 19 and 30, according to the local census records. The brothel “became a meeting place for sailors and adventurers, white and black,” read the obituary that was published in the St. Louis Post Dispatch in November 1895 on the occasion of Henry’s passing.

“There was a lady in town named Eliza Haycraft who was the queen of the ‘brothels.’ When she passed away in 1871, she left a hole that Henry and his followers took advantage of since they believed he was the right person to fill it. When it came to the field, it was time for women of color to enter it. Upon her passing, Haycraft left behind a total of thirty million dollars and property, according to Hunter.

Not only did she participate to the fight against racial discrimination, but she also contributed to the liberation of women. Professor Collins, for his part, is of the opinion that forgetting the madam is an injustice.

“Despite the fact that she passed away with $3.7 million in her possession, which is an astounding amount considering the circumstances in which she lived, this is hardly Henry’s most notable accomplishment. “She had a large number of men as clients in business, and she was associated with important and influential people, whom she encouraged to lobby against sex work regulations that limited their beliefs about women’s bodily autonomy and entrepreneurship,” he stated.

It was also stated by her that the existence of Ms. Henry had the effect of eradicating some prejudices. “She helped legitimize sex work as a real industry, broke cultural stereotypes of black women as brilliant and creative business leaders, and broke stereotypes of black women in general.”

Finally, Mr. Hunter expressed his regret that the narrative of this woman had been disregarded for such a considerable amount of time, despite the fact that it was a part of the history of the city.

The conservative approach that St. Louis had on race relations was in stark contrast to the liberal stance that the city took on prostitutes. For instance, following the conclusion of the Civil War, state authorities enacted laws that extended the length of prison sentences for individuals who attempted to marry persons of a different skin color and for individuals who had sexual relations with people of a different race or color.

The businesswoman maintained separate premises in order to avoid any potential conflicts with the authorities. She extended a warm welcome to people of color in some of them, while in others she welcomed white people. At the same time, white males were permitted to enter both facilities, but black men were not permitted to do so.

According to Ms. Cundiff, “She structured her business in such a way that she could speak to an audience of white men while still respecting laws against miscegenation.”

“She understood that these laws were intended to prevent black men from having relationships with white women, but were more lenient when it came to white men having relationships with black women,” he added. “She was aware of this.”

Henry had a long relationship with the police in order to maintain this unstable divide of homes based on race, and as a result, his business received protection, the expert stated in her investigation. “Henry’s business was protected as a result of this relationship.”

Henry’s business was able to flourish as a result of his ability to dodge rules, and over the course of time, the madam (Lady) purchased additional properties in the town. She either transformed these houses into brothels or rented them out to her colleagues so that they could use them as brothels.

Even though she was illiterate, this woman was able to build a substantial wealth, which was believed to be $100,000 at the time of her death in 1895, which is equivalent to around $3,700,000 in today’s currency.

In light of the fact that the sex trade was illegal for the most of his working life, he made it his business to ensure that things were not written down. The majority of his business was conducted by handshakes. BBC Mundo was informed by Mali Collins, a professor at the Center for African American Studies at American University in Washington (United States), that this is a situation that is advantageous.

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