and Freedom


The beginning of black history in the place that became New York City dates to May or June 1613 when Juan (Jan) Rodriguez, a free sailor from Hispaniola (in what is today the Dominican Republic) who worked for a Dutch fur trading company, was left on Manhattan Island—following a dispute, according to some sources—to trade with Native Americans. He had eighty hatchets, knives, a musket, and a sword. Multilingual, cosmopolitan, socially and commercially savvy, Rodriguez became an interpreter with the Rockaway Indians, married into the nation, and helped establish a trade agreement with them. He became the first nonindigenous permanent resident of Manhattan and remained the only one until 1621, when the Dutch West India Company built a settlement on the Hudson River and began introducing African labor.

          The Africans’ legal status was not uniform during this early period. Some were free, others were half-free, and still others were enslaved, however all frequently enjoyed some of the same rights as white residents. Some owned property, bore arms, and engaged in the same commerce, both legal and extralegal, as whites. But beginning in 1655, however, colonial authorities transformed New Amsterdam into a slave trading port and increased restrictions on the African residents.

          The English won control of New Amsterdam in 1664 and renamed it New York. Within a few years, the town was positioned as a major outpost in the British colonial empire. It developed elaborate slave codes designed to control and restrict the behavior of enslaved men and women and to strip free blacks of the rights and property they had held, however tenuously, under Dutch rule. The slave revolt of 1712 and the so-called Negro plot of 1741 put New Yorkers on notice that the seeds of rebellion had been sown in their midst.

          By the turn of the eighteenth century, enslaved and free black New Yorkers had become sufficiently familiar with the laws to both openly break them and try using them to advance their own interests and causes. They waged constant struggles, individually and collectively, against the constraints on their lives. They founded some of the earliest African-American churches, schools, and publications in the country. Black New Yorkers also established and ran successful businesses, created Underground Railroad stations, assisted and defended runaways, and helped organize and run antislavery and abolitionist societies. They established the first African-American theater and invented new genres of music and dance.

          But the vicious 1863 Draft Riots, during which African Americans were beaten, maimed, lynched, hanged, and burned and had their property destroyed, exposed the brutal reality of black life in New York.

The Dutch Years

          In 1626, eleven Africans were brought to New Amsterdam, the capital of the colony of New Netherland (which stretched from southern Massachusetts to Delaware). Originally from Congo, Angola, and the island of São Tomé, they were Paulo d’Angola, Simon Congo, Anthony Portuguese, Jan Francisco, Little [Kleyne] Manuel, Big [Groot] Manuel, Manuel de Gerrit de Reus, Garcia d’Angola, Peter Santomee, Little Anthony, and Jan de Fort Orange. Most historians give 1626 for their arrival, but it has also been conjectured that the men could have been part of the crew of a pirated Portuguese ship brought to New Amsterdam on the Bruynvis in 1627. Three women were brought in two years later.

          This first group of Africans worked for the Dutch West India Company and was housed at the Saw Mill, in a camp referred to as Quartier van de Swarten (Quarters of the Blacks). It was located along the East River in the vicinity of 75th Street.

          On February 25, 1644, eighteen years after their arrival, the men, who had petitioned the local Dutch authorities for their freedom—arguing that they had worked long enough and could hardly support their families—were liberated under what became known as “half-freedom”. Each one received land on the condition that he deliver one “Fat hog” and twenty-two and a half bushels of corn, wheat, peas, or beans to the Dutch West India Company every year. The Africans also had to serve the Company on request, but would get paid. Failure to comply with these requirements meant reenslavement. The newly freed men’s wives were also emancipated, but the manumission document stated that “their children at present born or yet to be born, shall be bound and obligated to serve the Honorable West India Company as Slaves.”

          From 1643 to 1716, approximately thirty land grants were owned by free black men and women. The Africans’ plots—from one to twenty acres—were located a mile from New Amsterdam, beyond the palisades that surrounded the town. Their collective 300 acres stretched from the Bowery Road near the Collect Pond, also called Fresh Water Pond (the town’s main source of drinking water, in the vicinity of today’s Canal Street), to Fifth Avenue and 34th Street. Manuel de Gerrit received much of today’s Washington Square Park, while Paulo d’Angola’s land stretched from Minetta Lane to Thompson Street. By the 1640s, what was known as “the land of the blacks”—a kind of black frontier—partially covered what today are Chinatown, Little Italy, SoHo, NoHo, Greenwich Village, and Union Square, north to 34th Street. (The last grant was owned by Francisco Bastien, whose family sold the property at 34th Street following the 1712 law that prohibited blacks from leaving real estate to their descendants.)

          Authorities hoped that these properties, located in the unsettled area north of New Amsterdam, would serve as a buffer zone between the village and Native American settlements.

          During the Dutch period, village merchants were more interested in trading than in farming, and therefore a plantation economy did not emerge. Enslaved men and women cleared land, cut timber, made palisades and lime, and built houses, roads, and the fort of New Amsterdam. Enslaved men were also sent to retrieve runaways and were enrolled in the fight against Native Americans, as Peter Stuyvesant emphasized in a 1660 letter when he asked for “Negroes” from Curacao. “They ought to be stout and strong fellows fit for immediate employment on this fortress [Fort Amsterdam] and other works; also, if required, in war against the wild barbarians, either to pursue them when retreating, or else to carry some of the soldiers’ baggage.” Enslaved women mostly worked as domestics.

          When the New Amsterdam Town Council approved construction of a city wall, Africans built it with logs “twelve feet long, eighteen inches in circumference, sharpened at the upper end” from river to river across Manhattan. This wall gave its name to the contemporary Wall Street. After Haarlem—named for a city in Holland—was settled in 1658, Africans built the road that linked it to New Amsterdam. They and their descendants not only created the infrastructure of the new colony but also contributed to feeding its inhabitants by cultivating the six farms (bouwerys in Dutch) established in 1625.

          In 1636, minister Everardus Bogardus requested a teacher from Holland “to train the youth of the Dutch and the Blacks in the knowledge of Jesus Christ.” A school was opened (to boys only). The institution is today known as Collegiate School. Some of the black children became farmers or learned crafts like carpentry, sail making, and metalworking. Lucas Peters, son of freedman Pieter Santomee, established himself as a barber surgeon (doctor).

