Thursday, November 13, 2008

by Carl Hancock Rux

Celebrating Emancipation Day, a picnic was held in Myrtle Avenue park according to the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. The event (Wednesday, Aug. 1st 1883), celebrated “the enfranchisement of the Negro race” and was “one of the jolliest and most rollicking picnics of the season”. Seventeen years after the legal Emancipation of slavery in the United States and fifty years after the Slavery Abolition Act in the majority of the British Empire, as many as two thousand “colored residents of New York, Jersey City, Staten Island, Newark, New Haven, Jamaica and the city of Brooklyn” arrived in Brooklyn on horseback and by foot: both “well to do colored citizens in suits of broadcloth, high hats and showy jewelry”; “colored belles” and “colored mashers” as well as “longshormen with rough suit of clothes, jumper and clay pipe”. Featuring beer and watermelon sold for “one cent a slice and upward” , the Emancipation Proclomation was read aloud, followed by a 100 yard foot race, cornet and trombone solos, fireworks, and dancing continuing long after midnight. One thing “very noticeable” by the Eagle’s reporter were the “number of women who were possessed of good looks, who were either married to or associating with colored men” and the “few white men with colored women”.
Though the arrival of Africans and the “emancipation of slavery” in America is a long and multifarious matter, from it’s earliest, slavery existed in Brooklyn and the other parts of Long Island. From the beginnings of slavery in British North America (around 1607) when English colonists and Dutch settlers first arrived in Virginia with 20 or so African slaves in tow, nearly 240 years would pass with over twelve million Africans shipped to the Americas before the Thirteenth Amendment to the U. S. Constitution, legally (if not officially) ending slavery in the United States in 1865. The slave trade became a cornerstone of the New York economy and held the largest colonial slave population north of Maryland. Though slave labor was especially important in the development of New York and Brooklyn, not all pre-Revolutionary war African Americans were slaves. As early as the 17th century, many blacks and whites had coequal standing in the colonial courts, with indentured European laborers, who were cheaper to import to America from England than indigenous Africans. Free blacks were allowed to own property (Jews, free or indentured, were not). Blacks intermarried freely with whites and in some cases owned white indentured servants. Many Africans in New Netherland (as the state was then called) were trusted to serve in the militias, given arms and helped to defend the Dutch and British settlements during the “Indian War” of 1641-44. They were even used to aid in the fight against white tenant farmers and the Anti-Rent Wars of the Rensselaerswyck revolt (the land now known as Albany, NY). By the 18th century, New York had numerous visibly white persons held as slaves. In 1609, a boat’s crew from the Half Moon landed on Coney Island and anchored at the mouth of “the great river of the mountains”. The earliest recorded grant of Brooklyn land dates back to 1636. After 1682, as the number of slaves rose (in many places more rapidly than the white population), by the time of the Revolutionary war there were but 50 residences known in Brooklyn, then an agricultural village of cedar groves, pastures, orchards and market gardens, Dutch farm houses scattered along the shore of the East river. What is known as South Brooklyn was largely swamp land. Individual Dutch slave owners, such as Director General Peter Stuyvesant (who served as the last Dutch Director-General of the colony of New Netherland from 1647 until it was ceded provisionally to the English in 1664 and became New York and after whom Stuyvesant avenue in Brooklyn is named) adopted a system of “half freedom”, allowing slaves to be free during “off-seasons”. The Dutch West India Company (principal trader of African slaves in which Stuyvesant played a pivotal role) relaxed its monopoly and “was willing to forego profit for the sake of spreading slavery in New Netherlands and getting the colony settled”. The British at first handled slaves in New York on the same relatively humane terms the Dutch had set. The population already was racially mixed, and slavery in New York at first was passed down not exactly by race, but by matrilineal inheritance: the child of a male slave and a free woman was free, the child of a female slave and a free man was a slave. Private settlers, however, still faced an acute shortage of agricultural labor that was retarding the colony. A company audit report noted that, "New Netherland would by slave labor be more extensively cultivated than it has hitherto been, because the agricultural laborers, who are conveyed thither at great expense to the colonists sooner or later apply themselves to trade, and neglect agriculture altogether." Slavery provided the necessary labor force which made farming attractive and profitable to the settlers. Most colonists found the Africans "proud and treacherous," and preferred to seek "seasoned" slaves from the West Indies and those seized by privateers from Spanish ships in order to expand its agricultural output.
