Walkabout: Black Folks in 19th Century Brooklyn, Part 5


    Read Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4 and Part 6 of this story.

    “I consecrate my life to the destruction of slavery!” – John Brown, 1838.

    John Brown hated slavery with every fiber of his being. For him, slavery was a capital offense against both God and man, and with the zeal of the true believer, he dedicated his life to seeing it destroyed. In his reckoning, it was not enough to just make impassioned speeches, or tell of the horrors of slavery, if American slavery was to end, men and women would have to rise up, and end it, through violence and death, if that’s what it took. Brown was a complicated and highly intelligent man, whose story is worthy of more detail. He came to believe that only violence could end slavery, and that realization took him to many places, and in the course of his life, he met and influenced many people.

    He spoke in Brooklyn several times, raising money for his cause, and was friends with the Gloucester family of Brooklyn Heights. Reverend James Gloucester of Siloam Presbyterian Church was a friend, and James and Elizabeth Gloucester, Brooklyn’s wealthiest black family, were financial supporters. Like many abolitionists, both black and white, they had come to the conclusion that slavery in the South would have to be ended by some kind of violence. It would not simply dissolve on its own.

    As the decade of the 1850s came to an end, so too did John Brown’s patience. In 1859, armed with “Beecher’s Bibles,” the rifles bought by Reverend Henry Ward Beecher, and smuggled to groups like John Brown’s raiders, Brown, his sons, and followers, both black and white, 18 men in total, attempted a raid on the Harper’s Ferry Armory, in Virginia, with the intention of gaining possession of the large cache of arms inside.

    They intended to arm slave insurrections, and drive the slaveholders from their plantations, one by one, until slavery was abolished. As history tells us, the raid failed miserably. About half his men were killed in the battle and following siege, including two of his sons, several escaped, and the rest captured. Brown and seven others were executed for treason. This man, this event, and the aftermath are seen by many as the catalyst for the Civil War.

    Reaction to Brown and the Raid on Harper’s Ferry was quite different in the North, than in the South. Brown had been born in the North, and still had a farm in upstate New York. Here, he was regarded as a freedom fighter and a hero by many, and at least respected by those who did not agree with his methods. His death was seen as a great loss to the cause of freedom. As can be imagined, in the South, he was regarded as a terrorist, a traitor and a dangerous lunatic who had almost succeeded in arming slaves, and killing slave holding men and women. He scared the hell of out them.

    The fledgling Republican Party got caught up in the middle of it, as Congress held investigations into who was behind Brown, and whether or not the Republican Party, which was firmly against slavery, had in any way fueled Brown’s fire with their own rhetoric, or worse, with money and support. No evidence was found, but that didn’t stop literal fistfights in the halls of Congress between Northern and Southern politicians, as a representative from Mississippi attacked the representative from Pennsylvania with a Bowie knife during a particularly fierce argument. Slavery was tearing the country apart.

    In 1860, Abraham Lincoln was elected President of the United States. By the end of that same December, South Carolina seceded from the Union. The inauguration of the 16th President of the United States took place in March of 1861. Several days later, the majority of the Southern states joined South Carolina, and the Confederate States was born. Soon after, the last four states to join the Confederacy also seceded. The stage was set.

    The entire country braced itself for war. Here in Brooklyn, it was in the air. The city’s militias were getting ready for battle, and volunteers were enlisting. It didn’t take long until the tension broke. In April of 1861, the battle for Fort Sumter, South Carolina, began the Civil War. Northern abolitionists held their breath, not daring to believe that the end of slavery might be near. Lincoln called for thousands upon thousands of Union troops to rise up to win a war to bring the Union back together again, and Brooklyn’s soldiers answered, marching grandly out to war. Everyone thought they’d be back in no time at all. Everyone was wrong.

    In 1863, after much soul searching and political wrangling, Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, which on paper, freed the slaves in the Southern states. Here in the North, the announcement was met with joy by many, both black and white. In Brooklyn, celebrations went on for several days, with anti-slavery organizations; black, white and integrated, all celebrating the titular end of slavery. Black churches held special services, and the “year of jubilee” was engraved large on documents and in song and story. It was a special, and joyous occasion.