          When Dutch rule ended in October 1664, New Amsterdam counted 375 people of African origin or descent. Seventy-five were free.

The Slave Trade

          In May 1646, Africans transported on the Tamandare from the present state of Pernambuco in Brazil (then occupied by the Dutch) were sold in New Amsterdam in what appears to be the first slave sale in the town. The first people to be brought in directly from Africa followed them in the summer of 1655. The Witte Paardt (White Horse) had embarked 455 people at Loango (Congo). Only 391 survived the ordeal of the ocean crossing. They were sold away, without benefit for the colony, and the Director General and Council of New Netherland complained “that the negroes lately arrived here from the Bight of Guinea … have been transported and carried hence without the Hon’ble Company or the inhabitants of this province having derived any revenue or benefit therefrom.” To remedy this situation, “the Director General and Council have resolved and concluded that there shall be paid] at the general treasury 10 per cent of the] value or purchase money of the negroes who shall be carried away or exported [from here elsewhere beyond the jurisdiction of New Netherland.” (Edmund B. O’ Callaghan, Voyages of the Slavers St John & Arms of Amsterdam.)

          New Amsterdam wanted to make money from the selling of Africans to other colonies, but it also wanted to keep as many as possible for its own development. In a letter dated March 9, 1660, to Governor Peter Stuyvesant, the directors of the Dutch West India Company gave their blessings to the slave trade from the Caribbean that the people of New Amsterdam wanted to engage in,

As to the trade in slaves or negroes, in which the inhabitants there would like to engage in Curacao [a Dutch colony and important slave trade center], it is open to them, as to other traders, but not at a lower price, because the Company would be too great a loser. As however the importation of negroes would greatly benefit the cultivation of the soil and we are very anxious for its promotion, because the welfare of the country mostly depends on it, we have agreed and resolved to make a trial with a number of negroes, whom we shall send to you by the first ship or ships from Curacao. You must sell these at public auction to the highest bidder, on condition that they are not to be carried off from there, but employed in cultivating the soil. (Documents Relating to the Colonial History of the State of New York, vol. XIV)

          Ships also continued to arrive directly from Africa and Africans could be paid for in beaver pelts, wheat, rye, peas, or salted beef and pork . The Wapen van Amsterdam embarked 354 people in the Indian Ocean island of Madagascar in 1663; and on August 15, 1664, just before the colony passed into British hands, a group of West Central Africans landed in New Amsterdam. The Gideon had embarked 421 people at Loango, but only 348 had made it to Curacao. From there 300 continued the voyage, and 291—154 men and 137 women—landed in New Amsterdam, the last Africans brought by the Dutch.

          Under British rule, New York became a more aggressive actor in the transatlantic slave trade. The Duke of York (the future King James II)—for whom the city and the colony were renamed—was a major shareholder of the Royal African Company, the British firm that held the monopoly in the British slave trade. He granted port privileges to ships engaged in the slave trade, and encouraged New York residents to become more actively involved in it.

          Whereas in the early years 70 percent of the captives came from the Caribbean, 70 percent now arrived directly from Africa, introduced by the Royal African Company. For example, the Wolf had arrived on May 10, 1751, from the Gold Coast (Ghana) after 112 days at sea, with seventy-three people on board. The New York Gazette of May 13 advertised their sale: “To be sold at publick Vendue, on Friday the 17th Instant, at 10 o’clock in the Morning, at the Meal Market, A NUMBER of Likely Negro Slaves, lately imported in the Sloop Wolf, directly from Africa. Those that are not disposed of on that Day, will be sold at publick Vendue the Friday following.”

          In all it is estimated that the slave trade from Africa brought to New York 8,208 people—out of 9,575 who had embarked. Not all remained in the colony; many were sold to the South and the Caribbean. About 53 percent of the Africans arrived between 1701 and 1770 in 76 documented voyages. Of the close to 4,000 whose origins are known, 1,271 arrived from Madagascar (between 1676 and 1700), 998 from Congo (1655–75), 757 from Senegambia (1751–70), 504 from the Gold Coast (1751–70), 239 from Sierra Leone (1751–70), and 217 from nonidentified areas of the continent. Africans brought from the Caribbean during the British period came overwhelmingly from Jamaica—an estimated 900—and Antigua (about 334).

          To respond to the city’s demand, an official slave market opened in 1711 on a pier located at Wall Street and the East River. Slave auctions were also held at other markets in lower Manhattan, including the Merchant’s Coffee House, the Fly Market, and Proctor’s Vendue House.

           In 1788, New York State made it illegal to sell slaves introduced after 1785 and declared all such people free. A year earlier, the United States Constitution, in its Article 1, section 9, had stipulated, “The Migration or Importation of such Persons as any of the States now existing shall think proper to admit, shall not be prohibited by the Congress prior to the Year one thousand eight hundred and eight, but a tax or duty may be imposed on such Importation, not exceeding ten dollars for each Person.” Following the text to the letter, on March 3, 1807, President Thomas Jefferson signed into law a bill approved by Congress the day before “to prohibit the importation of slaves into any port or place within the jurisdiction of the United States.” The act was to take effect on January 1, 1808.

           On December 2, 1807, a large crowd of black New Yorkers met at the African Free School and decided to celebrate January 1, 1808, with “demonstrations of gratitude and thanksgiving.” On that day, Peter Williams, Jr., delivered the keynote address, “An Oration on the Abolition of the Slave Trade.” (Born in New Jersey to a mother from the island of St. Kitts and a veteran of the Revolutionary War, the young man went on to organize St. Philip’s African Church in Harlem in 1818.) James Varick delivered his “Sermon of Thanksgiving on the Occasion of the Abolition of the African Slave Trade” at the African Church, later the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church. (He became the first bishop of the Church in 1822.) Parade marchers carried antislavery signs that read “Am I not a man and a brother?” These annual commemorations went on until 1815.

           But by midcentury, New York City had come to dominate the illegal international slave trade to the American South, Brazil, and Cuba. With the help of lawyers established on Pearl Street, Portuguese slave dealers organized operations to West Central Africa. Along the South Street seaport, outfitters purchased shackles. As the New York Journal of Commerce observed in 1857, “Few of our readers are aware of the extent to which this infernal traffic is carried on, by vessels clearing from New York, and in close alliance with our legitimate trade; and that down-town merchants of wealth and respectability are extensively engaged in buying and selling African Negroes.”

