Answers About Black Life in 19th-Century New York, Part 2

Carla L. Peterson, the author of "Black Gotham: A Family History of African Americans in Nineteenth-Century New York City."

Ask the author of “Black Gotham: A Family History of African Americans in Nineteenth-Century New York City,” a question.


February 17, 2012, 11:51 AM


Here’s the second set of responses to readers’ questions about black life in 19th-century New York City from Carla L. Peterson. Dr. Peterson is an English professor at the University of Maryland and the author of “Black Gotham: A Family History of African Americans in Nineteenth-Century New York City,” which is now in paperback from Yale University Press.

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How swiftly did the black community in New York decline following the 1863 Draft Riots? Was it a gradual exodus or a sharp departure?—Brian, Montgomery, AL


New York’s black population declined from around 12,500 in 1860 to just below 10,000 in 1865 — about 20 percent. But by 1870 it was back up to around 13,000 and witnessed a steady increase for the rest of the century.

The number of blacks in the city actually peaked in 1840 at about 16,300. So another good question would be why did this decline begin as early as the 1840s? The answer is that New York was an incredibly harsh environment to live in, as viciously competitive then as it is now. For blacks, these difficulties were compounded by race. White supremacist ideology ruled the city.

A New York doctor, John Van Evrie, wrote that even freedom and education could not transform the Negro any more than “it would be to change a cow into a horse, or to raise the dead.” Negative stereotypes abounded in caricatures and minstrel shows. Worse still, racial violence was practically a norm; the draft riots were preceded by the devastating race riot of 1834.

Finally, blacks were locked out of many occupations; Irish laborers dominated such jobs as cartmen and longshoremen and made sure that blacks could not join their ranks. So it’s no wonder blacks began leaving the city in search of better living conditions.


As Jim Crow became legalized with Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896, did African-Americans experience heightened segregation? In Dunbar’s “The Sport of the Gods” (written about five years later) he doesn’t mention segregation so much as the temptations of the city. I’m wondering to what extent the new codes of white supremacy spread through the North generally and to New York specifically.—Jrcnyc, Crow Hill


Did blacks in N.Y. have to show public deference to whites in N.Y. as they were bound by law to do in the South? The reason I ask is that unlike the South, we think of 19th-century N.Y. having a larger immigrant, virtually all Caucasian, population, and it is hard to imagine the same kind of deferential behavior being paid to or demanded by newly arrived foreigners. Was there a change in these racial social customs in the public square after the civil war, especially as black codes became Jim Crow laws in other parts of the country? Were there different neighborhoods where African-Americans had to “behave” while in other parts they were more free from performing public deference to whites?—Timhrk, Jersey City


So many black New Yorkers have Irish surnames. I’ve assumed that this was at least partly because Irish and African-Americans married, since they lived in the same neighborhoods during the 19th century. Did the majority of black New Yorkers with Irish surnames get the names in slavery, or was it by marriage?—Finger Lake, New York, NY


White supremacy flourished in New York all throughout the 19th century, in large part because the city’s “merchant princes” had such close economic and commercial ties to the South. So racial discrimination and segregation were a permanent feature of life for black New Yorkers. And yes, blacks were supposed to show deference to whites and were often coerced into doing so.

Nevertheless, I was surprised by the degree to which established codes of racial relations were often ignored. My great-grand-aunt Maritcha Lyons referred to the behavior of whites as “whim,” so following her lead I’ve called it the rule of whimsy. Maybe a street car conductor would allow you to board, maybe he would make you wait for the colored car.

But discrimination and segregation were still the norm. For a long time, the black middle class believed that class would trump race. If they were well educated and behaved respectably, surely whites would accept them. But that didn’t always happen. In the 1850s, Elizabeth Jennings and a friend were dragged off a street car dressed in their Sunday best after they refused to get off on their own. In the 1890s, newspaper editor T. Thomas Fortune was refused service and ejected from the bar of New York’s Trainor Hotel, then jailed for disorderly conduct. Both sued and, amazingly, won (although they didn’t get all the damages they asked for).

Working-class blacks were much more skeptical when it came to the code of respectability. Indeed, a vibrant and in-your-face black street culture existed, first in the area of the Five Points, then in Church Street (known as black Broadway) and finally from mid-century until the 1880s around Bleecker, Thompson and Sullivan Streets.

Visitors to New York invariably commented with horror on interracial nature of the goings-on in these places. “Did you ever see such a mixture of Negroes and whites all on equality,” one Southerner exclaimed. Many of these whites were poor Irish. Maybe the rule of whimsy reigned here as well. For despite the intense hostility that existed between blacks and Irish competing for economic survival at the bottom of the ladder, many of them in these neighborhoods were friends, neighbors, lovers, and yes, married partners.

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