This brief entry in a volume entitled Register of Communicants from 1888 sparked interest:“Elbert Mrs. Henrietta L. (coloured) lives No. 60 Kendall St. A widow. One daughter – Moslyn, aged 15, both are regular communicants.” The social and cultural custom of listing a person’s race — if the person were other than white — which may seem perplexing, even repugnant, in the 21st century, is at least partially redeemed by providing an important detail that can refine and focus avenues of research: census documents, birth, marriage, and death records, military service.

Thus began the search to add sinew and flesh to the stark bones of the entry. Here is a typical nineteenth-century parishioner, born about a decade before the start of the Civil War and living nearly until the beginning of the First World War. It would emerge that her family by blood and by marriage stretched from Jasper, Georgia, to Canada, to Mexico. Henrietta was connected to the Church of the Advent for more than half of her 65 years.

Henrietta’s parents were Mahala Johnson and Joshua Richardson. Mahala was born about 1819 (some sources say 1816) in Maryland–her approximate age has been determined through censuses and other documents. The names of Mahala’s parents, Henrietta’s grandparents, have not been found; it is likely though not certain that they were slaves. (The population of Maryland in 1810 was 380,456; of those, 111,542 were slaves and 33,927 free non-whites.)

The story moves from Maryland to Massachusetts with the 1839 marriage of Mahala, then in her early twenties, to Joshua Richardson in Westfield; the Rev. Henry Batten, “minister of the gospel,” was the officiant. Joshua was born somewhere in Massachusetts around 1812. Their four children — Roseanna, Jane, Newell D., and Ellen — were born in Massachusetts between 1841 and 1847.

In 1850 Mahala, 31; Joshua, 38; and their children — now including one-year-old Henrietta — are in Hamilton, New Jersey. Joshua’s occupation is “farm hand.” (Other documents—specifically, Henrietta’s death certificate—cite June 1852 as Henrietta’s birth year.)

In 1860, Mahala, now identified as a widow, and her daughters are living together in Westfield, Mass. Henrietta is 9 years old; her sisters Jane, 17, and Ellen, 13, have “housework” listed as their occupation; Roseanne, 19, is a domestic in the household of David Lamberton, 55, a peddler; his wife, Elizabeth, 24; and children Alfred, 7, and Edgar, 1. Two other women live with them: Clarisa Loyd, 60, also does “house work”; Laura Pike, 20, is a whipmaker. Roseanne in the only black person in the household.

In March 1861,  just a month before the start of the Civil War, Henrietta’s sister Jane, age 18, marries James G. Minch, 26, a mason from Charleston, South Carolina. The ceremony takes place in Westfield, Mass., with P. H. Boise, Justice of the Peace, officiating. James is the son of James and Affa Minch; curiously, Jane’s patients are identified as “[blank] and Mahala.” It is the first marriage for both. Three years later, in February 1864, James, 29, enlists in the Fifth Regiment (Colored) Massachusetts Cavalry, recruiting from the office on the corner of Cambridge and North Russell Streets, and is mustered at Readville on March 12.


By the end of the Civil War, Mahala, now in her early 40s, is a servant — a “wash woman” — in the Westfield household of George Clement Fisk, 34 years old, his wife Maria, 29; and their children Charles, 11, and Isabella, 2. Fisk is a principal in Wason Manufacturing, maker of railway cars for that burgeoning industry. Henrietta, 15 years old, is also a servant, working next door to the Fisks in the household of D. H. Ripley, 54, in Springfield, Mass. Martha Ripley, 49; James, 21; Laura, 19. Ripley’s company, manufacturers of “checked cashmeres and doe-skins,” employed 35 to 40 hands to process 52,000 pounds of wool annually, producing 1,500 yards weekly at 75 cents a yard. Mahala is described as “black” and Henrietta as “mulatto” — not the first time (nor that last) that the race or color of mother and daughter would be listed differently.

Within five years, Mahala, and her children Henrietta and Newell are living at 30 South Anderson Street in Boston’s Ward 6, the west side of Beacon Hill. Mahala, 49, dies in the summer of 1870 of phithisis, as tuberculosis was then called. She is interred at Westfield.