           The Continental Monthly stressed the financial and political importance of the slave trade in January 1862: “The number of persons engaged in the slave-trade, and the amount of capital embarked in it exceed our powers of calculation. The city of New York has been until of late the principal port of the world for this infamous commerce. . . . Slave dealers added largely to the wealth of our commercial metropolis; they contributed liberally to the treasuries of political organizations, and their bank accounts were largely depleted to carry elections in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Connecticut.”

           Only one man was ever executed for illegal slave trading after the passage of a law in 1820 that made it an act of piracy punishable by death. On February 21, 1862, Captain Nathaniel Gordon was hanged at the Tombs Prison in lower Manhattan. His ship, the Erie, had been apprehended carrying eight hundred men, women, and children from Congo, aged six months to forty years. The survivors were resettled in Liberia.

Slavery under the British

           Enslaved men, women, and children were mostly held privately and worked as domestics, carpenters, coopers, shoemakers, tailors, blacksmiths, butchers, dockworkers, and laborers. At the turn of the eighteenth century, merchants held 38 percent of the enslaved population, and shipmasters, 11 percent. By 1730, 42 percent of the population owned slaves, a higher percentage than in any other city in the country except Charleston, South Carolina. New York benefited directly from the labor of its enslaved population—which ranged between 15 and 20 percent of the total—and indirectly thanks to the southern cotton shipped through its port and the banks that did business with the South.

           During the colonial period, slavery laws became more stringent. Manumission and land ownership were tightly restricted. In 1674, a law specified that “no Negro slave who becomes a Christian after being bought shall be [set] at liberty.” Enslaved or free, black New Yorkers’ movements and activities were extremely limited. For example, driving a cart or loading goods at some places was forbidden to all black men, whether free or enslaved, by measures taken in 1683 and 1686. Blacks freed after 1712 could not own real estate. By 1716, with the sale of a fifteen-acre farm located where the Empire State Building stands today, the “Negro frontier” disappeared.

           Most Acts concerned the prevention of conspiracies and revolts. Resistance, some of it in the form of running away, forming maroon communities, and organizing revolts, was a constant feature of slavery, whether in New York or in any slave society. In 1679 the Common Council passed a law that established a large fine for harboring fugitives. Free blacks risked their freedom if they harbored a runaway for more than twenty-four hours. Runaways and maroons were a constant worry for the white residents. Farmers in Harlem complained in 1690 about a “band of Negroes, who have run away from their masters at New York and commit depredations on the inhabitants of the said village.”

           The “Act for the Regulation of Slaves” of November 27, 1702, reduced the number of enslaved people allowed to congregate from four to three. Owners were allowed “to punish their slaves for their crimes at discretion, not extending to life or member.” In 1706, Lord Cornbury, the governor of New York and New Jersey, issued a proclamation in Brooklyn: “Whereas I am informed that several negroes in Kings County have assembled themselves in a riotous manner, which if not prevented may prove of ill consequence . . . [you are instructed] to fire on them, kill, or destroy them, if they cannot otherwise be taken.”

           A major revolt occurred in Manhattan on April 6, 1712, when a group of twenty-three Africans said to be Coromantins (from Ghana) and Pawpaws (from Benin) armed with pistols, daggers, clubs, axes, and hatchets set fire to a building on Maiden Lane, on the outskirts of the city. They ambushed the white men who came to put out the blaze, killing nine and wounding six. As the troops marched against them, the Africans hid in the woods. Sentries were posted to prevent their escape, and the militias of New York City and Westchester County searched the island. Seventy men were arrested and six committed suicide. In the end, twenty-one Africans were executed. Thirteen were hanged, one was chained and starved to death, several were burned at the stake, and another was “broken on the wheel” (attached to a wheel, his bones broken with a club, and left to die).

           Following the revolt, more severe legislation was enacted. On December 10, 1712, “An Act for Preventing Suppressing and Punishing the Conspiracy and Insurrection of Negroes and other Slaves” was passed. “Every Negro Indian or other Slave” declared guilty of arson, rape, mutilation of white people or murder of whites as well as “Negro, Indian or Mallatto [mulatto] Slave” was to “suffer the pains of Death in such manner and with such circumstances as the aggravation or enormity of their Crimes . . . shall merit and require.”

           Almost three decades later, what was presented as a “Negro plot” shook New York. In March and April 1741, several buildings had gone up in flames. Mary Burton, a white teenaged indentured servant, claimed that the fires were the result of a conspiracy by blacks led by her employer, white tavern keeper John Hughson. The plan, according to her, was to kill whites, take over the city, and make Hughson king. “Spanish Negroes”, illegally enslaved, and some white workers were also involved.

           More than 150 individuals were arrested. Among them were at least twelve men and women who were Akan (from Ghana.) They bore the names Quack (Kweku), Quamino (Kwabena), Quash (Kwesi), Kajoe alias Africa (Kodjo), Cuffee (Kofi), and Cuba (Akua, a female). In the end, between May and August, thirty blacks and four whites were executed. Eighteen black men, two white men, and two white women were hanged; two black men were gibbeted; fourteen were burned at the stake; and seventy were deported to Hispaniola, Portugal, Suriname, Madeira, Curacao, Newfoundland, and St. Thomas.

           Some scholars dispute the claim that there was any conspiracy; they attribute the panic to white hysteria. But historian Craig S. Wilder finds that “the events of 1741 had a distinctive African pattern. . . . It becomes more likely that it was the persistence of African traditions that allowed the 1741 conspirators to dominate so many people, white and black, and drag Manhattan to the brink of revolution.” For historian Thomas J. Davis, “The murderous events sprang from authentic causes—not simply spurious charges. . . . The source of the tragedy lay in the tangled undergrowth of the society’s self conception where people were directed to see others not as themselves but as greater or lesser, good or evil, depending on their class, color, origin, or religion. A world of prejudice and injustice ensnared the New Yorkers of 1741, and not them alone, in rumors of revolt.”