Though written records of slavery in Brooklyn are scarce, the first written histories of Brooklyn are by General Jeremiah Johnson (a one sheet newspaper published “every Wednesday morning”). An article in 1800 describes all of Brooklyn as having a population of less than 5,000, “chiefly of Dutch extraction”—including “1,439 slaves and 46 free persons not enumerated.” The historian, speaking of the Brooklyn Dutch community, said, “some are attached to their old prejudices” but “liberality and a taste for the fine arts have made considerable progress. The slaves are treated well but the opinion relative to their freedom is yet too much influenced by pecuniary motives.” as early as 1732, slave-owner Edward Willet advertised the sale of “a very good negro woman, aged twenty seven...understanding all sorts of business, in city or country, and speaking very good English and Dutch.” In 1764, an Avis Remsen offered a reward of seventy shillings for the apprehension of a runaway negro named Harry who spoke “English, French and Spanish and a little of other languages.” Nationwide, many slaves, especially young men, tended to gravitate to New York city, rather than Canada. Here, many sought to escape the colony by taking passage on ships, whose captains often were not overly scrupulous about the backgrounds of their sailors. "Others skulked along the waterfront, where they were drawn into gangs of criminal slaves infesting the docks. The most notorious gang was the Geneva Club, named after the Geneva gin its members were fond of imbibing. There were also groups known as the Free Masons, the Smith Fly Boys, the Long Bridge Boys, and many others whose names have not been recorded. Slaves belonging to such gangs were extremely clannish and often engaged in “murderous feuds”. Only rarely, however, did they attack white persons. The very existence of such groups nevertheless caused the whites much anxiety. The authorities regarded them as a “much greater threat to the public safety than the deadlier gangs of white hoodlums on the waterfront”. One such incident, in 1712, involved a rebellion of slaves who decided death was preferable to life in bondage. They managed to collect a cache of muskets and other weapons and hide it in an orchard on the edge of town. On the night of April 6, twenty-four of the conspirators gathered, armed themselves, and set fire to a nearby building in Brooklyn Heights near the waterfront. Hiding among trees, when white citizens rushed to put out the blaze, the slaves opened fire on them, killing five and wounding six. From 1701 to 1726, officially, some 1,570 slaves were imported from the West Indies and another 802 from Africa. As it had under the Dutch, the colony continued to import relatively few slaves from Africa directly, except occasional cargoes of children. In some years illegal shipment of slaves on a single vessel outnumbered the official imports to the whole colony. For the most part, slave importation to the Americas ended by 1770.
During the Revolutionary war and the battle of Brooklyn, the construction of Fort Putnam at the summit (Fort Greene Park) defended General George Washington's retreat across the East River to safety before being left to the British. The British actively recruited slaves belonging to Patriot masters by declaring free “all indented servants, Negroes, or others (appertaining to Rebels)” that “are able and willing to bear arms” in “His Majesty's Troops”. Many African Americans, like Agrippa Hull and Prince Hall, did side with the Patriot cause. Promising freedom to any slaves owned by Patriot masters who joined the Loyalist forces (runaway slaves belonging to Loyalists were returned to their masters) as many as 5,000 black men served in the Continental Army, and hundreds more served on the sea. When George Washington took command of the Continental Army in 1775, he barred the further recruitment of black soldiers, despite the fact that they had fought side by side with their white counterparts at the battles of Lexington, Concord and Bunker Hill. For black people, what mattered most was freedom. As the Revolutionary War spread through every region, those in bondage sided with whichever army promised them personal liberty. As the Revolutionary War ensued, an estimated 100,000 Africans escaped human bondage in America by boat or by death on the battlefield. .