Henrietta continues to work as a seamstress after her mother’s death. One sister, Roseanne, 29, lives nearby in Ward 9 (Bay Village West) with another sister, Jennie or Janie, 27, and her husband James Minch, and their children Georgiana, 6; Effa A, 4; Geneva, 5, and Godfrey R., just one day old when the census was taken.

Henrietta’s first documented presence at the Church of the Advent occurs on April 16, 1871–the first Sunday after Easter–when she is confirmed by the Right Rev. Benjamin Henry Paddock (1828-1891), fifth Bishop of Massachusetts, thus joining the roll of communicants. The parish was in the throes of transition.  The Rev. Moses P. Stickney, who had served first as assistant to two rectors, then as rector ad interim, had resigned just a week earlier. Soon two American priests who were members of the Society of St. John the Evangelist, an English religious order of men, would assume leadership of the parish. Thanks in large part to their careful and concise record-keeping, we can trace the history of Henrietta Richardson and her family over the course of several decades.

We don’t know when Henrietta met the man she would later marry, but some of his early history is well documented. Byron Elbert of Brooklyn, New York, enlisted in the Navy in 1866. He was 15-1/2 years old, a few inches over five feet tall. He was the youngest in a group of 21 young men mostly in their early twenties; there was one other youngster aged 16; and a Navy veteran of 12 years service, aged 35. Their occupations, when listed, were carpenter, machinist, boiler maker, marble polisher, currier, plumber. Ten were described as of “fair complexion”’; six of “dark” complexion; two as “Negro”; one as “ruddy” complexion, and Byron as “mulatto.” The size and location of any scars were documented (“small scar on forehead”) as well as the location and subject matter of the tattoos of more than half the men: initials, crucifix, star, wreath, American flag, male and female figures, a compass, and for one unfortunate sailor, an “imperfect anchor on left forearm and hand.” On this, his first enlistment, Byron had scars on his right thigh and left leg; he would go on to acquire tattoos during his time in the Navy.

His early years as a sailor were not easy. In April 1868, while he was serving aboard the USS Pensacola, his name appears on a Hospital Ticket at Mare Inland, California, with a diagnosis of secondary syphilis. The list of his possessions includes a hammock, a blanket, a mattress, shirts, “trowsers,” and a jacket; two caps, and two pairs of shoes. In October of the same year, he is again admitted, this time with “rheumatism” said to have been acquired in Mazatlán, Mexico in February or March. The fleet surgeon, J. Winthrop Taylor, also notes the presence of primary and secondary syphilis. Byron complains of “chronic pains and oedema of knees, ankles, and feet” and is treated “but with little improvement.” His list of possessions is largely unchanged — he is down to one pair of shoes and one cap, but now owns four books.

Within two years, he has acquired a tattoo of a crucifix on his left forearm; a year later, “Goddess Liberty” is inked on the same arm, and a “coat of arms” on his right forearm.

Over time, whatever treatment he received for his maladies had enough effect to return him to service as a Navy cook. Sometime in 1871 he met Henrietta; their first child, Albert J. Richardson, was born February 20, 1872, at Henrietta’s home, 67 Joy Street. The infant lived but five weeks, dying of unknown causes March 25.

Just over two months later, Henrietta and Byron were married by the Rev. E. Edmund of Boston’s First Christian Church, perhaps at Byron’s request, since Henrietta was a parishioner at Church of the Advent.

Listing for the First Christian Church from the 1872 Boston Directory.

Record of the marriage of Byron Elbert and Henrietta L. Richardson.

Their daughter, Moselyn, was born May 27, 1873, and baptized at the Church of the Advent when she was 16 months old. Members of the family who gathered with Henrietta at the Bowdoin Street Church for the event included Henrietta’s older sisters, Roseanna Mahala Richardson, and Jeannie Matilda Minch. Others present at the ceremony include Horatio Homer, a 27-year old-policeman, and Elliott Lewis. Henrietta added her mother’s first name–Mahala–and that of Byron’s mother–Augusta–to her daughter’s name at baptism:

