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Pop Quiz: Black History Month Edition

With the end of February marking the end of Black History Month, it’s time for a little pop quiz. Carla L. Peterson, author of Black Gotham, has put together a quiz on black history in New York. Let’see what we’ve all learned this month!

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[bs_citem title=”1. Describe New York’s antebellum black community.  What is meant by the term community? click to see answer” id=”citem_9c5b-223c” parent=”collapse_968c-3e48″]

New York City’s (Manhattan’s) black population was never very large. In 1810, it numbered 7,470 free persons and 1,446 slaves out of a total population of 91, 660. In 1830, the city’s slave population had dwindled to 17 while the number of free black people stood at 13,976 out of approximately 202, 600 inhabitants. In 1840, the black population peaked at 16,358 (out of 312,700) and then slowly declined to 12,574 (out of 813,700) in 1860.

Black New Yorkers lived in their own community centered around multiple institutions: the African Society for Mutual Relief; the African Free Schools; churches like St. Philip’s; newspapers like Freedom’s Journal and the Colored American. Even in this early period, class stratification existed. Most in the community were poor, uneducated, and unskilled, yet a small elite group did exist, defined not so much by wealth as by education and respectability. It included pharmacists Philip White and Peter Guignon (my great-grandfather and my great-great-grandfather respecitively); doctors James McCune Smith, Peter Williams Ray, and John Degrasse; restaurateurs Thomas van Rensallaer, Thomas Downing and his son George; teachers Charles Reason, Ransom Wake, and John Peterson; ministers Peter Williams, Charles Ray, and Alexander Crummell; businessmen like engraver Patrick Reason, jewelry dealer Edward Clarke, and pickle maker Henry Scott. But the elite was also broad enough to encompass respectable tradesmen who held lesser jobs as carpenters and shoemakers, for example.

[bs_citem title=”2. Most of you undoubtedly know about the 1863 New York draft riots. But that was not the only race riot to occur in nineteenth-century New York. Identify an earlier race riot and state its significance. click to see answer” id=”citem_48cc-1913″ parent=”collapse_968c-3e48″]

The increasing economic success of northern blacks along with the heightened activities of the interracial antislavery movement in cities like Philadelphia and New York threatened members of the white underclass, especially Irish immigrants. They often responded with acts of violence that culminated in race riots, one of which occurred in New York in 1834. The city’s antislavery movement had brought together both black and white abolitionists, including wealthy merchants Arthur Tappan and his brother Lewis, John Rankin, and Joshua Leavitt. They were fervent anti-colonizationists, favored immediate over gradual emancipation, promoted black educational efforts as well as black male suffrage. Interracial collaboration was the bedrock of the movement.

In the early 1830s, the Tappan brothers took over a church building, the Chatham Street Chapel, and turned it into a meeting place for abolitionists, an act which brought to the surface fears of racial equality, economic disempowerment, and race mixing in New York’s white underclass. In the summer of 1834, a mob marched on the chapel and stormed it twice. The first attack occurred on July 4 when white and black abolitionists gathered together for an Emancipation Day celebration. The second attack came a few days later when white and black church choirs, including that of St. Philip’s, found themselves competing for the right to rehearse in the chapel.

The mob first turned against white abolitionists, attacking Lewis Tappan’s home and his brother’s store, and threatening Joshua Leavitt’s residence. Rioters launched an assault against a church where they believed an interracial marriage had been performed, and targeted house cellars known to be inhabited by interracial couples.

Above all, the mob vented their rage against the city’s black population. They attacked not only black homes but also places essential to the stability of the black community: businesses like barbershops and porterhouses, institutions like the African Society for Mutual Relief Hall, nearby schoolhouses, and churches like the African Baptist and St. Philip’s. It’s little wonder that New York’s black population dwindled after 1840.

[bs_citem title=”3. In the mid-1840s, a group of black and white abolitionists created a black settlement in upstate New York. What was the name of this settlement and what was the reason for creating it? click to see answer” id=”citem_0c31-a9f4″ parent=”collapse_968c-3e48″]

The settlement was called Timbuctoo after the West African city in Mali, and the goal was to revive the Jeffersonian ideal of the independent yeoman farmer as well as emulate recently formed Utopian societies such as John Humphrey Noyes’s perfectionist community and George Ripley’s transcendentalist Brook Farm. So in the mid-1840s, white abolitionist and wealthy landowner Gerrit Smith approached James McCune Smith, Charles Ray, and others with a novel plan. He proposed setting aside 120,000 acres of land in the Adirondacks left to him by his family, then carving it up into forty to sixty acre lots to give away to impoverished blacks.