Shortly after the Revolutionary war, a resolution passed in the state Constitutional Convention to abolish domestic slavery altogether, beginning with slaves who had served in the armed forces against the British. In November 1782, Britain and America signed a provisional treaty granting the former colonies their independence. As the British prepared for their final evacuation, the Americans demanded the return of American property, including runaway slaves, under the terms of the peace treaty. With thousands of apprehensive blacks seeking to document their service to the Crown, Brigadier General Samuel Birch, British commandant of the city of New York, created a list of claimants known as The Book of Negroes. 3,000 to 4,000 African Americans Loyalists boarded ships in New York bound for Nova Scotia, Jamaica, and Britain. By 1788, the slave trade in New York was banned outright (with some exception, as some Northern slave holders sold their human property to Southerners for tax purposes) and enforced by The New York Manumission Society, based in the Quaker population of Long Island and headed by the most prominent and wealthy men in the state. By the era of the Civil war (1860) as many as 180,000 African Americans who fought for their freedom as Union soldiers could trace their families to the era of the Pilgrims, predating the ancestries of Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and most members of Congress and the U. S. Senate. A cencus report of 1861 gives the “colored population” of at 3,946, a decrease of about 1,000 in ten years, further noting 32 interracial marriages in new York (colored and white) and 6 in Brooklyn, with about 200 “colored” owners of “real estate”. Still, most free blacks lived in New York at risk of enslavement. The colonial courts ruled that if a white person claimed his black employee was a slave, the burden was on the black person to prove he was not. Blacks on the street who could give no plausible account of their movements or proof of their freedom often were picked up by the authorities and jailed on suspicion of being runaway slaves. Local authorities had all but unlimited power in such cases. A black man was arrested in New York City in 1773 simply "because he had curious marks on his back." In such cases the suspected fugitives were held in local jails while advertisements ran in the newspapers seeking their owners. If a claimant arrived, and reimbursed the sheriff for the cost of the detention and the ads, he took the black person away after a few legal formalities. There was little incentive for the sheriff to challenge the claim of ownership in such cases. Even if no claimant came forth, the authorities sometimes then sold the black person into slavery, to cover the cost of detaining and advertising him.
Many communities of free African Americans existed in the city of Manhattan before the development of Brooklyn. In Greenwich Village, for instance, by the 1630s Dutch settlers had cleared pastures and planted crops in an area called Sapokanikan by Native Americans who camped and fished in the meandering trout stream, and referred to by the Dutch as Noortwyck (present day Minetta lane and Minetta street). Freed African slaves brought here by the Dutch also farmed parcels of land in this sparsely populated district and the African American community was large enough to earn the ethnic nickname of Little Africa. By 1865's end of the Civil War, a full quarter of the city's African American population lived within a few blocks of Minetta Street. It was a thriving community, though terribly poor.
Africans and African Americans had for some time predominated in Five Points and Little Africa, both in the 6th Ward, which was near the African Burial Ground, located on Duane and Elks street, as well as in parts of the 5th and 8th wards. But by the 1840s, these had become integrated communities of working people, including many recent Irish immigrants. Areas like Five Points were hustling and bustling with business, commercial, and industrial activity. From 1825 through 1857, Seneca Village, located between 82nd and 89th Streets and Seventh and Eighth Avenues, was Manhattan's first significant community of African American property owners. By the 1840s, it had become a multi-ethnic community of African Americans, Irish, and German immigrants, and a few indigenous Americans. In 1855, the New York State Census reported approximately 264 individuals living in the village. There were three churches, as well as a school and several cemeteries. Within two years, Seneca Village would be razed and its identity erased by the creation of Central Park. Poor sanitation and crowded housing provided a breeding ground for diseases, and epidemics of cholera and yellow fever swept through in the city and the migration to Brooklyn was imminent.
