Picture if you will, a growing town, with wood framed buildings, dirt roads and sidewalks lined with roped-off walkways. The harbor bristled with sailing ships, and the sounds of stevedores and sailors loading and unloading cargo was punctuated by a blacksmith’s hammer, the sound of creaking ropes and flapping sails, and a fish monger’s song. You could smell the river, wood smoke and raw sewage. This was the Brooklyn that was growing to become a city. The early 19th century town of Brooklyn encompassed the areas we know as the Fulton Ferry District, Dumbo, Vinegar Hill, and parts of Brooklyn Heights. Here, white and black Brooklynites lived and worked in close proximity. There was a free black community here, and black owned businesses, such as cobbler’s shops, stables and whitewashing businesses, stood next door to white-owned taverns, blacksmith shops and other businesses.
Slaves and freemen walked the same streets, and many worked the same jobs, especially down on the docks, only one group turned their money over to their owners, the other took it home to their families. As the century progressed and Brooklyn continued to spread out from the harbor, the end of slavery in New York State meant the growth of Brooklyn’s African American community, some of which ended up in the Vinegar Hill/Downtown area. Today, most of that area, which encompassed parts of Dumbo, Vinegar Hill and Downtown, is now home to the exits and entrances to the bridges and highways, or has been taken up by housing projects.
It was here that many of Brooklyn’s most powerful black churches originated: Concord Baptist Church, Siloam Presbyterian and Bridge Street African Wesleyan Methodist Episcopal Church, among others. They would later move to Bedford Stuyvesant, but before the Civil War, they were all located downtown. These churches were important for several reasons. First of all, they allowed their congregants to worship as they chose. Local white churches were generally quite the segregationists, assigning blacks to the balconies only, where they were often compelled to listen to pro-slavery sermons, or at least sermons admonishing them to accept their God-given inferior state in life. Blacks were not allowed leadership positions; they couldn’t even join the choirs. So they started their own churches, first meeting in homes, and then pooling together their resources to rent space or buy property.
Secondly, black churches were centers of social life, a place where people could meet, break bread together, attend lectures, concerts and enjoy the social amenities every culture has. Weddings, funerals and christenings all took place here, all rites of passage that had been begrudged them before. The churches sponsored schools and literacy classes, taught their members about finance and money, and in general, were vital resources, especially for the newly emancipated, as well as to the growing number of escapees heading to the North and freedom. And it was here, that the Abolitionist Movement grew and the Underground Railroad found its most ardent station masters.
By the 1830s and ‘40s, it was becoming increasingly apparent that slavery in the South was not going to die out on its own. Many anti-slavery activists in the North were certain that as the new Industrial Revolution progressed, the agrarian lifestyle of the South would change, and slavery would just prove too costly to continue. The feeding, clothing, housing and general upkeep of thousands of slaves would be much more expensive to the plantation owners than more benign forms of slavery, such as sharecropping with tenant farmers. They might have been right, until the perfection of Eli Whitney’s cotton gin.
Whitney patented his machine in 1790, but it really didn’t take off until after 1830. Before the gin, the picked cotton had to be tediously sorted and cleaned it by hand, separating the seeds and pulling the fibers apart. The cotton gin took over that job, quickly and efficiently. The bolls of cotton were fed into a hopper. As it turned, metal fingers pulled the cotton apart, separating the seeds. The fingers also combed the cotton, separating the fibers, which would then all be gathered into large bales for further sale. What had taken a large group of slaves a day to do, now took several people only hours. Whitney didn’t know it, as he died in 1825, but he had started the Industrial Revolution, and inadvertently assured the continuation of Southern plantation slavery for generations.
Cotton production went from 750,000 bales in 1830 to 2.5 million bales in 1850. The number of slaves in the South went up at the same rate, from 700,000 in 1830 to 3.2 million enslaved people in 1850. By 1860, the Southern states were producing two-thirds of the world’s cotton, and 80% of the cotton sold to Britain. There was big money here, with the money trail reaching from Natchez to New York. Over three million people in permanent enslavement, with no end in sight. This would be both the call to arms of the Northern abolitionists: to end this institution immediately, and also a call to the slave – run, and make your way to freedom!
