Tag Archives: slavery

Frederick Douglass and the life saver of Lispenard Street

In the early and mid-nineteenth century, the Underground Railroad secretly escorted tens of thousands of Southern slaves to Northern destinations, where slavery was illegal. The African American publisher David Ruggles was born a freeman in Connecticut and moved to New York to energize the emerging abolitionist move- meant via the New York Vigilance Committee, one of the city’s most influential abolitionist collectives.

And thank goodness David Ruggles was there.

Below: One of the few extant depictions of David Ruggles

At his home at 36 Lispenard Street (in today’s Tribeca neighborhood), Ruggles ran a printing press and reading room for abolitionist literature.  He also sheltered an estimated 600 fugitive slaves here over the years, including in 1838 a man named Frederick Washington Bailey, who had escaped a life of slavery in Maryland.

Under a new name, the abolitionist Frederick Douglass later wrote about how he felt arriving in New York. The following words are from the Life and Times of Frederick Douglass: From 1817-1882:

“My free life began on the third of September, 1838. On the morning of the fourth of that month, after an anxious and most perilous but safe journey, I found myself in the big city of New York, a free man – one more added to the mighty throng which, like the confused waves of the troubled sea, surged to and fro between the lofty walls of Broadway.

Though dazzled with the wonders which met me on every hand, my thoughts could not be withdrawn from my strange situation.  

I have often been asked how I felt, when first I found myself on free soil; and my readers may share the same curiosity. There is scarcely anything in my experience about which I could not give a more satisfactory answer. A new world had opened upon me.  If life is more than breath, and the ‘quick round of blood,’ I lived more in one day than in a year of my slave life.

In a letter written to a friend soon after reading New York, I said: “I felt as one might feel, upon escape from hungry lions.”

 Anguish and grief, like darkness and rain, may be depicted; but gladness and joy, like the rainbow, defy the skill of pen or pencil.” 

While the building which sheltered Douglass on Lispenard Street is no longer there, a plaque is affixed to the current structure at that spot, marking Ruggles — and New York’s — contribution to the liberation of Southern slaves.

Columbia University

 

This is an excerpt from the Bowery Boys Adventures In Old New York, now available in bookstores everywhere.

 

 

Solomon Northup’s ominous journey to New York City, 1841

An engraving featured in Solomon Northup’s narrative Twelve Years A Slave, published in 1853.

The New York farmer and musician Solomon Northup was sold into slavery in 1841, tricked by two supposed members of a circus troupe, promising Northrup work in their traveling show.  Instead, Northrup awoke in bondage, eventually smuggled to New Orleans where he faced years of cruel servitude under a variety of plantation owners.   After regaining his freedom in 1853, he wrote the narrative Twelve Years A Slave, his harrowing account of his years in the South.

The book became a best-seller within Republican abolitionist circles, released a year after Harriet Beecher Stowe‘s Uncle Tom’s Cabin.  It was certainly in the possession of Henry Ward Beecher, Harriet’s younger brother, who turned his Brooklyn pulpit at Plymouth Church into a sounding board for abolitionist ideas.  (One hundred and sixty years later, the Oscar-nominated film version of Twelve Years A Slave, starring Chiwetel Ejiofor as Northup, played at Brooklyn Heights Cinema, located one block away from Beecher’s church.)

Northup and his family lived in upstate New York, but New York City proper plays a small but ominous role in his narrative.  Lured by the promise of employment by two men named Brown and Hamilton, Northup travels from home in Saratoga, first to Albany, then to New York itself:

“They hurried forward, without again stopping to exhibit, and in due course of time, we reached New-York, taking lodgings at a house on the west side of the city, in a street running from Broadway to the river.”

Below: A view of Broadway (between Howard and Grand Streets) in 1840.  To the south of this view was Canal Street and Five Points.


“I supposed my journey was at an end, and expected in a day or two at least, to return to my friends and family at Saratoga.   Brown and Hamilton, however, began to importune me to continue with them to Washington.  They alleged that immediately on their arrival, now that the summer season was approaching, the circus would set out for the north.   They promised me a situation and high wages if I would accompany them.  

