News / USA

    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.'

    Multimedia

    Audio

    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."


    You May Like

    Wife of IS Leader Charged in Death of US Hostage

    Suspect allegedly admitted to being responsible for American aid worker Kayla Mueller, who officials say was sexually abused and ‘owned’ by one IS member

    Year of the Monkey Could Prove Economic Balancing Act for China

    China is up against a tricky situation on the financial front, facing the need to fight capital flight while also stopping a further slide of foreign currency reserves

    Runners Attempt 26-mile South Pole Marathon in Sub-Zero Temperatures

    How alluring is running 26.2 miles at 10,000 feet when it’s minus 31 Celsius out?

    This forum has been closed.
    Comments
         
    There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

    Featured Videos

    Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
    'No Means No' Program Targets Sexual Violence in Kenyai
    X
    February 08, 2016 4:30 PM
    The organizers of an initiative to reduce and stop rape in the informal settlements around Kenya's capital say their program is having marked success. Girls are taking self-defense classes while the boys are learning how to protect the girls and respect them. Lenny Ruvaga reports from Nairobi.
    Video

    Video 'No Means No' Program Targets Sexual Violence in Kenya

    The organizers of an initiative to reduce and stop rape in the informal settlements around Kenya's capital say their program is having marked success. Girls are taking self-defense classes while the boys are learning how to protect the girls and respect them. Lenny Ruvaga reports from Nairobi.
    Video

    Video New Hampshire Voters Are Independent, Mindful of History

    Once every four years, the northeastern state of New Hampshire becomes the center of the U.S. political universe with its first-in-the-nation presidential primary. What's unusual about New Hampshire is how seriously the voters take their role and the responsibility of being among the first to weigh in on the candidates.
    Video

    Video Chocolate Lovers Get a Sweet History Lesson

    Observed in many countries around the world, Valentine’s Day is sometimes celebrated with chocolate festivals. But at a festival near Washington, the visitors experience a bit more than a sugar rush. They go on a sweet journey through history. VOA’s June Soh takes us to the festival.
    Video

    Video 'Smart' Bandages Could Heal Wounds More Quickly

    Simple bandages are usually seen as the first line of attack in healing small to moderate wounds and burns. But scientists say new synthetic materials with embedded microsensors could turn bandages into a much more valuable tool for emergency physicians. VOA’s George Putic reports.
    Video

    Video Bhutanese Refugees in New Hampshire Closely Watching Primary Election

    They fled their country and lived in refugee camps in neighboring Nepal for decades before being resettled in the northeastern U.S. state of New Hampshire -- now the focus of the U.S. presidential contest. VOA correspondent Aru Pande spoke with members of the Bhutanese community, including new American citizens, about the campaign and the strong anti-immigrant rhetoric of some of the candidates.
    Video

    Video Researchers Use 3-D Printer to Produce Transplantable Body Parts

    Human organ transplants have become fairly common around the world in the past few decades. Researchers at various universities are coordinating their efforts to find solutions -- including teams at the University of Pennsylvania and Rice University in Houston that are experimenting with a 3-D printer -- to make blood vessels and other structures for implant. As VOA’s Greg Flakus reports from Houston, they are also using these artificial body parts to seek ways of defeating cancerous tumors.
    Video

    Video Helping the Blind 'See' Great Art

    There are 285 million blind and visually impaired people in the world who are unable to enjoy visual art at a museum. One New York photographer is trying to fix this situation by making tangible copies of the world’s masterpieces. VOA correspondent Victoria Kupchinetsky was there as visually impaired people got a feel for great art. Joy Wagner narrates her report.
    Video

    Video Sanders, Clinton Battle for Young Democratic Vote

    Despite a narrow loss to former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in last week's Iowa Democratic caucuses, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders secured more than 80 percent of the vote among those between the ages of 18 and 29. VOA correspondent Aru Pande talks to Democrats in New Hampshire about who they are leaning towards and why in this week's primary.
    Video

    Video German Artists to Memorialize Refugees With Life Jacket Exhibit

    Sold in every kind of shop in some Turkish port towns, life jackets have become a symbol of the refugee crisis that brought a million people to Europe in 2015.  On the shores of Lesbos, Greece, German artists collect discarded life jackets as they prepare an art installation they plan to display in Germany.  For VOA, Hamada Elrasam has this report from Lesbos, Greece.
    Video

    Video E-readers Help Ease Africa's Book Shortage

    Millions of people in Africa can't read, and there's a chronic shortage of books. A non-profit organization called Worldreader is trying to help change all that one e-reader at a time. VOA’s Deborah Block tells us about a girls' school in Nairobi, Kenya where Worldreader is making a difference.
    Video

    Video Genius Lets World Share Its Knowledge

    Inspired by crowdsourcing companies like Wikipedia, Genius allows anyone to edit anything on the web, using its web annotation tool
    Video

    Video In Philippines, Mixed Feelings About Greater US Military Presence

    In the Philippines, some who will be directly affected by a recent Supreme Court decision clearing the way for more United States troop visits are having mixed reactions.  The increased rotations come at a time when the Philippines is trying to build up its military in the face of growing maritime assertiveness from China.  From Bahile, Palawan on the coast of the South China Sea, Simone Orendain has this story.
    Video

    Video Microcephaly's Connection to Zika: Guilty Until Proven Innocent

    The Zika virus rarely causes problems for the people who get it, but it seems to be having a devastating impact on babies whose mothers are infected with Zika. VOA's Carol Pearson has more.
    Video

    Video Stunning Artworks Attract Record Crowds, Thanks to Social Media

    A new exhibit at the oldest art museum in America is shattering attendance records. Thousands of visitors are lining up to see nine giant works of art that have gotten a much-deserved shot of viral marketing. The 150-year-old Smithsonian American Art Museum has never had a response quite like this. VOA's Julie Taboh reports.