“The Negros Burial Ground”

           During the British period, a burial ground for Africans was developed on a plot of land about a half mile outside the city between Broadway and Centre Street north of Chambers:

Beyond the commons lay what in the earliest settlement of the town had been appropriated as a burial-place for negroes, slave and free. It was a desolate, inappropriate spot, descending with a gentle declivity towards a ravine which led to the Kalkhook pond. The negroes in the city were, both in the Dutch and English colonial times, a proscribed and detested race, having nothing in common with the whites.

Many of them were Native Africans, imported hither in slave ships, and retaining their native superstitions and burial customs, among which was that of burying by night, with various mummeries and outcries. This custom was finally prohibited by the authorities from its dangerous and exciting tendencies among the blacks. So little seems to have been thought of the race that not even a dedication of their burial-place was made by the church authorities, or any others who  might reasonably be supposed to have an interest in such a matter. The lands were inappropriate, and though within  convenient distance from the city, the locality was unattractive and desolate, so that by permission the slave population were allowed to inter their dead there. (D. T. Valentine, Manual of the Common Council of the City of New York for 1860)

           In 1712, Rev. John Sharpe wrote that the Africans were “buried in the Common by those of their country and complexion without the office, on the contrary the Heathenish rites are performed at the grave by their countrymen, and there is no notice given of their being sick that they may be visited and many other such deficiencys [sic] there are to discourage them.”

           As the enslaved population grew, so did the burial ground, eventually covering five to six acres, or about five city blocks. Even there, harsh legal restrictions applied. No more than twelve persons were permitted in funeral processions or at graveside services, and interment was not allowed at night, the customary time for many African burial rituals. Enslaved blacks were required to have a written pass in order to travel more than a mile away from home. For many, that was about the distance from their lower Manhattan homes to the cemetery located outside of town. No palls or gloves were allowed under penalty of whipping.

           Archaeological excavations have shown that the dead were buried individually, most in wooden coffins, arms folded or placed at the sides and oriented with heads to the west. Bodies—wrapped in shrouds fastened with brass straight pins—were sometimes buried with items such as coins, shells, and beads. Over time, the Burial Ground became densely crowded with coffins stacked three and four deep in some places. Some archaeologists estimate that upwards of twenty thousand men, women, and children were buried at the cemetery.

           In 1803 the Negros Burial Ground was covered over with landfill, up to twenty-five feet deep in some places, to make way for the construction of buildings and a section of Broadway. In 1846 the A. T. Stewart Store, the city’s first department store, opened at 280 Broadway, on the site. Remains unearthed during excavation for the building were dug up and carted off for use as landfill.

           Seeking burial space in 1807, Zion Church (at 158 Church Street) successfully petitioned for a portion of the Potter’s Field at West 4th Street, currently Washington Square Park. The search for a cemetery came after city inspectors discovered Zion had “no burying ground, but inter[red] all their dead in a vault under the church.” According to the inspectors’ report, 750 bodies were buried beneath the church between 1802 and 1807.

           In May 1991, workmen began unearthing human remains from the Negros Burial Ground during the preconstruction phase of a federal office building at 290 Broadway. Following the discovery of fully intact graves in late September, archaeologists recognized the site as the largest and only known urban pre–Revolutionary War cemetery in America. Vigorous protests by African Americans who wanted the construction stopped resulted in a temporary halt to allow the excavation of some remains. Skeletons were taken to Howard University for study.

           Eight beads were discovered at the neck of a baby less than two months old in Burial 226. The beads, originally probably opaque yellow, were made using a distinctive West African technique. Glass is pounded into a powder, placed in clay molds, and fired. After firing, the beads are shaped and smoothed by grinding. The adorning of infants is common in the regions from which captives were taken, and among other things signals that a family and community have claimed the child. This infant was buried in the same grave as a man twenty-five to thirty-five years old. A young child (Burial 254) wore a small silver earring as a pendant around his neck.

           Burial 340 was the grave of a woman with filed teeth whose age was determined to be somewhere between thirty-nine and sixty-five years old, though main indicators suggest she was about fifty. She wore a strand of beads and cowrie shells at her waist. Among the waist beads was one that was barrel-shaped and opaque black (though appearing dark amber under strong light), with a gold foil wave pattern; another one was amber. She also wore a bracelet of tiny alternating yellow and turquoise beads. The glass beads were probably manufactured in Venice. Millions of such beads were traded to Africa during the eighteenth century. A young woman (Burial 25) had suffered extreme violence. Her face was crushed, a wrist was fractured, and a musket ball was lodged in her rib cage.

           Small lumps of rusted iron, originally tacks nailed into the lid of the Burial 332 coffin, formed the initials and age of the deceased. However, the vast majority of the coffins were undecorated, and the only hardware was the nails used to construct them.

           Following the study, the remains were reinterred in a solemn ceremony on October 3 and 4, 2003. The Negros Burial Ground, rebaptized the African Burial Ground, has been designated a New York City Historic District and a National Landmark. Its rediscovery and the struggle to protect and recognize it have prompted an increased awareness of the early history of Africans in America, of the development of distinctive cultural traditions and lifestyles despite much adversity, and of the contributions of the African and African-American community to American history.

Free New Yorkers

           Some enslaved New Yorkers got their freedom through manumission, but for the vast majority, freedom became a reality only in the nineteenth century. In 1799 New York State passed an Act for the gradual abolition of Slavery. It stipulated that “any child born of a slave within this state after the fourth day of July next shall be deemed and adjudged to be born free: Provided nevertheless. That such child shall be the servant of the legal proprietor of his or her mother . . . in the same manner as if such child had been bound to service by the overseers of the poor.”

           All children born after July 4, 1799, had to work for their mother’s owner until males reached the age of twenty-eight, and females the age of twenty-five. Slaveholders were thus assured that they could continue to exploit their workers during their most productive years. People born before that date were to remain enslaved for life. Yet, fearing that they could soon lose their free labor, many slaveholders sold men and women South, while others were kidnapped and traded to the slaveholding states.

           Eighteen years later, the March 31, 1817, Act declared that all enslaved people born before July 4, 1799, would be freed on July 4, 1827. Over ten thousand black New Yorkers were thus granted freedom, although they had to wait to enjoy it. In addition, children born between 1817 and July 4, 1827, were to continue working—they were indentured—for their owners until they turned twenty-one.