Largely did they expatiate on the advantages that would result to me, and such were the flattering representations they made, that I finally concluded the offer.”

Northup agrees to accompany them further north to Washington DC.  It would be there that Northup would be drugged and sold into bondage by his two nefarious companions.  But before they leave New York, they suggest that Solomon perform a certain task, curious given the subsequent events which occurred:

“The next morning they suggested that, inasmuch as we were about entering a slave State, it would be well, before leaving New-York, to procure free papers.  The idea struck me as a prudent one, though I think it would scarcely have occurred to me, had they not proposed it. 

We proceeded at once to what I understood to be the Custom House. They made oath to certain facts showing I was a free man.” 

Why is there a little confusion in Northrup’s statement regarding the Custom House?  Perhaps because the building he would have visited — at 22-24 Wall Street — was in its final days as New York’s Custom House, an office which had grown far too small for the task.  The following year, New York’s new Custom House would have at last been opened at the other end of the block — the building that is today’s Federal Hall.

Below: Northrup and his associates would have entered the building at the far right of this illustration (which depicts Wall Street in 1825)

“Some further formalities were gone through with before it was completed, when, paying the officer two dollars, I placed the papers in my pocket, and started with my two friends to our hotel.  I thought at the time, I must confess, that the papers were scarcely worth the cost of obtaining them – the apprehension of danger to my personal safety never having suggested itself to me in the remotest manner.”

Below: The interior of the New York Custom House, 1853

All images courtesy New York Public Library

After its publication in 1853, Northup’s account would be available for sale in certain New York bookstores for several years.  But keep in mind New York’s divided loyalties to the South; it would not have been a universally popular read here in the city.

Below: the book for sale in 1854 at a bookstore at 308 Broadway, and in 1856, at a Park Row bookseller, both ads from the New York Daily Tribune



George Opdyke: The mayor during the Civil War Draft Riots and his unsavory connection to New York’s fashion industry

KNOW YOUR MAYORS A modest little series about some of the greatest, notorious, most important, even most useless, mayors of New York City. Other entrants in the Bowery Boys mayoral survey can be found here.

Mayor George Opdyke
In office: 1862-1863

The wealthy merchant and politician George Opdyke died on June 12, 1880, attended to by his family from their lavish home at Fifth Avenue and East 47th Street, just a few blocks from where the violent Draft Riots had ignited back in 1863.

In the 17 years since those terrible days, New York had grown mightier with vast wealth, in an explosion of prosperity that would inaugurate the Gilded Age.  But while the scars of the Draft Riots had faded from the city streets, they never quite faded from Opdyke, who had been mayor of New York during the violent outbreak.

At right: George Opdyke, in a photo taken by Matthew Brady

Some of the violence that week in July had been directed towards Opdyke, one of the most prominent Republicans in a city of Democrats. His former home at 57 Fifth Avenue had been attacked twice by rioters.  He was considered the face pro-Lincoln, pro-war, and, thus, pro-abolitionist forces in New York

Yet had it not been for the institution of slavery in the South, Opdyke might never have even made his fortune.

George Opdyke was born to a large New Jersey farming family in 1805, working his way from the fields to the classroom, becoming a young school teacher at an early age.  Like so many teenagers in the early 19th century, job opportunities out West spoke to his sense of adventure.  With $500 in their pockets, Opdyke and a friend settled in Cleveland, Ohio, opening a clothing store and tailor for workers of the newly constructed Erie Canal.

Opdyke soon found a more profitable application for his young business — the high mark-up manufacturing of cheap slave clothing.  He moved to New Orleans and began an incredibly profitable plant there, making inexpensively produced clothing for the plantations of the deep South.

In fact, Opdyke became so successful that, in 1832, he moved to New York to open a larger clothing factory on Hudson Street.  According to historian George Lankevich, Opdyke “built the city’s first important clothing factory, selling his goods largely to southern plantations and creating the basis of a new industry.”  It was the first large-scale, ready-to-wear clothing establishment in New York, soon employing thousands; so, yes, this is how the New York fashion industry begins.

