During the late 1990s, self-proclaimed Jamaican psychic "Miss Geo" appeared in nation-wide infomercials offering tarot card readings, one-on-one psychic consultations, and spiritual guidance on matters concerning money, family, and love. Miss Cleo and her promoters, the multi-million dollar syndicate Wahgwaan Entertainment and the Psychic Readers Network, offered pay-per-call psychic service and attracted consumers via the Internet, direct mail, and through infomercials. Miss Cleo, whose real name was Youree Cleomill Harris, was not Jamaican nor did she possess psychic powers. Prior to taking on the persona of "Miss Cleo,'" Harris was an actress and entertainer in Los Angeles, California and Seattle, Washington and performed as a character named "Miss Cleo" in a play entitled Supper Club Cafe. In 1999, "Miss Cleo" and Wahgwaan Entertainment and the Psychic Readers Network were publicly accused of being con artists and frauds. They faced lawsuits in several states, and in 2002, the Federal Trade Commission charged the "Jamaican shaman" and her business partners with deceptive advertising, billing, and collection practices." (2)
Youree "Miss Cleo" Harris belonged to an established historic tradition of African American women who claimed to possess psychic and supernatural abilities. During the colonial and antebellum periods, some enslaved and free black women were considered conjurers, practitioners of magic, and spiritual workers who fused African rituals, traditions, and worldviews with those from Anglo-American Supernaturalism. (3) In My Southern Home or The South and Its People, black abolitionist William Wells Brown observed that "nearly every large plantation had at least one, who laid claim to be a fortune teller, and who was granted with more than common respect by his fellow slaves." (4) Antebellum British actress France Kemble in her account of her husband's Georgia rice plantation on Butler Island discusses the supernatural ability of an enslaved woman "prophetess" named Sinda. According to Kemble, Sinda was praised on the plantation because she possessed the gift of sight. Sinda was so much respected by the enslaved community that when she prophesied that the "world was to come to an end at a certain time, the belief in her assertion took such possession of the people on the estate, that they [the slaves] refused to work; and the rice and cotton fields were threatened with an indefinite fallow, in consequences of this strike on the part of the cultivators." (5) For some enslaved African Americans, the supernatural world was crucial in helping them cope with the day-to-day drudgery of plantation life. Some slaves believed that magic powders and spells would prevent physical abuse and being sold, and provide some with the courage and opportunity to runaway or defy their owners. Supernatural traditions and the use of magic charms and amulets were "integral to slaves" strategies of resistance" and "helped to build an inner and autonomous black world." (6)
Similarly, like their ancestors of the past, some African Americans during the early twentieth century believed that "supernatural traditions were integral" to helping them dealt and overcome limited employment and economic hardship, and race, class, and gender discrimination. According to Yvonne Chireau, "for many blacks, supernatural ism revealed why suffering occurred and indicated who or what was responsible, thus explaining and locating the disease or misfortune within communally based norms and idioms of the spiritual world ... and facilitated individual agency and empowerment." (7) African Americans' belief in the supernatural and the power of self-professed conjurers and mediums stemmed from cultural and religious traditions practiced by enslaved people, and from their encounters and experiences with un-conventional and non-institutionalized religious practices in urban communities during the Great Migration. Many black men and women turned to self-professed African American female clairvoyants such as Mme. Fu Futtam, Sally Broy, Princess Claudia, Mary Holmes, Prophetess Elizabeth, and others who were in the business of offering and selling hope and optimism to those who desired to take control of their private lives and their socio-economic conditions. Leading journalist and communist organizer Marvel Cooke noted that: "morbidly curious throngs pass through their [mediums] portals day after day seeking advice on all sorts of problems - primarily, during troublous times, those affecting employment." (8) Black female mediums, whether legitimate spiritual advisors or con artists, offered an array of services to the African American community. They provided spiritual guidance on issues such as money, love, and sickness; they read "tea leaves" and tarot cards; and they sold "lucky numbers" to policy players. Moreover, African American female mediums provided their customers with a sense of autonomy and empowerment over their public and private lives.
Black customers viewed mediums as intermediaries between the spirit world and God and human beings. (9) They believed that mediumship was a possible tool that could potentially help them ward off evil spirits, get a job and earn more money, or seek revenge on an employer, a spouse, or an enemy. For some African American female women, mediumship represented an alternative strategy in protecting them from domestic abuse, abandonment, and infidelity. Yvonne P. Chireau argues, "given the harsh conditions under which most black persons lived in the United States both before and after Emancipation, it is not surprising that an emphasis on alleviating suffering emerged in African American culture. The centrality of healing in slave and post-slavery narratives demonstrates the priority placed on collective responses to the diverse forms of affliction that blacks experienced." (10)
This article examines a group of African American female mediums in Harlem during the early twentieth century. (11) It situates black female mediums, astrologists, numerologists, and spiritual advisors within Harlem's informal economy and underworld of commercial leisure. This essay also examines why some African American women became mediums, their role in Harlem's lucrative numbers racket, and how various African American middle-class leaders and cultural critics perceived black mediumship. This study is guided by the premise that black female mediums used Harlem's informal economy and underworld of commercial leisure to create alternative avenues of income and to practice nonconventional forms of religion and spiritual practices. To supplement their meager incomes, some black women turned to Harlem's informal economy as a way "to make ends meet" and escape menial labor, and to create economic ventures that were independent of white control. As mediums, black women established numerology, hypnotist, and astrology businesses, sold "blessed" love charm, powders, incenses and candles, published dream and numbers books, and established religious temples and storefront churches. By participating in Harlem's informal economy, African American women mediums were willing to "use all the "resources the city offered - licit and illicit" to support themselves and their families." (12)
An examination of African American women mediums in New York broadens the historical narrative and scholarship on black women during the early twentieth century. It highlights the diverse and non-traditional strategies and forms of labor some black women developed as a response to economic disparity, unemployment, and to race, gender, and class discrimination. Exploring black female mediumship also illuminates the less familiar religious, spiritual, and cultural practices of black women, and delineates their importance to some members of the African American community. Moreover, an assessment of African American women spiritual workers also provides a more nuanced reading of African American life in Harlem during the early twentieth century. By paying less attention to commonly studied topics such as the Harlem Renaissance and Progressive era Harlem radicals like Marcus Garvey and Hubert Harrison, this study offers an examination of the often obscure and less familiar social and economic activities of African American women clairvoyants.
There is scant evidence on the actual number of African American women mediums in Harlem and little primary sources on their personal lives and experiences, and religious beliefs and philosophies. Many black women mediums, especially those who were working-class, did not leave personal papers or records that documented their public and privates lives. Due to the lack of available primary records on African American female mediums, this article draws from a host of primary sources, including the Works Project Administration (WPA) slave narratives and interviews, church records, and parole cases tiles from the New York City Municipal Archives. (13) This study also utilizes black newspapers such as The New York Amsterdam News (NYAN) and the New York Age to analyze the lives of African American female mediums. (14) Black newspapers such as the NYAN offer some insight into the public and professional lives of black female mediums. The NYAN's classified sections were filled with the advertisements and marketing schemes of mediums, crystal ball gazers, and self-appointed "professors" and "doctors" of mystical science. The advertisements of black female mediums highlighted their services as spiritual advisors, while capitalizing on the emotional instability of black men and women, especially the unemployed and those suffering from financial distress. Black medium "Mme. Reid," leader of the National Spiritual Church located at 37th West 125th Street, advertised to prospective customers to not: "Be depressed. Don't be broken-hearted. Let Madame Reid …