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Book Sheds Light on Black Elite in 19th Century New York

'Black Gotham' explores the experiences of African-Americans who lived free in the north, while the slavery debate raged in the south

Prominent black businessman George Downing and other members of New York’s black elite tried to establish themselves as full Americans, not merely as 'Africans.'
Prominent black businessman George Downing and other members of New York’s black elite tried to establish themselves as full Americans, not merely as 'Africans.'

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While many Americans are familiar with black slavery in the South during the 19th Century and its role in igniting the nation’s great Civil War, less attention has been paid to the black experience in northern cities such as New York, where so-called "freedmen" lived.

Now, a new book, "Black Gotham," by University of Maryland Professor Carla Peterson, shines a light on their remarkable stories.

Much of the history of black 19th-Century New York has been lost, in part because it was eclipsed in the popular imagination by the saga of southern slavery. Additionally, mostly-white academic historians minimized the contributions of African-Americans. And no comprehensive archive of black life existed until the 20th Century, when the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture was established.

Peterson's ancestors were distinguished members of the city’s black elite and she felt theirs was a powerful story that needed to be told. She spent 11 years researching and writing her book.

'Black Gotham' author Carla Peterson
'Black Gotham' author Carla Peterson

"Writing this book was very important to me," says Peterson. "It was a journey of hard work, but also of love and passion."

Led by free blacks such as clergyman Alexander Crummell, newspaper editor Charles Ray and businessman George Downing, members of New York’s black elite tried to establish themselves as full Americans, not merely as "Africans" or "coloreds" as black slaves had once been called and called themselves.

Like members of outsider groups before and since, this African-American elite considered education to be the key to full citizenship. They also embraced values of character and responsibility.

"A good, upright moral citizen, valuing temperance, a Protestant ethic of hard work, sobriety and all those kinds of inner values. Respectability then is the outward manifestation of character," says Peterson. "It’s in your appearance, how you dress, how you comport yourself, especially when you’re out on the streets of New York, and especially with whites. No loud, boisterous behavior but being utterly respectable and respectful."

'Black Gotham' explores the history and contributions of New York's black elite during the 19th Century.
'Black Gotham' explores the history and contributions of New York's black elite during the 19th Century.

That didn’t mean the status quo went unchallenged. Peterson's book describes salon-style meetings in the back of James McCune Smith’s pharmacy. Smith, who was one of antebellum New York’s most important black leaders, hosted lively debates about voting rights for blacks and the abolition of slavery.

Alliances with whites were often forged. And like white New Yorkers, many in "Black Gotham" also wanted to be rich - but success could be fleeting.

"You see black New Yorkers make tremendous gains and then lose. Gains in terms of entrepreneurship, finding a trade, finding a profession, setting down roots, buying property, and feeling they were at last becoming a genuine part of city life. They would refer to ‘color-phobia’ as ‘fast disappearing in our city.’ But then there would be a loss."

Racial violence was also an issue. Peterson cites a riot in 1834, which began in a chapel where both black and white choirs were scheduled to rehearse at the same time.

"And the white choir went nuts. It was only a pretext, but a race riot broke out, and a lot of black property was damaged. Saint Philip’s Episcopal Church, which was the church of my family, was desecrated."  

The Draft Riots of July 1863, during the height of the Civil War, were an especially low point in the history of black New York.  When President Abraham Lincoln instituted a military draft, many immigrants, especially the Irish, thought they were being asked to fight and perhaps to die in a war being waged for the benefit of blacks. Angry mobs set out to destroy the dwellings and businesses of the city’s prosperous African-Americans.

But there was also some goodwill between the races. Peterson's great grandfather owned a pharmacy in a largely Irish neighborhood. He was known as a kind man who gave free medicine and clothes to the poor.

"So they came to see him as a pillar of the community. So at the time of the Draft Riots he was warned to leave. A group of white merchants in the area came to him and said ‘You’d better get out. Your pharmacy is going to be attacked.’ And he said, ‘As many men who are going to come and attack me, there will be as many who come to defend me.’ And that is exactly what happened. His Irish neighbors protected his pharmacy."

Then as now, New York was an ethnic melting pot, and Peterson says many black New Yorkers saw themselves as citizens of the world. Her own ancestors had roots in England, Haiti, Jamaica, Venezuela, American Indian territory as well as Africa.

She points out that more than a century later, many American blacks still lack the educational and economic opportunities that the mainstream enjoys. But Peterson adds that she has been gratified to learn that many black groups are inspired by the struggles and incremental successes of 19th-Century "Black Gotham."


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