Below: Brooks Clothing Store in 1845, a rival of Opdyke’s clothing business. Opdyke would have some rather controversial connections for Brooks Brothers during the Civil War. (NYPL)

And a successful political career begins as well.  By 1846, Opdyke, now a millionaire and a well-connected member of mid-19th century New York society, entered a life of politics.

Interestingly, he was originally associated with the Free Soil Party, an early anti-slavery effort, illustrating how businessmen often separated certain moral beliefs from their business practices. (Early on, he would become one of Abraham Lincoln’s most ardent supporters.) The Free Soilers were soon be incorporated into the burgeoning Republican Party, and Opdyke’s first appearance in New York state assembly, in 1859, was as a Republican.

That same year, Opdyke became the Republican’s best chance at winning the mayor’s seat in New York. However, he vied for the job with two other seasoned politicians — unscrutable Democrat Fernando Wood and former mayor and sugar king William Havemeyer.  Thanks to machine politics and the uncertainty of war with the South, Wood prevailed that fall, becoming mayor of New York at the start of the Civil War. (I have an entire podcast on Wood’s roller-coaster career in politics.)

But tides would change in Opdyke’s favor.  Pro-Union sentiment surged through the nation and in New York City by the start of the war.  And by the time of the next mayoral election in 1861, situations were ideal for a Republican to take charge.

It helped that Democrats were divided — Tammany Hall went with C. Godfrey Gunther, while Wood formed his own alternative political machine Mozart Hall.  But it was Opdyke that prevailed, although barely.  He beat Gunther by a whopping 613 votes. (But he did beat Wood in Wood’s own ward.  That must have felt good.)

Part of Opdyke’s appeal at that moment was his deep connections to the Lincoln administration. When the flags were waving in New York, Opdyke was an ideal representative, encouraging support for the war, hosting troops in the city, raising money for the effort.  But when enthusiasm for the war withered, so did Opdyke’s reputation.

Below: The draft riots, which paralyzed New York in July 1863

Opdyke’s unwavering support for the draft backfired severely in the summer of 1863. When New Yorkers took the street on July 13, 1863, burning the draft offices and taking out their anger on black citizens and prominent Republicans, Opdyke topped the list of most despised New Yorkers.  He had very little power to quell the violence; the police department was placed under state control, and state militia had been called away.

While his home was nearly destroyed, it was his political reputation that took the greatest hit. At first, he had vetoed a plan by the Common Council to pay for substitutes for any drafted New Yorkers. But a month later, working with Tammany Hall, he essentially endorsed a similar bill to avoid more violence.

This saved New York, but it did not save him.  On election day, that December in 1863, he was replaced with the Democrat Gunther, whom he had narrowly beat just two yeas before.

His woes weren’t quite over. A political feud with newspaper editor Thurlow Weed revealed some unpleasant information about Opdyke in the press. “[H]e had made more money out of the war by secret partnerships and contracts for army clothing, than any fifty sharpers in New York,” claimed the irate newspaper editor.

At right: Opdyke in later life (NYPL)

Opdyke had profited handsomely from the war through his own clothing plant and in deals with rival clothing manufacturer Brooks Brothers.  Opdyke took Weed to court for libel in December 1864, but the jury essentially exonerated Weed, delivering an indecisive verdict “as to whether Weed should pay nominal damages of six cents, or be acquitted.” [source]

In later life, Opdyke took up banking with his sons, representing the concerns of various railroad companies. He “retired a few months before his death with a large fortune.” [source]

After his death, the Opdykes would sell their house to railroad tycoon Jay Gould.

‘The Abolitionists’, first of three parts tonight on PBS

PBS’s American Experience debuts its three-part series on American abolitionists of the 19th century.  With two very different films about slavery in movie theaters (Lincoln, Django Unchained), ‘The Abolitionists’ is certainly a well-timed series, featuring the stories of Frederick Douglass, William Lloyd Garrison and Harriet Beecher Stowe (no doubt brother Henry Ward Beecher will make an appearance too).

On one hand, this is sure to be an interesting collection of sometimes-interconnecting biographies of men and women bucking convention and fighting against a morally repellent practice locked into America’s founding documents.  On the other, the series appears loaded with character reenactments, which can sometimes get in the way of the story.  The production is certainly beautiful, judging from what I’ve seen so far.