Mahala Moselyn Augusta Elbert

At the time of the baptism, Moselyn’s father, listed in previous documents as “Byron Elbert,” had already died; no record has yet been found of the cause or location of his death. His mother’s maiden name, DeBois, is included in his name the baptismal record:

(Late) Alexander Byron DeBois Elbert

Henrietta, a widow at 24, would remain single for the rest of her life. She lived at various residences on or near Beacon Hill–Sears Place, Fruit Street, West Cedar Street–until she was about 50 years old. Despite the changes and chances sketched out in census and other documents, Henrietta continued to be a parishioner at the Church of the Advent. As soon as Moselyn met the four-years-old age requirement for the school run by members of the Society of St. John the Evangelist, she was registered. At age 13, she was confirmed at the Church of the Advent–now in the new building on Brimmer Street–on the Sunday before Easter, April 14, 1886. Like her mother fifteen years earlier, she was confirmed by Bishop Paddock.

By 1900 Henrietta had moved to Pine Street in Cambridge with 27-year-old Moselyn. A lodger, Maude Kennedy, 24, was an “errand girl” whose parents came from the West Indies. Ten years later, the census shows a more complex family structure: living at 74 Lincoln Street in Medford were Henrietta (described as Indian), working as a “retail warper”; Moselyn Elbert Collier, 37, a manicurist, twice married; Frank Collier, her husband, 29, a fireman, born to a father from Mexico and mother from Canada; and granddaughter, Louise Roberts, 7, possibly from Moselyn’s first marriage; Louise’s (unnamed) father was from North Carolina. The household included Henrietta’s unmarried sister Roselle, 69, a laundress; Dora L. Collier, 18, possibly Frank Collier’s sister; Henrietta P. Worthington, 25, a lodger employed in housework; and Thomas Henry Olga Singleton, 20, a general laborer whose father was from South Carolina and mother from North Carolina. He and Dora were married on June 11, 1911, by Father Jeremiah Lyons of St. Raphael’s Roman Catholic church in Medford.

Henrietta died in 1914 at the age of 61 (according to her death certificate) or 65 (based on the first census in which she appears); the cause was carcinoma of the tongue, which had metastasized to her neck. Her death was announced in the weekly message to the Parish of the Advent of the Rev. William Harman van Allen, rector of the church of the Advent, who presided at her burial service:

Henrietta, like her mother, Mahala, was interred in Westfield.

What became of Henrietta’s siblings? Of Ellen, nothing is found after 1860, when she was 13.

After Mahala’s death, Newell married a South Carolinian, Susan A. Rogers, whose parents came from Jasper, Georgia; it was her second marriage. For four decades, they lived on Stetson Place. He worked as a laborer, porter, and waiter; she was a laundress. They had no children. He is last seen in the 1910 census, 65 years old and a widower, living with Peter and Jennie Lawrence on Pressant Street in Ward 10.

The 1920 census reports that Roseanna, 77, lived with Virginia Lawrence (is she the Jennie Lawrence described above?), 70, who is identified as Roseanna’s sister. Also in the household is Henrietta’s daughter, Moselyn, 48, and granddaughter, Louise Roberts, 17. Both Virginia and Moselyn were widowed; Louise, who had never been to school, earned her living at domestic work for a private family. A boarder, Nelson Danbridge, 40, from Connecticut, was a waiter in a private club.

Jane and her husband, James Minch, had four children: Jennie Georgina Ellen Louise, born 1864; Effie Erminie, born 1866; Sarah Geneva, born 1868; and Godfrey Read, born 1870. They lived at 23 Trumbull Street in Boston’s South End when Effie died at the age of 12 from “valve disease of the heart” in June 1878. On December 3 the same year, the five surviving members of the Minch family joined nine other people from Boston–and more from North Carolina, South Carolina, and Texas–on board the Monrovia, bound for Liberia.

From The African Repository, Vol. IV, No. 1, January 1879. As of that date, a total of 15,279 emigrants were settled in Liberia by the American Colonization Society.

 Throughout her life, Henrietta was identified as coloured, mulatto, black, and Indian; servant, seamstress, laundress; daughter, sister, mother, wife, widow. Yet one identity remains immutable, unchanged: a child of God who found her place in the body of Christ at the Church of the Advent.