           On July 4, 1827, black churches conducted daylong celebrations. The next day, more than two thousand African Americans gathered in the vicinity of St. John’s Park and marched to Zion Church at 158 Church Street, after being urged by members of the New York State legislature to celebrate emancipation on the fifth, since white citizens revered July 4 as the day of national independence.

           Whether free or enslaved before 1827, black New Yorkers faced discrimination, segregation, racism, and the possibility of enslavement in the South. To protect their rights and strengthen their community, they founded and developed numerous organizations and mutual aid societies. The New-York African Society for Mutual Relief was established in 1808 under the leadership of William Hamilton, a free black carpenter reputed to be the son of Founding Father Alexander Hamilton. In 1820, the Society bought a tenement house on Orange (Baxter) Street with money offered by Juliet Toussaint, a former Haitian slave, the wife of Pierre Toussaint. The building served as a relay of the Underground Railroad.

           The New York Union African Society, a benevolent association, was organized and incorporated in 1830. The following year, Henry Highland Garnet, William H. Day, and David Ruggles formed the Garrison Literary and Benevolent Association of New York. Women organized the Abyssinian Benevolent Daughters of Esther Association in 1839.

           The struggle against discrimination and segregation had always been fought in church. In August 1796, a group of African Americans, primarily from the John Street Methodist Church, requested permission to become a separate society of Methodists after holding a series of secret meetings in the home of James Varick at 4 Orange Street. They were dissatisfied with their second-class treatment at John Street. The group organized Zion Church, a leading force in the abolition movement. Zion moved from a rented house on Cross Street to a newly erected edifice on the corner of Church and Leonard Streets in 1800.

           Similarly, in 1808, black members of the First Baptist Church and a group of Ethiopian (Abyssinian) merchants, unwilling to accept segregated seating, founded the Abyssinian Baptist Church on Anthony Street (Worth Street) in Lower Manhattan. Ten years later, blacks who had formed the Free African Church of St. Philip (Episcopalian), separating themselves from Trinity Church, built a wooden church on Centre Street, between Worth and Leonard. It quickly grew and became a center of attacks for its antislavery activities.

           In 1818, blacks who withdrew from Sands Street Church established the African Wesleyan Methodist Episcopal Church (Bridge Street Church), the first black church in Brooklyn. And, in 1841, Haitian former slave Pierre Toussaint offered the first donation, $100, for the construction of a Roman Catholic Church (now St. Vincent de Paul’s on West 23rd Street) in Manhattan for French-speaking people.

           As the community developed and organized, businesses grew. On January 15, 1762, Samuel “Black Sam” Fraunces, a West Indian of mixed French and African descent, opened the Queens Head Tavern at the intersection of Pearl Street and Broad Street. Thomas Downing was the owner of another successful black establishment: Oyster House, a restaurant and catering business he opened in 1820 at Broad and Wall Streets. Andrew Williams, a shoe shiner, purchased three lots of land near West 80th Street and Central Park West in 1825 for $125. This was the origin of the neighborhood known as Seneca Village.

           Despite some breakthroughs, black businesspeople faced many obstacles and fought back. In April 1836, a city policy against granting carting licenses to blacks was challenged by William S. Hewlett, a porter living on Pearl Street. Hewlett petitioned to start a business selling books from a cart, but was refused a license on the basis of “public opinion.” Anthony Provost, attempting to start a small business, challenged the policy in 1839. He defiantly loaded his goods on “as good a horse and cart as was to be seen on any dock” and attempted to do his business without a license. Provost was fined following a complaint by a white cart-man.


           Education was high on the community’s agenda. During the British period, the earliest schools and formal instructional programs for enslaved black New Yorkers were established and run by the Church of England’s “Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts,” the missionary arm of England’s Anglican Church. Its secretary noted in 1730 that the society regarded “the instruction and conversion of the Negroes as a principal branch of their care.” Adding that it was “a great reproach to Christians that Negroes in a Christian land should continue as pagan as they had been in Africa.” The society never advocated for abolition and allowed missionaries to own slaves.

           In 1785, two members of Trinity Church (John Jay, first Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court; and Alexander Hamilton, first Secretary of the U.S. Treasury) founded the New York Society for Promoting the Manumission of Slaves. Known as the New York Manumission Society, it supported the “gradual abolition of slavery” and established the African Free School in 1787. It instructed from forty to sixty children a year. A state law passed in 1810 required slaveholders to teach enslaved children to read scriptures, and another in 1841 provided that public schools be open to all children.

           In 1820, the African Free School No. 2, a large brick building that could accommodate five hundred students, opened at 135–137 Mulberry Street. Over the years, seven African Free Schools were founded; they merged with the Public School Society in 1834. Among the former students of the African Free School were distinguished men who played an active part in the social, religious, and cultural life and struggles of the black community throughout the nineteenth century.

           Henry Highland Garnet (1815–1882), born in slavery in Maryland, ran away with his parents in 1824. He became a prominent Presbyterian minister, antislavery activist, and orator. Reverend Garnet demanded a boycott of products made by slave labor. In 1843, he delivered a “Call to Rebellion” to the National Negro Convention in Buffalo, New York. The speech called upon free and enslaved blacks to act for themselves to achieve total emancipation. First an opponent and then a proponent of colonization, he was named ambassador to Liberia in 1881 but passed away shortly after his arrival there.

           James McCune Smith (1813–1865) excelled academically at the African Free School. Prohibited from studying at American medical schools, he received a degree in medicine in Scotland. Returning to New York, Dr. Smith began a medical practice, officiated at the Colored Orphan Asylum, and opened a pharmacy on Broadway. He was a member of the Committee of Thirteen that fought against the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, a leading abolitionist, and an essayist who contributed numerous articles to scholarly and popular journals and newspapers. Frederick Douglass listed him as the “single most influence on his life.”

           Peter Williams Ray (1825–1906) followed mentor James McCune Smith into the medical profession. Dr. Ray kept a Brooklyn pharmacy for fifty years at the corner of South Second and Hooper Street in Williamsburg. He was a founder of the Brooklyn College of Pharmacy and served in the Union army as a surgeon.