If you’ll be watching at 9pm EST tonight, please follow along with me on Twitter (@boweryboys) where I’ll try and keep up with additional facts and commentary.

 

‘The Abolitionists’, first of three parts tonight on PBS

PBS’s American Experience debuts its three-part series on American abolitionists of the 19th century.  With two very different films about slavery in movie theaters (Lincoln, Django Unchained), ‘The Abolitionists’ is certainly a well-timed series, featuring the stories of Frederick Douglass, William Lloyd Garrison and Harriet Beecher Stowe (no doubt brother Henry Ward Beecher will make an appearance too).

On one hand, this is sure to be an interesting collection of sometimes-interconnecting biographies of men and women bucking convention and fighting against a morally repellent practice locked into America’s founding documents.  On the other, the series appears loaded with character reenactments, which can sometimes get in the way of the story.  The production is certainly beautiful, judging from what I’ve seen so far.

If you’ll be watching at 9pm EST tonight, please follow along with me on Twitter (@boweryboys) where I’ll try and keep up with additional facts and commentary.

 

An historic New Years Day editorial from 150 years ago, as the Emancipation Proclamation takes effect



In black churches throughout America 150 years ago, gatherers celebrated ‘Watch Night’ on December 21, 1862, counting down to the moment when Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation would take effect. The carte-de-visite above celebrates a watch night that took place in Boston. [LOC]

The following text is taken from the New York Tribune on January 1, 1863. (You can read the entire issue here.) With the North in the terrible throes of war, most of the issue is filled with battle reports.  New York City celebrations of the new year were most likely muted, with possible exception of a few saloons celebrating some odd-timed primary elections for various Tammany Hall job functions.

But for a great many, midnight brought in more than just a new year.  That day was significant for another reason.  President Abraham Lincoln’s executive order, the Emancipation Proclamation, freeing the slaves in Confederate territories, took effect on January 1.

I’m reprinting the Daily Tribune’s notice in full, both the significant and trivial portions, to give you a full sense of how the news was received, in this case, by the pro-Lincoln paper owned by Horace Greeley (over three decades before Mr. Greeley was immortalized in statuary in Herald Square). It’s a celebration of a true historical event and the pursuit of freedom, with a snide insult lobbed at ‘the low-born and vulgar [who] fear the competition of the negroes’.

Here’s the original article, with excerpts from the text below it.

A Happy New Year Another New Year has dawned upon us, bringing tokens of love and friendship and pleasant congratulations. Have we realized the hopes of those who were so lavish with their good wishes one year ago, and enjoyed uninterrupted happiness? 

We have reached another way-mark on the road of life, and if we pause a moment and look back upon the past, we shall see here and there the green mounds of some who exchanged with us the compliments of the season twelve months ago. But this is not the time for sadness, even though the cold shadow has fallen upon our healths and upon our hearts.

….

Thousands of visitors today will leave their photographs with their lady friends, if they would have the world (their world) believe that they are not so deficient in noble emotions as a carte de visite*, they will show respect for themselves by respecting the rights of others whatever may be their creed or complexion. 

If President Lincoln today makes himself immortal in history by lifting up the downtrodden slave, so that while his feet stand upon broken fetters — his heart shall beat in the air of freedom — they should approve the deed, and hail the day as a happy one to four millions of human beings disenthralled**.  If the low-born and vulgar fear the competition of negroes and mistrust their capacity to cope with them in the common affairs of life, let not those who claim to be gentlemen begrudge the boon of happiness to the humblest of the human race.***

Today we commence a new era in our history. Slavery is abolished. The backbone of the Rebellion is broken, and long before another New Year’s morning shall break up us the war will be over — Liberty will triumph — Peace will be established in all our borders, and the sword and shield of Justice shall be our defense in the face of all the nations.**** 

We shall mourn the loss of many who have fallen and who will fall in battle, but those who dare fight for their country can afford to die; their lives have not failed to produce good works.   If we honor those who fell at Antietam and Fredericksburg and on other battlefields, let us show ourselves worthy to wear their mantles.