Brooklyn, largely a rural district which would not see its primary urban development until after the Civil War. The areas now know as Fort Greene/Clinton Hill, once known as the Fourth Ward Brooklyn , were originally dubbed Wallabout by Dutch settlers, meaning “a bend in the harbor.” Walloons (French-speaking Protestants from what is now Belgium) settled here as early as 1624. Though African Americans were longtime Brooklyn residents (the borough had been the slaveholding capital of New York State until slavery was legally abolished in New York State in 1827, almost forty years before the nation wide Emancipation Proclamation of 1863), they were a small and declining proportion of Brooklyn's rapidly growing immigrant population during the 19th century. For the most part, this relatively small number of African Americans remained dispersed throughout the borough, unlike White immigrant groups that were far more concentrated. Through the 18th century, the area remained rural. During the Revolution, dozens of infamous British prison ships docked in the nearby Wallabout Bay. An estimated 11,000 American soldiers died there and were buried in shallow graves along the waterfront. In 1801 the federal government opened the Brooklyn Naval Yard nearby. Over the decades, many of the homes in the district were built for employees of the yards. Residential development of the area in the 1830’s, 40’s, and 50’s coincided with the rapid population increase in the city of Brooklyn. Being part of the flatlands along the East River, Wallabout was not looked upon with the prestige allotted to neighboring Fort Greene or Clinton Hill. As the century progressed, industrialism spread through the East River waterfront including DUMBO, Williamsburg, Greenpoint, and Wallabout. Before 1850, active shipyards, located just north of the neighborhood on the edge of Wallabout Bay, attracted laborers, including a community of free African American workers and their families. Colored School Number 1 (now known as the Charles A. Dorsey School, Public School 67, located on St. Edwards Ave. just off Myrtle) was built in 1847 for the children of African American shipyard workers. In 1842, in what is now known as Clinton Hill, there was but one house on the south side of Myrtle avenue, from Division avenue to Fort Greene, and that was a large house standing on the corner of Myrtle and Classon avenues. Between Myrtle avenue and the Jamaica Turnpike and Fort Greene to Division avenue, an area of one mile by two, there were in 1842 only thirty houses. There were a number of houses north of Myrtle avenue, but by actual count the population of Wallabout.
In 1838, only eleven years after slavery ended in New York State, free African American James Weeks purchased a modest plot of land from Henry C. Thompson, another free African American. That land in what is now Central Brooklyn became Weeksville, a thriving, self sufficient African American community. Weeksville quickly became a safe haven for southern Blacks fleeing slavery and free northern Blacks fleeing racial hatred and violence, including the deadly Civil War draft riots in lower Manhattan. Weeksville Residents established as a suburban enclave on the outskirts of Brooklyn. By 1850 Weeksville became the second largest known independent African American community in pre-Civil War America. Weeksville was also the only African American community whose residents were distinctive for their urban rather than rural occupations, and the only one that merged into a neighborhood of a major American city after the Civil War. Moreover, Weeksville had a higher rate of African American property ownership than 15 other U.S. cities and more job opportunities than ten other northern cities. By the 1860s, Weeksville had its own schools, churches, an orphanage, an old age home, a variety of Black-owned businesses and one of the country’s first African American newspapers, Freedman’s Torchlight. Almost 500 families headed by ministers, doctors, teachers, tradesmen and other self-reliant citizens lived in Weeksville by the 1900s. Its citizens included Alfred Cornish, a member of the 54th Regiment whose story was told in the film Glory; Moses P. Cobb, the first African American policeman in Brooklyn’s Ninth Ward, and Junius C. Morel, a well-known educator, journalist and activist. Freedmans Torchlight Weeksville covered seven blocks and was a model of African American entrepreneurial success, political freedom and intellectual creativity. Its residents participated in every major national effort against slavery and for equal rights for free people of color, including the black convention movement, voting rights campaigns, the Underground Railroad, the Civil War, resistance to the Draft Riots in New York City; Freedman’s schools and African nationalism. According to one historian, Public School 83 in Weeksville became the first public school in the nation to integrate fully its teaching staff. "The community still existed through the 1930s, but by the mid-1950s, Weeksville was all but forgotten, with many of its structures and institutions replaced by new roads and buildings.