Black leaders responded enthusiastically to the plan.  As members of the elite, they themselves never planned to move to Timbuctoo.  Instead, they envisioned the settlement as a haven for the black underclass who would be less vulnerable to mob violence, achieve greater economic security, and perhaps even acquire enough property to meet the required $250 poll tax that would guarantee them the right to vote. But ultimately Timbuctoo failed. Families who moved there were unprepared; many were swindled out of their lots or charged a service fee. Once settled, they were baffled by the obligations of land ownership. They knew nothing about taxes; they lacked agricultural skills; the soil was too poor for cultivation, and the harvesting of wood too expensive. By the mid-1850s, Timbuctoo was defunct.

[bs_citem title=”4. Name and describe the man who was W.E.B. Du Bois’s intellectual mentor and the inspiration for much of Du Bois’s thinking in The Souls of Black Folk. click to see answer” id=”citem_c232-4c3d” parent=”collapse_968c-3e48″]

His name was Alexander Crummell. Born in 1819 in New York, Crummell was a student at one of the city’s African Free Schools and was later ordained an Episcopal minister. In 1847, he sailed to Europe where, forty years before Du Bois, he attended an institution of higher learning. While there, he studied the works of Cambridge academics who subscribed to a version of Platonic idealism that emphasized the absolute reality of the world of ideas, and eventually formulated his own philosophical principles concerning the soul that would later influence W.E.B. Du Bois.

In 1897, Crummell, along with a group of other black intellectuals that included the young Du Bois, founded the American Negro Academy, and served as its first president. The early sessions of the Academy are chiefly remembered for Du Bois famous lecture, “The Conservation of Races,” which he acknowledged as a study-in-honor of his mentor. But few of us are familiar with Crummell’s three lectures, “The Prime Need of the Negro Race,” “Civilization, the Primal Need of the Race,” and “The Attitude of the American Mind toward the Negro Intellect,” which clearly reveal Du Bois’s indebtedness to Crummell’s thinking in both “The Conservation of Races” and the later Souls of Black Folk: the primary importance of the spiritual over the material and of a classical education to develop the spiritual; the need for a cadre of highly educated, classically trained men and women to function as the vanguard of the race (Du Bois’s Talented Tenth); and the role of this vanguard to help black Americans achieve their “special destiny” through a classical education that would “transform and stimulate the souls of the race.”

[bs_citem title=”5. Since it’s almost March, let’s end with a women’s history question. Who was Sarah Garnet and what is her importance to black women’s history? click to see answer” id=”citem_a5a3-d303″ parent=”collapse_968c-3e48″]

Sarah Garnet was the oldest child of a prosperous Long Island black family. A student in the New York public school system, Garnet began her career as a teacher at the age of fourteen in one of the city’s colored schools, making a salary of $25 a year. She rose through the ranks to become principal of an integrated grammar school in Manhattan, the first black woman to achieve this distinction. At the time of her retirement, her salary had risen to $2,500 a year.

Garnet was an activist, as both a teacher and a feminist. She joined a delegation of black male leaders who appeared before the state legislature in Albany to successfully fight discriminatory practices against black teachers in the city. She joined with other black women to push for equal pay for equal work in the teaching profession. She was also an early suffragist. She founded the Equal Suffrage Club, the only black organization of its kind in Brooklyn, in which she remained involved until her death in 1911. Finally, she was superintendent of the Suffrage Department of the National Association of Colored Women.

[bs_citem title=”6. Bonus question!  Who was Sarah Garnet’s husband and what is his importance in black history? click to see answer” id=”citem_aadb-8627″ parent=”collapse_968c-3e48″]
He was Sarah Garnet’s second husband (but died a couple of years after their marriage) and a radical social activist.  You can find a lot of information on him in Black Gotham and also new material in my recent February 12 piece in the New York Times Opinionator blog (proof that research never ends!).

And . . . pencils down! So how did you do?

Carla L. Peterson is professor of English at the University of Maryland, College Park. She is the author of Black Gotham: A Family History of African Americans in Nineteenth-Century New York City.

Further Reading:

Black Gotham by Carla L. Peterson












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