Walkabout: Black Folks in 19th Century Brooklyn, Part 1

As long time readers of this blog know, I really like the latter part of the 19th century. I find the history, architecture and people of that time fascinating, in part because that era, in so many ways, is very similar to today. It was a period of great discovery and technology, and a time of great wealth, with interruptions of depression tossed in just to keep people honest. Society was much more rigid then, but like now, there were those with great wealth, a white collar middle class, and descending degrees of working class and poor. I tell many stories of immigrants from Germany, Ireland, the Scandinavian countries, the United Kingdom and elsewhere, who came here and ended up making millions. There were many success stories. But with all of the people who came here with little or nothing, there was an entire race of people already here, eager for their turn. What was 19th century, post-Civil War life like for Brooklyn’s African-Americans?

I find it ironic that in my writing, I can go into the architectural offices, drawing rooms, social clubs, churches and bank vaults of some of Brooklyn’s most distinguished and wealthy citizens, knowing full well that had I been alive back then, there would be little chance of getting in any of those places. Not as a woman, and especially not as an African American woman. Very few Negroes of that time moved among Society in that way. A few entertainers, like Sissieretta Jones, the “Black Patti,” one of the most famous and celebrated sopranos of her day, was a rare exception, as were famous black people like Frederick Douglass. The Glaucester family of Brooklyn Heights was another exception, and the well-respected hotelier from Fort Greene, Hiram S. Thomas. But the acceptance these people received was not accorded many others.

Looking at society at large, there are some big differences between then and now. Today we have a safety net in place, imperfect as it may be; at the turn of the century, the most vulnerable in our society had to depend solely on the generosity of private and religious charities. We still do have this idea of “deserving” and “undeserving” poor, but this has been with us long before the Victorians. There are labor laws now that they didn’t have, aimed to prevent child labor, excessive work hours, and unsafe working conditions. But, as we know, those conditions still exist in many places today.

The late 19th century was a time of great immigration, as millions came to our shores, many with only the clothes on their backs. Not everyone here was happy about that, and prejudice, xenophobia, and exploitation were rampant. Where bigotry then was against Jews, Italians and the Irish, today, it’s against Muslims, Hispanics, and Eastern Europeans. We always seem to need someone to be on the bottom.

The bottom in the late 19th century was where you found African Americans. Today, we have an African American president. What a marvelous thing! Even most people who are generally ignorant of the nuances of history know that much has changed in the lives of African Americans in the last 150 years. We all know the Civil War ended the institution of legal slavery in the United States, but what was life like for black folks in Brooklyn during the Aesthetic Movement, the Gilded Age, and the fin de siècle? At the end of Black History Month, I’d like to take a look at what it was like to be black in Brooklyn, in the Age of Innocence. Life for black folks in Brooklyn was hard, full of obstacles and daily prejudice. Yet the seeds for a people rising up from the bottom were there, and this is a story not often told. My tale will be a broad overview that will hopefully lead you to want to know more.

Hollywood and most history books would have you believe that African-Americans did nothing to secure their own freedom or equality but wait for the white man to lead the fight, and do it for us. From Henry Ward Beecher, John Brown, and Abraham Lincoln, to the fictional characters of Atticus Finch and courageous FBI agents played by Willem Dafoe and Gene Hackman, the struggle for the social rights of African Americans has always been defined in those terms. They do the work, after which we weep in our gratitude for their kindness and deep sense of justice. But the real stories of African American self-determination and courage were just as riveting as fiction, and filled with great courage and commitment.

Some background: African Americans were engaged in anti-slavery and abolitionist movements since before the Revolutionary War. It was hoped that that conflict would open the eyes of all to freedom for the enslaved, as well as liberty from England, but to this nation’s shame, it did not. Slavery in New York State was not abolished until 1827, New York being the last of the Northern states to get rid of it. Why? Money, of course.

Our local slave holders who made Brooklyn the largest slave-holding part of the North were quite comfortable with free labor. While Brooklyn didn’t have Southern style plantations, slavery here was no picnic for the farm workers and household servants alike. There may not have been rows of slave quarters, but there were crowded, cramped attics, where people boiled in summer and froze in winter, or cubbyholes near the hearth, or cellar. There was the same backbreaking farm work, the lash, and the chain. New York City was so afraid of their slaves rising up that there were laws forbidding more than three blacks gathering together in one place, lest they be plotting an uprising. And on those occasions where plots were discovered, there were summary trials and fast public executions.

The upstanding bankers, merchants, ship owners and commodities traders who made up New York’s upper-class might have made noises about the horrors and immorality of Southern plantation slavery, but they did little to change it, rationalizing the necessity of forced labor to produce the cotton, rice and other crops that made them rich. Some of them even joined anti-slavery organizations like the New York Manumission Society, which attracted some of the city’s finest citizens, all the time still making money from slave labor. And some of them even had slaves themselves. They didn’t even see the hypocrisy.

While all this was going on, a growing group of free blacks in New York and Brooklyn were organizing civic and religious organizations aimed at abolitionist activities, as well as self-determination, literacy, and economic development. The groups had names like the New York African Society for Mutual Relief, in Manhattan, founded in 1810, and Brooklyn’s African Woolman Benevolent Society, named after a Quaker abolitionist named Woolman, also founded that year, seventeen years before slavery in New York was abolished. Their mutual goal of ending slavery in the United States allied them with groups like the NY Manumission Society, but these African American groups set their own agendas.

Education was vital. Teaching black children and adults to read and write was key to having them succeed, and rise above simple manual labor. The first decades of the 19th century also saw the creation of black churches, independent new denominations and congregations, often created because blacks were not welcome in many white churches. Relegated to the balconies, unable to participate in services, or in the governmental or social activities of the church, black ministers and their followers left, and founded their own churches. These churches would become centers for education, social life, and as the century progresses, important stations on the Underground Railroad. Churches sponsored schools, the only schools available for black children, as Brooklyn’s early public schools did not allow them entry. The first black school in Brooklyn was started in the Dumbo area in 1812.

New York State was dawdling its way toward freedom. While New England and the other Mid-Atlantic States abolished slavery with no codicils or footnotes, New York and to a lesser extent, New Jersey, held on. New York passed two laws for the gradual emancipation of slaves, the second of which was a complicated law that among its other convoluted conditions didn’t free the children of slaves until they were in their 20s, making sure their owners could get their peak working time from them before manumission. But as they dawdled, the tide of public opinion was turning against them. Finally, in 1827, New York abolished slavery for all those still enslaved with no conditions. There was great celebration, but the battle for equality was just beginning.

Photograph: African American family portrait, 1890s, Library of Congress.

Next time: the great Abolitionist Movement, the Civil War, and its aftermath. European immigration to New York brings millions of people looking for work. In Brooklyn, where do blacks live, and how are they perceived by the general Victorian society? The story continues.

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