Other areas in Brooklyn also boasted some of the nation’s most prominent African Americans, including Dr. Susan Smith McKinney-Steward, who became the first African American woman to practice medicine in New York State. Founder of the Brooklyn Women’s Hospital and Dispensary and active in the suffragist movement, Dr. McKinney lived and operated her private practice from her home at 205 DeKalb ave in the “fashionable Hill District”. Other black doctors lived in the Brooklyn area including Dr. Thomas J. White, the first Black member of the Board of Education and Dr. George A. Phillips, a pharmacist and Dr. Gloucester who lived and practiced near what is today the Fulton Mall, on Duffield and Willoughby Streets in downtown Brooklyn. By 1870, more than one-half of Brooklyn's African Americans lived in Fort Greene, but even here African Americans made up only 10.3 percent of the population. By 1900 the area had the only major African American settlement in New York City. Many working-class African Americans and Whites lived in Fort Greene's northern section. The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 established that the federal government would help owners looking for runaway slaves, which angered abolitionists in the North. Brooklyn was actively involved in the Abolitionist movement. Henry Ward Beecher, minister at the Plymouth Church in Brooklyn Heights, mobilized anti-slavery feelings among his parishioners and others in the community. Men and women joined anti-abolitionist movements, contributed money to the cause, and invited such well known abolitionists as Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman to speak in their community. It is said that Plymouth Church, Bridge St. A.M.E. Church, the Lott House in Flatlands, and possibly a few private homes in downtown Brooklyn, were stops on the Underground Railroad. Frederick Douglass delivered a speech at the African Methodist Episcopal church in 1863 to a crowd of “white citizens” interested in the abolitionist movement.
Between 1850 and 1900, houses for middle- and upper-class Whites were built south and east of Fort Greene Park, drawing business and professional people from Brooklyn Heights and Manhattan. Racial discrimination in housing intensified early in the 20th century, concentrating African Americans along the Fulton Street corridor, with Fort Greene as its western boundary.
The Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 freed the slaves in the states in rebellion against the US, but not in areas under Union control (the border states of Maryland, Delaware, West Virginia, Kentucky, and Missouri, and parts of Tennessee, Louisiana, and Virginia). African-Americans left the plantations and headed north, and some joined the Union army to fight against the South. Although slavery had been abolished, racial prejudice continued to exist in the North and South, and separate “colored” units were formed. After the war, the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution legally ended slavery in America. Former slaves worked to improve the lives of African-Americans and struggled against continuing discrimination, relying on the strength of their families, religious institutions, traditions, and communities. Many riots precipitated the migration of African Americans to Brooklyn, not least of which were the Draft Riots of 1863 (July 11th to the 16th ). Inspired by the initiation of the Civil War draft in the ninth Congressional District, the riots (egregiously misrepresented by Martin Scorcese in his film “Gangs of New York”) began as early as 10 am on the morning of July 11th and did not subside until midnight almost one week later. Besides attacking the Armory, the Mayor’s Residence and various New York City Buildings, race hatred was the current that seemed to propel the most brutal crimes. As the Times reported, what most “indicated (the) political animus” of the draft riots were “the cunningly devised...causeless and inhuman treatment of the negroes of the City”, continuing, “It seemed to be an understood thing that negroes should be attacked wherever found, whether they offered any provocation or not...In the streets running north from Canal Street, where many colored people reside, mobs of foul-looking boys and men (and several women armed with sticks) scoured up and pursuit of negroes”. The Times further reported that a “negro cartman” who resided on Carmine St., was