    But it was also the beginning of a time of great racial and social tension. As the war slogged on endlessly, the volunteer militias needed to be supplemented by new troops. A draft was initiated. The North may have been generally anti-slavery, but that doesn’t mean it was not in many ways, as segregated as the South. Military service was not open to men of color. Only whites could serve in the army, only whites could go to war, where they could die, or suffer the horrible injuries that the survivors were coming home with.

    The long and short of it was that the New York City draft was rigged. If you were wealthy, you could buy your way out. If you were poor, you were out of luck. Beginning in the 1840s, driven by Ireland’s Potato Famine, hundreds of thousands of poor Irish peasants had immigrated to the United States, a great many of them settling in the slums of Manhattan and Brooklyn. The Irish were not exactly welcomed on our shores. For many “native” New Yorkers, the Irish were the dregs of the earth, unwanted, uncivilized, and unruly. The only thing worse than an Irishman was a Negro. At least the Irishman was white.

    Unskilled black and Irish workers fought fiercely for the bottom rung in employment, clashing often on the docks, for roadwork, factory, and other labor jobs. Unscrupulous employers exacerbated that conflict, hiring blacks as scabs in labor conflicts, and otherwise pitting the two groups against each other. A resentful hate for blacks arose in many parts of town, and when the draft kicked in, these people saw their unfair conscription into the army as cannon fodder in the war to free blacks. Why would they fight to add more black competition in their quest for jobs? Why die for black people? They would not stand for it.

    Two separate incidents marred Brooklyn’s fragile peace. In 1862, a group of Irish workers attacked black workers in the tobacco factories that were concentrated in Red Hook and Carroll Gardens. The Irish felt that the black workers were taking their jobs, and catcalls and cries of “why should we go to war for you” soon turned into a full scale riot, as the mob tried to tear the blacks to pieces. The police were ordered in, but before peace was established, every window in the factory had been broken by rocks, bricks or sticks. The anger was tamped down, but it didn’t die. The next year, as war raged on, the Manhattan Draft Riot erupted into days of violence and death. For the full story of the Draft Riots, please see these Walkabout articles on the subject: Part One and Part Two. The riots would be the worst in New York’s long history, yet amid the chaos, heroes, black and white, emerged.

    Brooklyn’s black population lay low during the Riots, afraid they would spill over into Brooklyn. The riots never did. Manhattan blacks fleeing the riots who made it to Brooklyn were sheltered by the churches, and in people’s homes. Many went to Weeksville, and found shelter there. The residents of that town were ready to protect themselves, and were warned of an impending mob from Queens, but that never materialized. Many others were sheltered and protected by brave white Brooklynites of all persuasions. The Draft Riots finally ended after three days of violence, and a fragile peace came back to Manhattan and Brooklyn, but the issues raised by the riots would not go away.

    In 1864, the first black regiment of soldiers from New York marched into war, eager to show America that they were loyal, brave and patriotic citizens. Other “colored troops” from other states went to war, as well. The war dragged on for another year of death and destruction, but in 1865, it finally ended with Lee’s surrender.The Civil War was over. The North was victorious, and the Union saved, but the cost was tremendous in terms of human life on both sides, as well as the destruction of property, and the loss of national innocence. It was the beginning of a new world in the United States.

    Of course, it is impossible to condense John Brown, the Draft Riots, Emancipation, the Civil War, and 19th century sociology into an essay for a blog post. I’ve left out much more than I’ve included, this was but an overview. In our last chapter, next time, we’ll look at what would life in a free United States be like for African Americans? Would they ever be able to enjoy the status of full citizens in the City of Brooklyn, with access to education, equal opportunity in work, integration into all parts of society? As the Civil War ended, and the troops came home to a new economy and a new country, what would be the African American role be? We’ll wrap it up next time, looking at what we call the Victorian Era, the last thirty years of the 19th century, a time of great prosperity, growth and innovation. But would that prosperity be shared by all? We’ll see.

    (Illustration: Brooklyn militias marching from the Fulton Ferry, back home after the war. 1866. From: “An Illustrated History of Brooklyn” published in 1916 by the Brooklyn Daily Eagle.)

    Black Folks in Brooklyn, Part One

    Black Folks in Brooklyn, Part Two
    Black Folks in Brooklyn, Part Three
    Black Folks in Brooklyn, Part Four

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