Back in Brooklyn, black folks were organizing for self-determination and to control their own destinies. Life in mid-19th century New York was not easy. The end of slavery here in 1827 did not mean the beginning of equality. That had to be fought for every day. In an age where a woman’s ideal place was home, tending to children and hearth, black women had to work to support themselves and their families, and take care of hearth and home, as well. The better educated were able to be teachers in the growing number of African American schools. There was a high demand for midwives, as well. Some had their own businesses, as seamstresses, boarding house owners and saloon keepers. But most were in service jobs, as servants, laundresses, nurse attendants, and caregivers. There were more black women taking in laundry than any other profession, especially among married women with children.
Black men were also limited in their choices of employment. In the higher echelon were ministers, doctors, a few lawyers and businessmen. Some men also had their own businesses, as independent drivers, painters, carpenters and other building tradesmen. They could be barbers, printers, saloon workers and blacksmiths. Or they could be in service, as grooms, chauffeurs, general servants, and manual laborers and stevedores. There were a lot of manual laborers, census records show that there were more manual laborers in the black community than any other profession.
Black people in Brooklyn and New York in the mid-1800s were also limited in their access to social and business settings. Restaurants did not serve blacks. Many businesses and most stores did not allow black people to enter at all, unless they were accompanying whites as servants of some kind, or were known to be in service and were picking up deliveries. Blacks were not allowed in most theaters and concert halls, and were only allowed in museums if in the company of a white charge. With the exception of the Quakers, most churches were not accommodating to black congregants, either banning them, or putting them in the balconies. Blacks were not allowed in the military at this time, and certainly were not in law enforcement, or anywhere where they might have authority over a white man. The only businesses that seemed to welcome blacks were the banks. If you had money to deposit, they didn’t care what color you were, although I’m sure most of their black depositors did not have the opportunity to sit with their bankers or enjoy any amenities.
And banks were very important, because wealth afforded not only a better life, but wealth was the only thing the greater society appreciated. The message from the black pulpits was simple – Jesus saves, and so should you. Thrift was encouraged, thrift was actually demanded, and even though most black people had very little to save, they saved like squirrels, to the extent that many a humble washerwoman was able to save thousands of dollars over the years, assuring educational and other opportunities for her children and community. Savings also went into real estate, and real estate grew communities and real wealth.
In 1835, a black Brooklynite named Henry Thompson, who was one of the community’s most respected leaders, bought 32 parcels of land from the Lefferts family estate. The country was in a depression, and land was running cheap, as the large landowners were liquidating their holdings. This particular branch of the Lefferts family owned most of what is now Bedford Stuyvesant and northern Crown Heights.
As slaveholders, and one of the oldest and largest farming estates in Brooklyn, the Lefferts family had farmed this land up until the 19th century, but now it was more valuable for development. This land was in the 9th Ward, about as far east as you could get and still be in the town of Brooklyn. Thompson and others who had also bought land there, advertised their new lands in the newspapers, both black and white, inviting other African Americans to invest as well. Others bought from them, including a man named
HenryJames Weeks. More followed, homes and businesses were built, and a new town was born.
By 1850, Weeksville was a thriving and independent town. Next door was the smaller village of Carrville, and both were settled by African Americans, enjoined by Weeks and Thompson to build an independent life, where the businesses, the churches, charitable organizations and institutions, stores and restaurants were all black owned and run, and no one would be turned away, or not served. The community was strong, as were the institutions and businesses in them. This freedom and self-determination would produce New York’s first African American female doctor, Susan McKinney Steward, who was born in Weeksville in 1847.
All during the first half of the 19th century, the Abolitionist Movement was growing. Henry Ward Beecher was thundering God’s wrath down on the institution of slavery from his pulpit at Plymouth Church in Brooklyn Heights, while black ministers did the same from their own pulpits. Hundreds of escaped slaves were making their way to New York from slaveholding states, followed by slave catchers armed with the righteousness of the law, which allowed them to capture and return any escaped slave to his or her master. This was the opportunity many in the anti-slavery movement had been waiting for, a time to actually be able to put words into action. Brooklyn became an important stop on the Underground Railroad, with the population of the city well able to support runaways who wished to stay. We’ll look at that part of the story, the Draft Riots, and the aftermath of war in our next chapter.
Photo: In the foreground, Weeksville houses dating from the 1840s and ’50s. The row houses and hospital in the background were not built until the late 1800s. These early houses still stand.