attacked by a crowd of “400 men and boys” as he exited his stable. The nameless victim was beaten to death with “clubs and paving stones”, his corpse then “hung on a tree opposite the burying ground” and “set fire to” as his assailants “danced and yelled and swore their horrid oaths around his burning corpse.” The charred body remained hanging in the tree as an effigy of race hatred for no less than twenty four hours. When more than 300 police officers tried to remove a similarly mangled, charred body from a tree on Clarkson Street, their headquarters were attacked. African Americans, in fear of their lives, fled their lower west side districts in Manhattan for police stations seeking asylum, and in the Brooklyn Navy Yard, the walls were manned and mounted with guns and all its vessels were hauled out to stream in order to protect its African American workers. Several companies of Marines were assisted by no less than 300 sailors equipped with cannons, revolvers, ammunition boxes and cutlasses. Though Brooklyn paled in comparison to tragedies amassed in Manhattan during the Draft Riot, it did not escape it. The Brooklyn Eagle reported “ as far as we have evidence, there has been no gathering that could be designated as a mob, or any demonstration that could be called a riot witnessed in Brooklyn”, it was added that “the burning of the colored church the other evening in Williamsburgh have been attributed to ‘rioters’”. By 1880, Brooklyn had a resident population of 599, 549 with 411,295 being natives, 188, 254 described as “foreign”, 590, 278 as “white” and “9,271” being “colored”. The Fourteenth Ward (Fort Green, Clinton Hill) had 25, 579 inhabitants alone. Another race riot ensued on the upper west side of Manhattan in 1900, when John “Lamplighter” Davis, an African American, was accused of shooting and killing John Brennan, a twenty year old white messenger on West 66th St., an area largely populated by African Americans, Irish, Italians and Latino Immigrants. The area, known as “The Tenderloin” or “San Juan Hill”, the New York Times reported two African American gentleman, unrelated to the shooting, were attacked by a mob of whites in their neighborhood of 64th st. and Amsterdam Ave., and beaten until the police could disperse of the mob. In neither case were arrests made. Shortly thereafter, Frank McPyke, described as “a twenty one year old tough” and “leader of a gang”, gathered a number of his friends to demolish tenements occupied by African Americans on the upper west side and to “do his part” in “annihilating the negro population of New York”. McPyke, quoted in the Times as saying “Ain’t got no love for no niggers, and no white man what’s white has”, proceeded to fill his hat with stones and, with his mob, took his stand at 59th st. and Eleventh avenue, to “do a few coons” as they passed by. Riots also ensued on what was known as “Cuckoo Row”, (West 60th St. between West End and Amsterdam Ave., predominately occupied by African Americans) many of its residents were stoned, including an Adam Johnson, accused of “walking too sassy to suit folk”. and from the island of Manhattan”. and quote, “annihilate the negro”. The actions of the New York City police department were also under question, as evidenced in an article in which one reporter wrote, “the police in the riotous attacks on the negroes in their quarter...stood idly by for the most part while the negroes were being beaten, except when they joined savagely in the sport, until the rioting threatened to extend dangerously; then they gradually dispersed the crowds, arresting no whites and many blacks, most of the latter being clubbed unmercifully.”
As large, single-family homes became less popular in the 1920s-some were destroyed to build apartment buildings for the middle class-the neighborhood began to change in ways that the Depression would soon accelerate. Housing values in Fort Greene, as else where, dropped precipitously during the Depression, creating buying opportunities for newcomers. As German, English, and other older homeowners accepted low offers and moved out, large numbers of middle-class Italians moved to the neighborhood. By 1940 the outlines of what was to be central Brooklyn's ghetto were becoming clear and African Americans had the worst housing and health conditions in Brooklyn, regardless of neighborhood. Fort Greene was no exception.

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