Black Gotham

Black Gotham: A Family History of African Americans in Nineteenth-Century New York City

Copyright Date: 2011
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 352
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  • Book Info
    Black Gotham
    Book Description:

    Part detective tale, part social and cultural narrative,Black Gothamis Carla Peterson's riveting account of her quest to reconstruct the lives of her nineteenth-century ancestors. As she shares their stories and those of their friends, neighbors, and business associates, she illuminates the greater history of African-American elites in New York City.

    Black Gothamchallenges many of the accepted "truths" about African-American history, including the assumption that the phrase "nineteenth-century black Americans" means enslaved people, that "New York state before the Civil War" refers to a place of freedom, and that a black elite did not exist until the twentieth century. Beginning her story in the 1820s, Peterson focuses on the pupils of the Mulberry Street School, the graduates of which went on to become eminent African-American leaders. She traces their political activities as well as their many achievements in trade, business, and the professions against the backdrop of the expansion of scientific racism, the trauma of the Civil War draft riots, and the rise of Jim Crow.

    Told in a vivid, fast-paced style,Black Gothamis an important account of the rarely acknowledged achievements of nineteenth-century African Americans and brings to the forefront a vital yet forgotten part of American history and culture.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-16409-1
    Subjects: History, Sociology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. vii-viii)
  4. A Note on Language
    (pp. ix-xi)
    (pp. 1-32)

    I entered the manuscript room of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture with some trepidation. It was brightly lit, uncluttered, and utterly silent. The archivists politely asked me to store my coat and bag in a locker outside the door, and then directed me to a seat facing them at a long, low, bare wooden table. They provided me with paper and pencil and left to retrieve the material I had asked for. Clearly, this was not a place for dilettantes. No chattering allowed, and please refrain from loud exclamations or emotional outbursts.

    You’re looking for a needle...

  6. Part 1: Lower Manhattan, 1795–1865
    • CHAPTER ONE Collect Street: CIRCA 1819
      (pp. 35-62)

      Where to start? I stared at the two obituaries and settled on that of the older man, my great-great-grandfather Peter Guignon, hoping to find information abouthisparents. But Alexander Crummell’s references to his friend’s background were circumspect. “Peter’s mother,” he wrote guardedly, “was a native of the West Indies and came thence to the city of New York and resided there until her death.” The sentence raised more questions than it answered. What part of the West Indies did Peter’s mother come from? Who was his father and what was his racial identity? Further information came to me in...

    • CHAPTER TWO The Mulberry Street School: CIRCA 1828
      (pp. 63-92)

      The white philanthropists who founded the Mulberry Street School placed it in the heart of the Five Points, an area that encompassed an intersection of three streets—Orange, Cross, and Anthony—as well as several adjacent streets—Centre, Pearl, Leonard, Mulberry, and others. It was home to many black families and institutions.

      I haven’t come across any contemporaneous accounts of the Five Points written by its black inhabitants. Instead, it’s Charles Dickens who penned the most memorable portrayal of the area after his tour of the United States in the early 1840s:

      Poverty, wretchedness, and vice are rife enough where...

    • CHAPTER THREE The Young Graduates: CIRCA 1834
      (pp. 93-116)

      In his diary entry of December 17, 1835, eminent Knickerbocker and former New York mayor Philip Hone described with anguish “the most awful calamity which has ever visited these United States.” He was referring to the Great Fire of 1835, which destroyed nineteen blocks and 674 buildings in Lower Manhattan, costing more than $15 million and resulting in enormous economic repercussions. Yet, if Hone could have forecast the future, he might have reserved the distinction of “most awful” for the Panic of 1837 in which bust followed boom. Freed from federal restrictions, banks issued notes in excess of what they...

    • CHAPTER FOUR Community Building: CIRCA 1840
      (pp. 117-146)

      By the late 1830s, Peter and most of the other Mulberry Street School graduates had regrouped in the city. For them, it was an invigorating period of maturation and emergence into adulthood. On any given night, passersby could observe the young men streaming into Philomathean Hall at 161 Duane Street. The physical structure of the hall has disappeared from historical memory, yet the significance the place held for black New Yorkers remains alive in the archives. The building was a mecca of civic activism for black youth and “old heads” alike, beckoning them to take part in the community’s many...

    • CHAPTER FIVE A Black Aristocracy: CIRCA 1847
      (pp. 147-187)

      At midcentury, black New Yorkers found that life, if anything, had grown harsher and more unforgiving. Facing stiff competition from immigrant labor, particularly the Irish, and increased racism from all quarters, black workers found themselves forced out of jobs they had traditionally held as porters, dockhands, waiters, barbers, and cooks, and reduced to the most unskilled and menial forms of labor. Housing conditions were poor. The school situation remained lamentable. Gone were the Philomathean, Phoenix, and Phoenixonian Societies, the New York Political Association, and theColored American. Until Frederick Douglass founded theNorth Starin Rochester in 1847, black New...