           Ira Aldridge (1807–1867) was born in New York City and first performed in plays during his training at the African Free School. He later honed his craft at the African Grove Theatre on Bleecker Street. Finding few opportunities to act in the United States, Aldridge went to England and became one of Europe’s most acclaimed Shakespearean actors. He was also hailed for his performances in German and Russian. Aldridge is buried in Lodz, Poland.

           Alexander Crummell (1819–1898) graduated from the African Free School and attended Noyes Academy in New Hampshire with his friend Henry Highland Garnet. A member of St. Philip’s Episcopal Church, Crummell sought to become a priest within the Episcopal faith but was denied admission to the General Theological Seminary because of his color. An advocate of Pan-Africanism, Reverend Crummell received a degree in theology from Cambridge University in England.

           Peter Vogelsang, Jr. (1815–1887), was born in New York City, the son of Peter Sr. of St. Croix—active in the emigration movement to Haiti, a founding member of the African Society for Mutual Relief, and the owner of a shipping company—and Maria Miller of New York. Peter Jr. later gained employment as a clerk in Brooklyn. He married Theodocia DeGrasse, the daughter of George DeGrasse—an Indian from Calcutta—and Maria Van Surlay, whose family is believed to have included Dutch and Moroccan ancestors. During the Civil War, Vogelsang became a lieutenant in the all-black 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment. The oldest recruit, he distinguished himself heroically in the war.

           Albro Lyons (1814–1896), a businessman and property owner in Brooklyn and Manhattan, operated the Colored Sailors’ Home at 20 Vandewater Street. Lyons’s daughter, Maritcha, described in her memoir how the many functions of their home made it an inconspicuous stopping point for runaway slaves: “Father’s connection with the Underground Railroad brought many strange faces to our house, for it was semi-public and persons could go in and out without attracting special attention.” During the 1863 Draft Riots the Lyons home was attacked and badly damaged.

           George Thomas Downing (1819–1903) was the eldest son of entrepreneur Thomas Downing, owner of Downing’s Oyster House on Broad Street. George founded a literary society at the African Free School with classmates Henry H. Garnett and James M. Smith. After graduating from Hamilton College, he ran his father’s restaurant and allowed its basement to serve as a station or hiding place for freedom seekers on the Underground Railroad. He later opened a branch of his father’s famous oyster house in Newport, Rhode Island.

           Samuel Ringgold Ward (1817–ca.1866) was born into slavery in Maryland, fled as a child fled with his parents in 1820 to New Jersey, and later relocated to New York City. In 1826, Samuel’s parents enrolled him in the African Free School. Later ordained a pastor in the Congregational church in Poughkeepsie, Ward traveled extensively in the North and to England, where he raised awareness and funds for the antislavery movement. Frederick Douglass once remarked, “As an orator and thinker [Ward] was vastly superior to any of us.”

           Patrick Henry Reason (1816–1898) was born in New York as Patrice Rison, the son of parents from Guadeloupe and Santo Domingo (Dominican Republic). Reason’s early interest in art was nurtured at the African Free School. His skill as an artist was recognized at age thirteen, with his well-known drawing of African Free School No. 2. At the age of seventeen Reason “put and bound himself apprentice” to an engraver. An artist and abolitionist, he worked for Harper’s and other New York publishers, although many firms refused to hire him because of his race.

           Other alumni of the African Free School distinguished themselves: founding member of the American Anti-Slavery Society Rev. Theodore Wright graduated from Princeton Theological Seminary; abolitionist and newspaper editor John Russwurm from Bowdoin College in Maine; Edward Mitchell from Dartmouth; William Brown and William G. Smith from Columbia; and Edward Jones from Amherst College.

           Black leaders and parents fought for better facilities and instruction in public schools and demanded more black teachers and representation in the governing structures of New York City’s public schools. They also established their own schools.

           In 1833, several black leaders, including Reverends Christopher Rush and Theodore Wright, Thomas Jennings, and Benjamin Hughes, formed the Phoenix Society, which had among its goals to “get the children out to infant, Sabbath, and week schools and induce the adults also to attend school and church on the Sabbath; to help to clothe poor children of color, if they will attend school — the clothes to be loaned, and taken away from them if they neglect their schools, and to impress on the parents the importance of having the children punctual and regular in their attendance at school; to establish circulating libraries, formed in each ward, for the use of people of color, on very moderate pay; to seek out young men of talents and good moral character, that they may be assisted to obtain a liberal education.” The society rented a building and attracted hundreds of people to its lectures. It established the Phoenix High School in 1836. It closed in 1839 but another, the New York Select Academy, opened in the St. Phillip’s Church basement. It too had to close for lack of funds.

           In 1845, the New York State superintendent of schools estimated that eleven thousand black children in the state were of school age (five through fifteen). As most schools did not permit black students, less than 25 percent were receiving an education, most within the African Free School model. To maintain all-white schools, the state legislature authorized local governments to create separate school districts for the education of black children. They were given a status of “separate but equal” with the regular public schools and renamed “Colored Schools.”

           By 1860, 2,377 pupils were enrolled in eight primary “Colored Schools” in the city, while Brooklyn had three segregated schools for about nine hundred black children. Thirteen-year-old Maritcha Lyons—daughter of Albro Lyons—attended Manhattan’s Colored School No. 3 at Broadway and 37th Street. Bigoted public carriage drivers often refused to pick up black adults or children. When this happened, Maritcha walked the entire way, a distance of more than three miles from her family’s home on Vandewater Street in Lower Manhattan.

Civic Struggles

           The preoccupations and struggles of black New Yorkers were reflected in their newspapers. Freedom’s Journal, the first black newspaper in the United States, began publication on March 16, 1827. Edited by Samuel Cornish and John Russwurm, it operated from Zion Church at 152 Church Street. Russwurm, born a slave in Port Antonio, Jamaica, was one of the earliest black graduates of an American college.

           Ten years later, Philip A. Bell began publishing the Weekly Advocate with Cornish as editor. The paper became the Colored American in March 1837 and ceased publication in 1842. In 1838, David Ruggles, a free young man from Connecticut who arrived in New York at seventeen around 1827, launched The Mirror of Liberty, possibly America’s first black magazine; and in1847, Frederick Douglass founded the North Star in Rochester, New York. Thomas Hamilton started publishing the Anglo-African Magazine in 1859.