*Small likenesses  — essentially trading cards of yourself — called carte de visite were especially trendy during the Civil War, both as a novelty and as a way of remembering those at war.

**The Proclamation could only be enforced in rebel territory under Northern control, so not all of the four million enslaved men felt its benefits on this date.

***Referencing fears of new immigrants that freed blacks would become a competitive labor force. These fears would, of course, culminate later that summer in the Civil War Draft Riots.

****Of course, we know now that the war would drag on for over two more years.






An historic New Years Day editorial from 150 years ago, as the Emancipation Proclamation takes effect



In black churches throughout America 150 years ago, gatherers celebrated ‘Watch Night’ on December 21, 1862, counting down to the moment when Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation would take effect. The carte-de-visite above celebrates a watch night that took place in Boston. [LOC]

The following text is taken from the New York Tribune on January 1, 1863. (You can read the entire issue here.) With the North in the terrible throes of war, most of the issue is filled with battle reports.  New York City celebrations of the new year were most likely muted, with possible exception of a few saloons celebrating some odd-timed primary elections for various Tammany Hall job functions.

But for a great many, midnight brought in more than just a new year.  That day was significant for another reason.  President Abraham Lincoln’s executive order, the Emancipation Proclamation, freeing the slaves in Confederate territories, took effect on January 1.

I’m reprinting the Daily Tribune’s notice in full, both the significant and trivial portions, to give you a full sense of how the news was received, in this case, by the pro-Lincoln paper owned by Horace Greeley (over three decades before Mr. Greeley was immortalized in statuary in Herald Square). It’s a celebration of a true historical event and the pursuit of freedom, with a snide insult lobbed at ‘the low-born and vulgar [who] fear the competition of the negroes’.

Here’s the original article, with excerpts from the text below it.

A Happy New Year Another New Year has dawned upon us, bringing tokens of love and friendship and pleasant congratulations. Have we realized the hopes of those who were so lavish with their good wishes one year ago, and enjoyed uninterrupted happiness? 

We have reached another way-mark on the road of life, and if we pause a moment and look back upon the past, we shall see here and there the green mounds of some who exchanged with us the compliments of the season twelve months ago. But this is not the time for sadness, even though the cold shadow has fallen upon our healths and upon our hearts.

….

Thousands of visitors today will leave their photographs with their lady friends, if they would have the world (their world) believe that they are not so deficient in noble emotions as a carte de visite*, they will show respect for themselves by respecting the rights of others whatever may be their creed or complexion. 

If President Lincoln today makes himself immortal in history by lifting up the downtrodden slave, so that while his feet stand upon broken fetters — his heart shall beat in the air of freedom — they should approve the deed, and hail the day as a happy one to four millions of human beings disenthralled**.  If the low-born and vulgar fear the competition of negroes and mistrust their capacity to cope with them in the common affairs of life, let not those who claim to be gentlemen begrudge the boon of happiness to the humblest of the human race.***

Today we commence a new era in our history. Slavery is abolished. The backbone of the Rebellion is broken, and long before another New Year’s morning shall break up us the war will be over — Liberty will triumph — Peace will be established in all our borders, and the sword and shield of Justice shall be our defense in the face of all the nations.**** 

We shall mourn the loss of many who have fallen and who will fall in battle, but those who dare fight for their country can afford to die; their lives have not failed to produce good works.   If we honor those who fell at Antietam and Fredericksburg and on other battlefields, let us show ourselves worthy to wear their mantles.

*Small likenesses  — essentially trading cards of yourself — called carte de visite were especially trendy during the Civil War, both as a novelty and as a way of remembering those at war.

**The Proclamation could only be enforced in rebel territory under Northern control, so not all of the four million enslaved men felt its benefits on this date.

***Referencing fears of new immigrants that freed blacks would become a competitive labor force. These fears would, of course, culminate later that summer in the Civil War Draft Riots.

****Of course, we know now that the war would drag on for over two more years.






Execution in Five Points: Piracy, slave trade and the Tombs

Sometimes you can look back at history and think that nothing ever changes. And sometimes you find something that makes New York seem extraordinary unrecognizable, a city besieged by near barbaric crises.