    • CHAPTER SIX Whimsy and Resistance: CIRCA 1853
      (pp. 188-222)

      Frederick douglass was dead wrong. Instead of bearing witness to the waning of racial prejudice, the 1850s gave birth to what we commonly call “scientific racism.” At first, its proponents simply referred to it as “the nigger business.” Then, when they began to fancy themselves men of science and sought to endow their work with gravitas, they coined the term “niggerology.” Consider some of the scientific arguments made by proslavery southerners.

      John M. Daniel: “Negroes are notmen, in the sense in which the term is used by the Declaration of Independence.”

      E. N. Elliott: “The Negro is . ....

    • CHAPTER SEVEN The Draft Riots: JULY 1863
      (pp. 223-260)

      It was a lottery—the simple act of reading names drawn from a barrel—that sparked the riot. Early on the morning of Monday, July 13, 1863, hundreds of white workers from the Ninth Ward took to the streets. The weather was infernally hot. In his diary, George Templeton Strong described the day as a “deadly muggy sort with a muddy sky and lifeless air.” It matched the surly mood of the crowd. Rather than proceed to their places of employment, they converged on Central Park where they held a brief meeting. Holding high “No Draft” placards, they then descended...

    • CHAPTER EIGHT Union and Disunion: CIRCA 1864
      (pp. 261-280)

      Black new yorkers were energized. They had found allies—predictable and unpredictable—within the white community and believed that, as they worked together, freedom, citizenship, and national reconciliation would soon be more than a promise. Almost immediately, however, they faced a dizzying cycle of acceptance and rejection, union and disunion, both in the nation and in their own community.

      After the riots, Union League Club members decided to do the unthinkable and recruit a black regiment, ultimately raising three: the Twentieth, Twenty-sixth, and Thirty-first Regiments of the United States Colored Troops. Filled with pride, they documented their efforts in an...

  7. Part 2: Brooklyn, 1865–1895
    • CHAPTER NINE Peter Guignon’s Private Wars: CIRCA 1862
      (pp. 283-309)

      The draft riots had inflicted untold hardships on New York’s black population, the effects of which would reverberate for years to come. I wondered how those who, like Peter Guignon, had moved to Brooklyn fared in the years leading up to the Civil War. I pretty much lost sight of Peter after his appearance at Albro Lyons’s and James McCune Smith’s side during the mass meeting for James Hamlet in City Hall Park in 1850. I knew that he married Cornelia Ray sometime in the 1840s and that their first child, Peter Jr., was born in 1849. Although Peter and...

    • CHAPTER TEN Philip White in Brooklyn: CIRCA 1875
      (pp. 310-344)

      According to the city directories, Philip White moved his home from Lower Manhattan to Brooklyn in 1870, but maintained his pharmacy in its same location until his death in 1891. The date puzzled me. Why hadn’t my great-grandfather left in the aftermath of the draft riots, which had traumatized so many in his community? Did he believe that the protection of his neighbors and the kindness of local businessmen during the riots meant that his safety was assured for years to come and that he could continue building up his drugstore business without worrying?

      If Philip hadn’t moved in 1863,...

    • CHAPTER ELEVEN New Women, New Men at Century’s End
      (pp. 345-384)

      As the century drew to a close, many black elite families continued to prosper, but across the nation the racial landscape was increasingly grim. The demise of Reconstruction in the late 1870s ushered in a period often referred to as the “nadir” that brought home the hard fact that emancipation was no longer the promise of a brighter future but a faded hope of the distant past. A virulent resurgence of white supremacy spread across the nation taking different guises: ideologies of Negro inferiority even cruder than what John Van Evrie had penned in the 1850s; the repeal of the...

    (pp. 385-394)

    On a balmy june day several years ago, I boarded the J train to Cypress Hills Cemetery in Brooklyn. Armed with a map provided by the front office, I went searching for the graves of my forebears and their friends. The White family plot lay on flat land near a broad path surrounded by tall leafy trees. According to the printout, Philip purchased the plot in 1850, undoubtedly in anticipation of his mother’s impending death in 1853. Buried next to her were her children: Sarah Maria, Mary Thompson and her family, and Philip and his family. Others lay close by:...

  9. Notes
    (pp. 395-414)
  10. Bibliography
    (pp. 415-430)
  11. Index
    (pp. 431-446)