Walkabout: Black Folks in 19th Century Brooklyn, Part 6

George Downing and family, prominant businessman. 1890s. Photo: Museum of African American History.


    Read Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4 and Part 5 of this story.

    The Civil War was over. For the first time in living memory for Americans, the horrific institution of slavery no longer existed in the United States. By the 1870s, the soldiers had all gone home to restart their lives and careers. The Confederacy was beaten, Abraham Lincoln had been assassinated, but the country continued. Westward expansion was taking place, and the United States was filling in, from the Atlantic to the Pacific Oceans, aided by a new expanse of railways. It was supposed to be a time of healing, as the United States tried to knit together the various fractured pieces of itself, and become one country again.

    More locally, New York welcomed home its war heroes. The generals and other officers went back to civilian work, many of them going back to their family businesses or to new opportunities. Many found that their rank and experience translated well into positions of leadership, and they were recruited for higher things, such as board memberships, positions in finance, or politics. Officers who came from immigrant backgrounds found the general society more welcoming. Even the rank and file soldier of humbler origins found that surviving the war had given him confidence and standing in his community, and the new post-war economy and veteran’s benefits helped him make his place in society.

    Of course, there were thousands of wounded who couldn’t just return to society. Some were maimed in body, had lost limbs, or suffered great wounds, while others suffered from post-traumatic stress injuries that would take another hundred years and other wars to better understand. For these soldiers, the beginnings of a veteran’s administration would attempt to help. Everyone wanted to help somehow, somewhere, in putting the Union back together again, and improving the post war society. But there was no veteran’s administration, no welcome home parades for the Negro; the freedman and woman, or those who had been free for generations. Now there was only the Problem. What does the country do with the Negro?

    Even before the Civil War, the Negro question had been asked. For many, both black and white, the answer was obvious – send them back home. Back to Africa movements date as far back as 1815, when a group of black settlers landed in Freetown, Sierra Leone, sent there by a group of Quakers, at the urging of a Philadelphia black man of wealth and standing. The American Colonization Movement, begun in the 1820s, would eventually send over 13,000 people to the new country they called Liberia, which they established in 1847 as a new homeland for black Americans returning to Africa, something they dearly wished all blacks would take them up on. The ACM would count among its members Thomas Jefferson, James Monroe, Abraham Lincoln, James Madison, Francis Scott Key, and Daniel Webster.

    The Back to Africa movement waned in the 1850s and during the war, but would have a resurgence, especially in the South, by the 1890s, as the Klan and Jim Crow laws made life in the US impossible for many black Southerners. It would rise up again in New York in the 1920s, with Marcus Garvey sounding the call for blacks to leave a country that didn’t want them, and would never grant equal rights to all of her citizens. For most black Americans, however, the United States was home. Africa was a distant ancestral homeland far removed from the realities of daily life. They were Americans, and would strive to gain respect and equality as citizens of the United States of America.

    Here in Brooklyn, for the rest of the 19th century, was opportunity. For some, life was good, and the American dream was a reality. For most, life was a struggle, but they made it work. And for some, it was impossible, or not worth the effort to try. As in the greater society, African American society was divided into class, and remains that way to this day. But unlike today, there was little protection under the law against bigotry and racism, and the expectation of equal opportunity was nearly nil. If black Brooklynites wanted to achieve, they would have to fight for every advance they made. And they did.

    Life in Brooklyn during the last thirty years of the 19th century is a tale of an informal, casual racism. One needs only to read the Brooklyn Eagle, that great chronicle of everyday Brooklyn, to see how blacks were regarded. For the most part, they were ignored. Only two kinds of black people made the papers: the exceptional and the criminal, and there were far too many criminal stories in relation to the number of black people in the city during that time. The Negro pickpocket, the Negro drunk, the thieving Negro, the lazy Negro, the murdering Negro. These people turn up with great regularity, more men than women, but there were certainly women represented. They populated the streets, the courts and the jails.

    The stories of these people were laced with contempt and a casual, “what can you expect from these people?” kind of attitude. There were casual laments and commentary about Negro people, and an acceptance that they just didn’t have the brain power or the moral compass to do better, and would need to be taken care of, one way or another. The paper would often interview some of the people, and with a journalistic flair for finding the worst of the worst to represent any downtrodden group, would imitate their dialect in their stories, making them seem even more ignorant and stupid than they may already have been. The paper also did this with the Irish, and the Italians, two other ethnic groups low on the social totem pole.

    On the other hand, the paper also covered the elite of the black community. Not very often, but when they did, they were quite respectful and complementary, as if they couldn’t believe these people existed. Black clergymen, business people and celebrities were occasionally covered, and once in a blue moon, a prominent black society member’s funeral or wedding would make the papers. On occasion, moral outrage would prompt an editorial, especially if a story tugged at the Victorian heart. But for the most part, it was a white world, and Brooklyn was a white city.

