Born in Rhode Island circa 1820, Christiana Carteaux Bannister became a successful hair salon owner by the 1850s. She and her husband were involved in the abolitionist movement, and supported the formation of the famed all-black 54th Massachusetts Regiment during the Civil War. Bannister spent her final years in Rhode Island, where she raised funds for Civil War widows and the foundation of an African-American retirement home, before her death in 1902.
Born around 1820 in North Kingston, Rhode Island, Christiana Carteaux Bannister was an entrepreneur and philanthropist of African American and Native American heritages. She started out life as Christiana Babcock, and little is known about her childhood. Some experts believe that she followed her brother Charles to Salem, Massachusetts, as a teenager. Charles married a woman named Cecelia Remond, whose family ran several businesses, including a hair salon and a wig factory. It may have been through Remonds that Bannister began to learn about hairdressing.
It is known that Bannister was working as a milliner in Boston in the late 1840s. Around this time she married her first husband, a clothes dealer named Desiline Carteaux, but the marriage didn’t last long. According to Jane Lancaster’s biographical essay, “’I Would Have Made Out Very Poorly Had it Not Been for Her’: The Life and Work of Christiana Bannister, Hair Doctress and Philanthropist,” Bannister was living with friends in Providence, Rhode Island, by 1850.
Businesswoman and Activist
Within a few years, Bannister had started up a chain of hair salons in Boston and Providence. Calling herself “Madame Carteaux,” she advertised her business in William Lloyd Garrison’s abolitionist newspaper The Liberator, describing herself as a “hair doctress” who offered an array of services, including hair restoration and dyeing. She hired Edward Mitchell Bannister as a hairdresser for one of her shops in Boston, and the two married in 1857. Before long, with his wife's support, Edward Mitchell Bannister was able to devote his time to his burgeoning artistic career.
The Bannisters were involved in a number of causes, including the abolitionist movement. They boarded with Lewis Hayden, an important figure in the Underground Railroad. They also supported the 54th Massachusetts Regiment, one of the first all-black units for the Union side in the Civil War.
In 1869, Christiana Bannister and her husband moved to Providence, where their professional careers continued to thrive. Christiana sought to help out the families of African-American soldiers killed during the Civil War, holding fundraisers to benefit widows and orphans. She was also instrumental in the creation of a retirement home for African-American women, which she supported by soliciting donations and serving as a member of the operations staff. In 1890, the Home for Aged Colored Women opened. The home is now known as Bannister House.
Christiana Bannister fell into poverty near the end of her life. Not long after her husband passed away in 1901, she was sent to live at the Home for Aged Colored Women. However, Bannister was reportedly suffering from dementia by this time, leading to a short stay at the facility she had helped build and support; she was moved to the State Hospital for the Insane, where she died on December 29, 1902. She was buried next to her husband at the North Burial Ground in Providence, but no marker was placed for the woman who had done so much for her community.
It took until 2002 for Bannister to receive proper public recognition of her contributions, with the unveiling of a bronze sculpture bust in her honor at the Rhode Island State House. The following year, she was inducted into the Rhode Island Heritage Hall of Fame.
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