           Four main issues were at the center of black New Yorkers’ concerns in the early 1800s: African colonization, abolitionism, the fight against the kidnapping of free blacks, and assistance to runaways. On July 4, 1830 speaking against the American Colonization Society (ACS) that advocated emigration to Liberia, Rev. Peter Williams, Jr., charged that its aim was to rid the country of its free black population. Williams accused the society’s supporters of wanting to make conditions so miserable for blacks that they would want to leave. Strong condemnation of the ACS was also heard at the fourth annual National Negro Convention held in Manhattan June 2–13, 1834, presided over by William Hamilton.

           In 1833, the American Anti-Slavery Society, a national movement, had established its headquarters at 143 Nassau Street in New York, long a center of antislavery activism. The society’s president was Arthur Tappan, a wealthy white philanthropist. African Americans Samuel Cornish and Theodore S. Wright were members of the Executive Committee. By 1840 the society counted 250,000 members and 2,000 local chapters.

           As long as slavery existed in the country, free black New Yorkers were not safe. As early as 1808 the state legislature had passed the Act to Prevent the Kidnapping of Free People of Colour, the second of its kind in the nation, and the first in a state where slavery was still legal. However, blacks continued to be abducted by posses known as “blackbirders” and sent to the South, Cuba, and South America. The most famous was Solomon Northup, author of the famous autobiography Twelve Years a Slave. A native of New York State, he was lured to and kidnapped in Washington, D.C., in 1841, enslaved in Louisiana, and freed in 1853.

           To prevent the kidnapping of free blacks and assist runaways from the South, New York black abolitionists organized the New York Committee of Vigilance in 1835. Among its founding members were David Ruggles, Robert Brown, and runaway Thomas van Rensellaer, who noted that black New Yorkers were giving donations to the cause that exceeded anything he had ever seen before.

           The New York Committee of Vigilance reported that it had helped more than six hundred runaways pass through the city to Canada in its first two years. On September 4, 1838, Frederick Washington Bailey, a runaway from Maryland, arrived in lower Manhattan disguised as a sailor. Finding shelter at Ruggles’s house located at 36 Lispenard Street, he awaited the arrival of his fiancée, Anna Murray, a free black woman from Maryland. They were married in a service performed by Rev. James Pennington and resumed Bailey’s freedom journey to Massachusetts, where he changed his name to Frederick Douglass.

           The federal Fugitive Slave Law of September 1850 gave a slave owner or his agent the right to retrieve a fugitive even in the North with the assistance of local authorities. James Hamlet, a runaway living as a free man in the City of Williamsburgh (Brooklyn), was the first person seized under the act. He was returned to Maryland. Fifteen hundred supporters rallied at Zion Church on Leonard Street in Manhattan and raised $800 to buy his freedom. On October 5, several thousand people held a demonstration at City Hall Park to welcome him back to New York, and more than two hundred escorted him to his home in Williamsburgh.

           The Fugitive Slave Law and the fear of kidnappings pushed numerous black New Yorkers into leaving the city. Some migrated to Canada, Liberia, or Haiti; others moved west to California; still others settled in Florence, a black settlement in Oneida County, in upstate New York, on land given by abolitionist Gerrit Smith.

Black Neighborhoods

           Africans and their descendants had lived in Greenwich Village since the seventeenth century. The area where they were the most numerous was known by the 1850s as “Little Africa.” The Abyssinian Baptist Church was located at 166 Waverly Place, the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Zion Church at 315 Bleecker Street (it had moved from Five Points in 1850). Also in the Village were Bethel AME Church and the Catholic St. Benedict the Moor Church.

           Little Africa and the Minettas (Minetta Lane and Minetta Street) were presented in the late nineteenth century as derelict, violent, and vice-ridden black enclaves by writers bent on sensationalism. Portrayals of the mixed establishments called “black and tan saloons” were especially negative. Jacob Riis in his How the Other Half Lives wrote of “the commingling of the utterly depraved of both sexes, white and black on such ground” as an abomination full of “all the lawbreakers and all the human wrecks within reach.”

           Jasper Danckaerts and Peter Sluyter described another black neighborhood in Manhattan in 1679:

           We went from the city following the Broadway, over the valley or the fresh water. Upon both sides of this way were many habitations of negroes, mulattoes and whites. These negroes were formerly the proper slaves of the [West India] company, but, in consequence of the frequent changes and conquests of the country, they have obtained their freedom and settled themselves down where they have thought proper, and thus on this road, where they have ground enough to live on with their families. (Journal of Jasper Danckaerts, 1679-1680)

           The Five Points—as it was later known—was situated by Collect Pond, a forty-eight-acre lake that was drained and then covered in 1811. The area was delimited by Orange Street (Baxter Street), Cross Street, Anthony (Worth) Street, and Little Water Street. Like Little Africa, it too was described as seedy, poor, violent, and disease- and crime-ridden. It was, however, home to some of the black middle class, made up of artisans and businesspeople such as businessman Thomas Downing, Rev. Peter Williams, and abolitionists Henry Sipkins and William G. Hamilton.

           The area boasted several abolitionist organizations and black churches. The African Bethlehem Church, the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, the First Colored Presbyterian Church, and St. Philip’s African Episcopal Church were located in Five Points, as was the New York African Society for Mutual Relief, founded in 1808, with headquarters at 42 Orange Street. A meeting point, it opened a school and was a stop on the Underground Railroad.

           Starting in the 1820s, sustained Irish immigration into Five Points created tensions. During the antiabolition riots of 1834, which targeted white and black abolitionists and the larger African American community, white mobs looted St. Philip’s Episcopal Church and the African Society for Mutual Relief. About five hundred blacks fled the area.

           The widening of some streets in the 1830s was used to justify the destruction of buildings housing black New Yorkers. In addition, the working-class neighborhood of Five Points was located on prime real estate close to the city’s upper-class enclave and City Hall, and businessmen were eager to acquire and develop the land. Displaced from Five Points by gentrification or violence, many African Americans moved north to the area south of Washington Square—bordered by MacDougal, Thompson, Sullivan, Minetta Lane, and Bleecker Street—before being displaced once more, this time by the incoming Italian immigration of the late 1800s.

