Encyclopedia of New York City


New York City has played a pivotal role in the history of black Americans. The city during the nineteenth century was a center of abolitionism, the site of influential black churches, benevolent organizations, and schools, and a focus of sometimes violent conflict between blacks and European immigrants. After the turn of the century Harlem became internationally known as a center of black nationalism and other forms of political activism, and of the literary and artistic movement known as the Harlem Renaissance. In later years the city's black community increased its political power and eventually accounted for more than a quarter of the total population.

1. From the Colonial Period to 1900

The African presence in what is now New York City dates to the Dutch settlement of New Amsterdam in 1626, when the West India Company imported enslaved Africans to build public works, and to work in the prosperous fur trade. Those enslaved by the company were given the right to be baptized, to marry, and to own property, and were allowed to work for themselves when their services were not required by the company or other slaveowners. They could also obtain legal recourse and could testify against and sue whites. Because of these privileges slavery in New Netherland was less severe than in other colonies of the western hemisphere.

The English conquest of New Netherland in 1664 resulted in harsher and more restrictive bondage. Most free Africans were disfranchised, any public assembly of more than three Africans or Indians was deemed illegal, curfews were set for blacks and Indians, and free Africans were penalized for harboring fugitive slaves.

Lured by the promise of freedom, enslaved Africans fought on both sides of the conflict in the American Revolution. In 1781 the state assembly passed a law freeing all Africans who served in the state's military forces. But the political and civil rights of all black New Yorkers were severely limited: they could not vote or hold public office, interracial marriage was prohibited, and a statute passed in 1785 precluded them from testifying against whites in any court in the state. In the same year the New York Manumission Society was formed. Its members argued that slavery was incompatible with the democratic rhetoric that fueled the American Revolution. Abolitionists persuaded the state legislature in 1799 to enact the Gradual Emancipation Act, which stipulated that every male slave born after 4 July 1799 was to be freed at the age of twenty-eight, every female at twenty-four.

In 1796 a group of free Africans in New York City began to hold meetings that eventually led to the formation of the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, the first black congregation in the city (eventually known as "Mother Zion," it later occupied a church built at Church and Leonard streets in 1801). The first black Baptist church in the city, the Abyssinian Baptist Church, was formed in 1808 on Worth Street and directed by Thomas Paul. In the same year the African Association for Mutual Relief, the first insurance company that catered to blacks, was opened on Baxter Street by several black civic and political leaders, including James Varick (first bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church), the restaurateur Thomas Downing, Peter Williams Jr., John Teasman, and Henry Sipkins. African-American members of the White Sands Street Methodist Church in Brooklyn left in 1812 to form the High Street African Wesleyan Methodist Episcopal Church, and the first congregation of black Episcopalians, led by Williams, built St. Philip's Protestant Episcopal Church on Centre Street in 1818. Out of the early African-American churches grew literary and musical societies, church schools, and benevolent organizations such as the New York African Society for Mutual Relief (formed in 1808).

In 1821 the state legislature ruled that African-Americans could vote only if they owned property worth at least $250, while at the same time it eliminated the property qualification for white male voters. Not surprisingly there were only sixteen qualified African-American voters in 1825 and sixty-eight in 1835. Most employed African-Americans in the nineteenth century did unskilled work: men often were laborers and women domestic servants. In 1825 more than one fifth of the African-American residents of Manhattan lived in the slums of the sixth ward, which spread from the Five Points north and west to the Hudson River.

A group of free blacks set up separate schools for black children, which were open only sporadically and were always underfinanced. The New York Manumission Society, an organization composed of well-to-do white abolitionists, founded the African Free School in 1797. The nation's first black newspaper, Freedom's Journal, was launched in 1827 by the abolitionist minister Samuel Cornish and John Russwurm, one of the first blacks in the United States to receive a college degree. Its goal was to improve the political and economic standing of free blacks and agitate for the end of slavery. The newspaper later changed its name to Rights for All before ceasing publication in 1829. Other black newspapers in New York City in the nineteenth century were the Colored American (1837), the Ram's Horn, the Anglo-African (1859), and Frederick Douglass's North Star (1847). Williams helped to form the African Dorcas Society (1828), a women's sewing group that made clothing for young black students so that they could attend the African Free Schools. Many middle-class blacks opened restaurants, the most successful of which were Thomas Van Renesselaer's Eating House on Wall Street, Katy Ferguson's Pastry Shop on Thompson Street, Downing's Oyster House on Broad Street, and Cato's in lower Manhattan. The all-male African Clarkson Association, formed in 1829, was both a literary society and a benevolent organization. Its members paid monthly dues of twenty-five cents and could receive financial help when they or their families fell ill.