The image above depicts a scene from February 21, 1862, in the courtyard of the famous Tombs prison in the Five Points neighborhood.

The notoriously dank and foul-smelling complex was the scene of a great many public executions since its opening in 1838, but the one which took place on February 21 was particularly urgent, the crime cutting to the core of America’s central dilemma.

The man being hanged was Nathaniel Gordon, and his crime was international slave trade.

America was in the throes of a Civil War between the North and South, waged with slavery as its central issue. But the import and export of slaves into the United States has technically been banned decades earlier, and the U.S. Piracy Act of 1820 included human cargo in its definition of international piracy.

This did not deter Gordon, who sailed to North Africa in 1860 and loaded a boat with almost 900 people, intending to sell them to Southern plantations.

From a vivid description from Harper’s Weekly, the boat was overloaded with “eight hundred and ninety-seven (897) negroes, men, women, and children, ranging from the age of six months to forty years. They were half children, one-fourth men, and one-fourth women, and so crowded when on the main deck that one could scarcely put his foot down without stepping on them. The stench from the hold was fearful, and the filth and dirt upon their persons indescribably offensive.”

Gordon was caught just 50 miles offshore and brought to the United States for trial. He would have received a stern sentence even before the war, but with the conflict in full swing by the time of his trial in late 1861, Gordon’s defense team never stood a chance.

Despite pleas from wealthy supporters, Gordon was sentenced to die on February 7, 1862. President Abraham Lincoln commuted the sentence by two weeks, and Gordon’s supporters might have even convinced him to commute it further had Lincoln’s young son Willie not died of typhoid on February 20.

 

One notable fact about this execution is the Tombs (pictured above, in 1863) is a city prison, but the crime was a federal offense, the only such national execution to have taken place here.

Most federal executions took place at military installations. For instance ‘Pirate’ Albert Hicks was hanged on Bedloe’s Island, home of Fort Wood (and today the residence of the Statue of Liberty). Robert Cobb Kennedy, one of the Confederate conspirators who attempted to torch various New York hotels in November 1864, was executed at Fort Lafayette off the coast of Bay Ridge, Brooklyn.

Gordon was also the last person ever executed by the U.S. government for violations of the Piracy Act.

For more details on the execution, check out the great Corrections History blog which details the messy particulars of the execution.

Illustration above courtesy New York Public Library

African Burial Ground: History from underneath the city, and the secret tale of New Yorkers once forgotten


A small cemetery for African slaves and free black New Yorkers developed along the southern edge of Collect Pond. But when that filthy body of water was drained and filled, the burial ground disappeared underground with it. (Image courtesy Preserve America)

PODCAST During the construction of a downtown federal administration building, an extraordinary find was discovered — the remnants of a burial ground used by African slaves during the 18th Century.

In the earliest days of New Amsterdam, the first Africans were brought against their will to build the new Dutch port, slaves for a city that would be built upon their backs. Later, forced to repress the cultural expressions of their forefathers, the early black population of British New York did preserve their heritage in the form of burial rites, in a small ‘Negro Burial Ground’ to the south of Collect Pond (and just a couple short blocks to today’s City Hall).

How did this small plot of land — and its astounding contents — become preserved in the middle of the most bustling area of the most bustling city in the world? And why is it considered one of the most spectacular archaeological finds in New York City history?

You can tune into it below, download it for FREE from iTunes or other podcasting services, or get it straight from our satellite site.

Or listen to it here:
The Bowery Boys: African Burial Ground

The African Burial Ground monument, at street level. Designed by Rodney Leon, the monument in contained on a quiet patch of land that seems to escape the bustle of the city around it.

Within the ‘Circle of Diaspora’ are various spiritual and religious symbols, many quite exotic.


There’s no shortage of information about the history of slavery in New York. I would definite start with the materials related to the New York Historical Society’s extraordinary show from a few years ago. The GSA’s site on the African Burial Ground is a treasure trove of information as well.

For hours and directions, check out the National Park Service, not only for the Burial Ground, but New York’s many other national monuments.