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A Respectable Woman

A Respectable Woman: The Public Roles of African American Women in 19th-Century New York

Jane E. Dabel
Copyright Date: 2008
Published by: NYU Press
Pages: 256
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  • Book Info
    A Respectable Woman
    Book Description:

    In the nineteenth century, New York City underwent a tremendous demographic transformation driven by European immigration, the growth of a native-born population, and the expansion of one of the largest African American communities in the North. New York's free blacks were extremely politically active, lobbying for equal rights at home and an end to Southern slavery. As their activism increased, so did discrimination against them, most brutally illustrated by bloody attacks during the 1863 New York City Draft Riots.The struggle for civil rights did not extend to equal gender roles, and black male leaders encouraged women to remain in the domestic sphere, serving as caretakers, moral educators, and nurses to their families and community. Yet as Jane E. Dabel demonstrates, separate spheres were not a reality for New York City's black people, who faced dire poverty, a lopsided sex ratio, racialized violence, and a high mortality rate, all of which conspired to prevent men from gaining respectable employment and political clout. Consequently, many black women came out of the home and into the streets to work, build networks with other women, and fight against racial injustice. A Respectable Woman reveals the varied and powerful lives led by black women, who, despite the exhortations of male reformers, occupied public roles as gender and race reformers.

    eISBN: 978-0-8147-8518-8
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-8)

    At age seventy-eight, Phoebe Sisco recounted her life story to Special Examiner J. McDonald, an army pension official. Born into slavery in New Jersey in 1820, she met her “husband,” Samuel Sisco, “sometime during the war with Mexico.” The couple moved into an apartment in New York City and had four children over the next decade. “No we were never married but lived together as man and wife and were so recognized by all our friends,” she stated. The Sisco family remained in the city for fifty years but often changed residences. “We first lived in Le Roy Street [or...

  5. 1 “I Resided in Said City Ever Since” Women and the Neighborhoods
    (pp. 9-40)

    In 1890, Caroline Cornelius (née Smith) resided at 136 West Seventeenth Street in the Sixteenth Ward of New York City. Cornelius recalled, “I was born at Cold Spring Harbor, Suffolk County, New York in November 1836 and when about two years of age so I am told, my parents both of Cuba[, who] are now dead, brought me to New York City and I resided in said city ever since.” She met her future husband, Nicholas Cornelius, in 1855; they lived in the same neighborhood. The couple was married in 1859 at the African Methodist Church in Sullivan Street and...

  6. 2 “We Were Not as Particular in the Old Days about Getting Married as They Are Now” Women, the Family, and Household Composition
    (pp. 41-62)

    Following the abolition of slavery in New York, blacks renegotiated their family situations and created stable units. Black women were resilient and worked hard to ensure the survival of the black family as well as the larger black community during a period of intensifying racial discrimination. As economic, social, and political forces continued to conspire against African Americans, black women adapted their families to mitigate the harm done by this increasing racial discrimination.

    Gender roles within the black community were not as rigidly defined as they were among whites in the middle class; indeed, they were very fluid. Black women...

  7. 3 “I Washed for My Living” Black Women’s Occupations
    (pp. 63-92)

    Following emancipation in New York, black women entered the wage-earning labor force in large numbers to support themselves, their families, and their community. Although only a few occupations were open to them, their position in the labor force allowed them to define themselves as freedwomen with their employers and within their families. The majority of African American women in late-nineteenthcentury New York City were employed. Between 1860 and 1880 , black women constituted 41 to 45 percent of the black workforce in New York City, and 51 to 61 percent of New York City’s black women over the age of...

  8. 4 “Idle Pleasures and Frivolous Amusements” African American Women and Leisure Time
    (pp. 93-108)

    As black women flooded into the wage-earning sector in New York City, they sought ways to enjoy their few free hours. Economic and cultural changes opened the door to new activities for them after emancipation. Throughout the nineteenth century, black women carved out their own leisure activities and spaces within the city despite the challenges of poor wages, long working hours, racial discrimination and segregation, and efforts on the part of black male leaders to limit the activities of black women to “respectable” ones. Since women constituted a majority of the city’s black population and most black women earned wages,...

  9. 5 “They Turned Me Out of My House” African American Women and Racialized Violence
    (pp. 109-128)

    Race-based violence, including riots and racially motivated attacks, was rampant throughout nineteenth-century New York City.¹ It was carried out primarily by white men against black men.² There is evidence of racial animosity toward black men in New York City from their earliest days of freedom. This animosity had many sources, including resentment about slaves’ emancipation, workplace competition, and fears of racial intermingling.³ But black women were not the primary targets of this racial violence, and, as a result, they played a powerful role as protectors and negotiators during outbreaks of violence.

    The first wave of male white-on-black violence began in...

  10. 6 “We Should Cultivate Those Powers” Activism of African American Women
    (pp. 129-156)

    Nineteenth-century New York City was a hotbed of black activism. During the antebellum era, African Americans battled the twin evils of northern racism and southern slavery. The community fought for the civil rights of all African Americans and believed that no black was truly free as long as the institution of slavery remained. Blacks lobbied for emancipation through protests, boycotts of items produced by slave labor, and the publication of pamphlets and newspapers. Throughout the nineteenth century, New York City’s blacks were constrained by their political disfranchisement, racism, and a sluggish economy. In spite of these barriers, however, they were...

  11. Conclusion
    (pp. 157-160)

    In January 1883, the editors of theNew York Globeargued that “although twenty years have elapsed since emancipation colored men in some states, north as well as south, are even now subjected to the grossest indignities. They are refused admission to theaters and other places of amusement, unless they take seats in the corner designated for them.” Racism still pervaded the lives of northern blacks. The article described the growing frustration of black New Yorkers with their second-class status, echoed blacks’ questions about how long it was going to last, and called for equal rights.¹

    While blacks had hoped...

  12. Notes
    (pp. 161-206)
  13. Bibliography
    (pp. 207-230)
  14. Index
    (pp. 231-244)
  15. About the Author
    (pp. 245-245)