There were more than one dozen black literary and book-lending societies in Manhattan and Brooklyn by the mid nineteenth century. The Philomethean Society (1830) owned more than six hundred volumes by 1837, and the Phoenix Society (1833) sponsored lectures on history and science that regularly attracted more than three hundred listeners; its members included Williams, Cornish, the abolitionist and book merchant David Ruggles, and the poet Charles B. Ray. Literary groups for women included the Female Literary Society (1834) and the Ladies Literary Society (1836). The Garrison Literary Association (1834), a group for children and young adults, was open to any person of good moral character between the ages of four and twenty willing to pay annual dues of 12 1/2cents. In 1845 a group of white abolitionists and politicians in New York City formed the African Education and Civilization Society (more commonly known as the African Civilization Society), which prepared black students to teach in Africa. The Society for Promoting Education among Colored Children, formed in 1847 by the poet and educator Charles Reasoner at 49 Frankfort Street, played an important role in the effort to educate black children.

In the 1840s a great number of white European immigrants moved to New York City, leading to a great deterioration in the employment opportunities available to free blacks. Their political status remained weak as well: in 1846 a proposed amendment to the state constitution that would have granted blacks the same voting rights as whites was rejected by the local electorate. The fight for suffrage and against American colonization led to the formation of the Negro Convention movement in the 1830s. In 1834 a black minister delivering an abolitionist sermon to a predominantly black audience at the Chatham Street Chapel was assaulted, triggering two days of anti-abolitionist agitation in which white mobs attacked blacks and abolitionist white churches as well as the Bowery Theater. Two black churches were extensively damaged before the militia ended the violence on the night of 11 July by arresting about 150 ringleaders of the mob. By 1850 most of the city's blacks were living in or near Greenwich Village, and by 1860 others had settled on the West Side between 10th and 30th streets, the infamous Tenderloin. After accounting for 5 percent of the city's population in 1840, blacks in 1860 accounted for less than 2 percent.

A rash of anti-black incidents beset New York City during the Civil War. In the summer of 1862 a mob of Irishmen attempted to burn down a tobacco factory in Brooklyn where two dozen black women and children were working. The draft riots of 13-17 July 1863 began as a protest against a clause in the draft law exempting from service those who paid a $300 fee, but soon assumed racial dimensions as a mob of poor Irish citizens assaulted blacks, hanging many and mutilating others, and destroyed black institutions and homes. This was the bloodiest riot in the history of the United States, and at least 105 persons died. In 1869 a proposal to eliminate the property qualification for black voters was rejected by the electorate in New York State. Blacks in the city did not obtain the vote on an equal basis with whites until three fourths of the states ratified the Fifteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in March 1870.

The Afro-American League (1889) and the Afro-American Council (1898), both formed by the militant black editor of the New York Age T. Thomas Fortune, were short-lived and failed to better the condition of the city's blacks. Black Democrats had no power in Tammany Hall, which tried to appease them in 1898 by creating an all-black group called the United Colored Democracy. Although there were 60,666 blacks in New York City by 1900, they still accounted for less than 2 percent of the total population, as immigrants from southern and eastern Europe flooded the city. Competition among blacks and immigrants for jobs and housing resulted in mutual distrust and hostility. A riot erupted in the Tenderloin on the night of 15 August 1900 after a white policemen was killed by a black man. Blacks were pulled from streetcars and beaten by the mob, and many fought back by hurling bricks and bottles. The police made little effort to intervene, and some joined the rioters in their racial attacks. In response to what they saw as a police coverup of the incident 3500 blacks met at Carnegie Hall on 12 September 1900 to form the Citizens' Protective League.

James Weldon Johnson: Black Manhattan (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1930)

Seth M. Scheiner: Negro Mecca: A History of the Negro in New York City, 1865-1920 (New York: New York University Press, 1965)

Gilbert Osofsky: Harlem: The Making of a Ghetto, 1890-1930 (New York: Harper and Row, 1966)

Harold X. Connolly: A Ghetto Grows in Brooklyn (New York: New York University Press, 1977)

-Sherrill D. Wilson

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