The Rev. James Gloucester: abolitionist, church leader and herbalist

Herb Boyd | 7/16/2020, midnight
Among radical abolitionist John Brown’s most trusted supporters and benefactors was the Rev. Dr. James Gloucester.
Rev. James Gloucester

Among radical abolitionist John Brown’s most trusted supporters and benefactors was the Rev. Dr. James Gloucester. Last week in these pages we featured his phenomenal wife, Elizabeth, who was at one time considered one the wealthiest Black women in America. Obviously, the good reverend was not absent in his wife’s acquisition of property and prosperity.

There was clearly a division of labor in this provident household, and while she managed the family’s businesses, Rev. Gloucester kept their religious affairs in order, though both were extremely active in the abolitionist movement. As we shall see the business ventures became highly contested after Elizabeth’s death.

James was born in 1810 in Philadelphia, and was one of five children by the Rev. John and Rhoda Gloucester. Like his father, James was a pastor and the founder of Siloam Baptist Church in Brooklyn. It was one of the new independent Black churches being organized in the borough in the first half of the 19th century. In 1822, the same year of his death, public schools opened in the city for Blacks.

As we noted in the profile of Elizabeth, the Gloucesters were strong advocates of John Brown’s plans and unlike too many of his followers, did not end their allegiance to his cause even as it became more perilous by the time of his raid on Harpers Ferry. They provided him with some of the funds he needed and opened their home to his temporary stay in Brooklyn. Theirs was a trusted relationship but there is little else to report about it other than that visit in the late 1850s. They certainly had a reputation as conductors on the Underground Railroad.

For the next thirty years or so, the couple was a model family with no appearance of differences or conflict. But when Elizabeth died in 1883 things went awry and the turbulence and discord arrived staining what had been an enviable coexistence.

By the time of Elizabeth’s death, James was no longer the pastor at Siloam, and was making a living as an herbalist. Problems arose when Elizabeth’s will disclosed that she had bequeathed her properties to her six children. James retained an attorney and contested the will, declaring that she had been under pressure at the time she wrote the will and that he was the main source of the wealth. He claimed that Elizabeth used his money to acquire all the real estate and property, putting all the transactions in her name. The only resolution resided in probate court. One of the executors of the properties in trust was the renowned Dr. James McCune Smith. Dr. Smith, along with the co-executor, an attorney, was asked to divide the estate into seven parts to be shared by James and his children. There was not only a complication that after James’s death his property would be divided among his children, things got even more convoluted when one of the children had been dropped from the will, which led her to contest the will as well.