           The black presence in Harlem dates back to the 1630s when Africans and African Americans worked in the forests of the northern part of Manhattan. In 1658 Governor Peter Stuyvesant ordered enslaved Africans to build a nine-mile road from lower Manhattan to the city known then as Nieuw Haarlem. In1690, farmers complained about “a band of Negroes” who had ran away, lived in the woods and “committed depredations.” They were actually maroons.

           In 1665, Harlem residents erected the First Reformed Low Dutch Church of Harlem (future Elmendorf Reformed Church) at First Avenue and 127th Street and a quarter acre of land was reserved for a “Negro Burying Ground.” African Americans were buried there until 1850 but in 1853, the land was offered to the highest bidder and sold for $3,000. The graves of God’s Acre, the white part of the cemetery, were transferred to Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx. But the remains of Jane Anthony, Herman Canon, Franklin Butler, Margaret Walker and the close to forty people of African descent whose names have been identified were left behind. Over the years, the burial ground was paved over and became the site of a casino, a movie studio and finally a bus depot. In the summer of 2015, 140 bones and bone fragments as well as a skull were recovered.

           Facing discrimination and violence, some black New Yorkers established separate communities with their own businesses, churches, and schools. Seneca Village, which extended from 82nd to 89th streets between Seventh and Eighth avenues—about three miles north of the city limits—was founded in 1825 on five acres of farmland that black New Yorkers bought from the white Whitehead family, following the lead of Andrew Williams, a “boot black” who bought three lots on September 27. Williams was a member of the African Society for Mutual Relief and a trustee of the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church. On the same day, fellow church trustee Epiphany Davis bought twelve lots.

           Soon after, some people evicted from the black York Hill community—between 79th and 86th streets and Sixth and Seventh avenues—to make place for the Croton reservoir moved into Seneca Village, as did Irish immigrants in the 1840s. The York Hill community built a branch of its African Union Methodist Church in Seneca Village in the 1830s, and in the 1840s, the integrated All Angels’ Church—70 percent of whose parishioners were black—was opened on Broadway and 99th Street. One school, Colored School No. 3, operated from the basement of the African Union Methodist Church.

           In 1850 Seneca Village counted 20 percent of the city’s 71 black landowners—including women—and 10 percent of its 100 eligible voters out of a black population of 12,000. The low number of eligible black voters was due to the more stringent rules for blacks than for whites to qualify to vote. By 1855, Andrew Williams had become a cart-man, an occupation long reserved to white men. Williams and his neighbors represented the black middle class. In 1855, the village had 264 residents (two-thirds of them African Americans), two cemeteries (no record exist of a cemetery at African Union Methodist Church), three churches, and a school. Over thirty years, 589 people had lived in the village.

           When the project to create Central Park gained speed, a campaign to enlist support for the neighborhood’s demolition described it as “rundown and seedy.” Residents fiercely resisted the destruction of their community, but their land was seized through eminent domain with compensation for homeowners that they judged inadequate. They were all evicted, sometimes violently. Seneca Village was razed, and the residents scattered.

           A few predominantly black neighborhoods developed in Brooklyn. In 1838, James Weeks, a former slave from Virginia and a stevedore, bought part of the Lefferts estate and founded an enclave known as Weeksville. With Carrville (one mile away) these predominantly black districts were delimited by Atlantic Avenue, Ralph Avenue, Eastern Parkway, and Albany Avenue. By the 1850s, Weeksville boasted an orphanage, Colored School No. 2 (now P.S. 243), churches, a cemetery, and a home for the aged. Ten years later, the neighborhood had over 500 residents, and its own newspaper, the Freeman’s Torchlight.

           Weeksville and Carrville counted 650 residents in 1875, but these flourishing communities disappeared as black enclaves following the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge, which led to intensified urbanization and the opening of streets such as Eastern Parkway that cut through the area. They became part of Bedford Stuyvesant. In Queens, black enclaves were established at Liberty Street (in Flushing) and Green (in Jamaica).

           On Staten Island, several African-American families lived in the mixed enclave of Sandy Ground, known as Little Africa. It was settled by European Americans in the eighteenth century, but African Americans from New York and New Jersey—mostly strawberry farmers—moved in in the 1830s, and black oyster gatherers from the Chesapeake Bay in 1841. By 1880, the community counted about 150 residents.

The War Years

           On January 1, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation.

           Just seven months later, from July 13 to 16, the so-called Draft Riots shook the city. The draft was mandatory for all male citizens between the ages of twenty and thirty-five and all bachelors between twenty and forty-five. The quota for New York was 12,500, and for Brooklyn, then an independent city, 4,600. But a federal law allowed wealthy young men to avoid the draft by paying $300 for substitutes to serve in their places. The poor, the working-class, and the European immigrants, who could not afford the fee, were outraged. They turned their anger on black New Yorkers, blaming them for the war. They also worried that freed men and women would migrate north and compete with them on the labor market.

           Irate mobs, made up mostly of Irish immigrants, went on a rampage. They attacked black men and women on the streets, at the docks, and on streetcars, and destroyed their property and the establishments that catered to them. A crowd of several hundred gathered in front of the Colored Orphan Asylum located since 1842 on Fifth Avenue between 43rd and 44th streets. As the crowd looted and set the building on fire, 233 children were led out a back door. They found shelter at the Twentieth Precinct on 35th Street, where they stayed for three days. They were then sent to the almshouse on Blackwell’s Island (now Roosevelt Island).

           Many African Americans sought to arm themselves in self-defense. At Manhattan’s Fifth Police Precinct, more than four hundred requested and were issued firearms. Others found protection in the black communities of Flatbush in Queens and Weeksville in Brooklyn. The Christian Recorder reported that in both neighborhoods, black men “armed themselves . . . determined to die defending their homes.”

           William Powell’s Colored Seamen’s Home at 2 Dover Street in Manhattan was “completely rifled of all its furniture, books, and clothing.” The building was badly damaged, and Powell, his family, and boarders were “compelled to escape over the roof for their lives.” Powell’s partner, Albro Lyons, saw his store looted. After having repulsed two attacks on their home, which was finally entirely demolished, Lyons and his family, like many others, fled to Brooklyn. Interestingly, the historically black and mixed Five Points neighborhood remained mostly quiet and no African American was killed in the area.

           Eleven black men were lynched, tortured, mutilated, hung from lampposts, and burned. About one hundred peopl