    By the 1870s, public transportation and the public schools in New York and Brooklyn were legally integrated. Before that time, a black person could be barred from a street car or omnibus at a driver’s discretion. There were actually several lawsuits, which black plaintiffs won, regarding public transportation and being unfairly and arbitrarily tossed off streetcars by drivers when they wanted the room for white passengers.

    The public schools were expected to teach Negro children, and separate “Colored Schools” had been set up in the city to accommodate black children. These schools were supposed to be separate, but equal. But by the beginning of the 20th century, there were so many children of all races that slowly, full integration of public schools was norm, not the exception. However, black teachers generally did not teach in white schools, nor were they administrators in those schools, but even that rule had exceptions.

    A black upper class and a stronger black middle class were beginning to emerge. Blacks were becoming lawyers, doctors, and pharmacists, although organizations like the Medical Society of the County of Kings did not allow black doctors to join their club. Susan McKinney Steward became only the third African American woman in the United States to get her medical degree, and was the first black woman to do so in New York State. She would be a powerhouse in the cause of women’s medicine.

    Dr. Steward would head the Brooklyn Women’s Homeopathic Hospital and Dispensary, the Brooklyn Home for Aged Colored People, and the Women’s Hospital and Dispensary. She was a remarkable woman for any age and time. Her family was remarkable as well; her father, Silvanus Smith had been one of Brooklyn’s foremost black abolitionists, and her eldest sister, Sarah J. Garnet, was the first black woman to become a school principal in New York City, becoming the principal of Grammar School Number 4 in 1863. After retiring, she owned a sewing shop in Brooklyn from 1883 to 1911.

    For most working class people, working life was extremely hard. There were now even more immigrants in Brooklyn than ever before, and all were competing for work. Black men had it much harder than black women, as the unskilled labor jobs that once went to black men, such as work on the docks and ships, now belonged to the Irish, and soon the Italians. Factory jobs were also going to European immigrants, many of whom would work for even less than black workers. Unscrupulous factory owners and other employers would try to use black workers to break the unions that were forming, offering them jobs as scabs during labor disputes, helping to further divide blacks from whites in the same social class.

    Black domestic workers were also finding themselves replaced. As you look at the census documents as the 19th century goes into the 20th, almost all of the live-in servants in well-to-do households are now Irish, Swedish or German. A few black women still remain as cooks, laundresses and charwomen. Black women found themselves often the only breadwinner, and became very inventive in creating jobs as seamstresses, at-home laundry women, bakers, and rooming-house owners. They also worked in factories, and if desperate, became prostitutes and madams. Survival and taking care of family was paramount.

    Life in Brooklyn for black folks by the beginning of the 20th century was in limbo. There was a casual, uncoded and randomness to racism and bigotry. People did what they did; barring blacks from stores, yet allowing them in others. Most institutions, establishments, and people operated in that way: some were great, some welcoming; others not. Blacks were not barred from attending certain venues, certain churches, or establishments, but they also knew which ones were going to ruin your evening, so they didn’t even try to go there. The same held true in most of the institutions that made the city run, and the entertainments that made the city livable. Black folks could go to the beach at Coney Island, but many of the attractions were off limits. If you wanted to sue, you’d probably win, but the award would not be worth the effort or expense. You knew the courts were only partially on your side.

    In 1873, the 15th Amendment gave black men the right to vote anywhere in the United States. Of course, we know that didn’t happen just because some law was passed. Here in Brooklyn, blacks were organizing political clubs, generally favoring the Republicans, but also courting the Democrats. The Democrats of the day were the Tammany Hall machine, which courted the immigrant population, especially the Irish. In general, they were no friend to the African American. The Republicans were more accommodating, but they didn’t exactly invite groups of black voters to the Union Club for lunch, where the real deals took place.

    Since this is a broad overview, there are so many people, so many stories that can be told of triumph over racism, as well as injustices that were never repaired. The tales are many, and can’t be covered in a series like this. From black millionaires to homeless people, to families in shanties near the prison, to families living in the best neighborhoods, we’ve had them all. The story of the African American contribution to Brooklyn’s history is constantly being written. Knowing one’s past is part of shaping the future. We have a proud past in this city, and I hope to bring more stories to light of people who should be known, because they, as much as anyone else, are a part of Brooklyn, as are we.

    (Above: Black family at Coney Island Beach, 1890s. Brooklyn Public Library)

    Black Folks in 19th Century Brooklyn, Part One
    Black Folks in 19th Century Brooklyn, Part Two
    Black Folks in 19th Century Brooklyn, Part Three
    Black Folks in 19th Century Brooklyn, Part Four
    Black Folks in 19th Century Brooklyn, Part Five

    George Downing and family, prominant businessman. 1890s. Photo: Museum of African American History.

    George Downing and family, prominant businessman. 1890s. Photo: Museum of African American History.

    Officers of the Negro Women's League at a Newport RI convention. 1899. Photo: Library of Congress

    Officers of the Negro Women’s League at a Newport RI convention. 1899. Photo: Library of Congress

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