In the Shadow of Slavery: African-Americans in New York City, 1625-1863.
Leslie M. Harris' In the Shadow of Slavery: African-Americans in New York City, 1625-1863 propounds a simple yet perceptive thesis: that class was integral to the development of the black community in New York City from the seventeenth through the mid-nineteenth century. Harris, fittingly the winner of the 2004 Wesley-Logan Prize in African Diaspora History, thus returns to the emphasis of the first generation of black historians, an emphasis that Harris herself acknowledges in her introduction. A generation's worth of scholarship focused on southern slavery and the creation of racial identity, she maintains, has rendered "a static picture of class relations, rather than a dynamic description of the growth of class divisions within the black community." (1) (p 4) Drawing upon a plethora of sources, including institutional records, newspapers, cartoons, and even crime narratives, Harris' In the Shadow of Slavery offers that "dynamic description," correcting what has emerged as monolithic interpretations of antebellum labor history, and the antebellum black urban experience.
In the early national and antebellum periods, where Harris concentrates the bulk of her study, white New Yorkers believed that the experience of slavery had so degraded blacks that the latter had to be prevented from exercising social and political power. Thus, gradual emancipation laws and the 1821 suffrage law that disfranchised black voters were political mechanisms intended to forestall black influence on public affairs. By 1827, the year of slavery's demise in New York State, the city's blacks were "a separate, dependent, and unequal group" in the city. (2) (p 5) Yet, in spite of these restrictions, Harris observes, African-Americans were initially able to sustain a unified community in New York City through celebrations (such as that commemorating the end of international slave trade in 1806), mutual-aid societies and churches (such as the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church and the African Society), and eateries, taverns and dance halls (such as Thomas Downing's Oyster Bar on Broad Street).
In the wake of the patriotic fervor and economic dislocations of the War of 1812, however, this unified black community began to splinter. Pressure came from within and without the black community itself. From without, white working-class males--facing a tighter, less-skilled job market and fearing their replacement by urban blacks--began to transform the republicanism of the Founders, which located "public political virtue" in "economic independence," into an ideology that celebrated citizenship in terms of those "who performed 'honest' work with their hands" (and thus, presaging Jacksonian white herrenvolk democracy, and the "free-labor" ideology of mid-century Republicans). Such a conception precluded New York's blacks, as their "prior enslavement devalued them in the eyes of whites." (3) (pp. 97-8) From within, blacks themselves began to divide over this changed political and social environment. The black middle class, largely ministers and educators such as Peter Williams, Jr. and Samuel Cornish, clinging to older institutions, such as the co-racial New York Manumission Society (founded in 1785), aimed to eradicate older, boisterous black traditions such as the Emancipation Day parade, and to encourage black school attendance--efforts that they believe would yield racial uplift, and efforts that black working-class often opposed.
Turning away from the Manumission Society's support for colonization in the 1820s and 1830s, middle-class blacks embraced the moral perfectionism of white radical abolitionists, a move that further highlighted emerging class differences. The black working class was more responsive to the practical efforts of the Quakers, themselves one-time colonizationists, which aimed at job training and employment. The most successful of these efforts was the Association for the Benefit of Colored Orphans, which opened the Colored Orphan Asylum in 1836. This institution did not, however, simply impose white or middle-class ideals on the black experience; rather, blacks used the institution to serve their needs, and in the process, altered the Quaker founders' own expectations.
Into the 1850s, following the splintering of the abolitionist coalition, the black community's common cause for racial uplift shifted away from moral perfectionism to the value and quality of labor. These black abolitionists drew upon coalescing Republican notions to champion skilled labor over domestic service and table-waiting. The majority of free black New Yorkers, however, were in these occupations, and once again, class divisions undercut attempts at a united front. During the 1853 Waiter's Strike, black waiters found more common cause with white waiters than they did with the black middle class, despite the efforts of the latter to draw waiters into a racially unified yet class segregated enterprise. This was a "failure," as Harris points out, that exposed "growing class separation, despite the ties of race, between black workers and black reformers." (4) (p 219) The cross-racial alliance was itself the product of class divisions within both the white and black urban communities: white and black laboring poor found themselves relegated to the same neighborhoods, such as the Five Points. This physical proximity led to black-white exchanges that middle-class white observers sexualized, sensationalized, and criminalized, and for which middle-class blacks apologized.
This seemingly class-focused, racially harmonious alliance, however, was short lived. It emerged just as the black population in New York City began to drop dramatically in the wake of increasing Irish immigration in the 1840s and the threat of kidnapping under the guise of the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850. The emergence of the Republican Party (with its emphasis on white "free labor") and the outbreak of the Draft Riots of July 1863 (led by the immigrant Irish, one-time labor allies of free blacks) further collapsed any possibilities for racial uplift or the eradication of class division in New York. Driven out of jobs, and disillusioned by the prospect of racial equality, New York's free blacks abandoned the urban core, heading upstate, and to New Jersey, the West, and even Canada.
This summary hardly does justice to the complexity and nuance that Harris brings to her study. While her foregrounding of class inevitably limits her discussion of race and gender, this discussion nevertheless inform her study, and In the Shadow of Slavery thus injects much need complexity in prevailing interpretations of the black urban experience as well as labor history. Where In the Shadow of Slavery falters most is in its conclusion: a mere two paragraphs in the final chapter attempt to wrap up a sweeping work. A conclusion that not only summarized Harris' analysis but also pointed beyond the riots to the African-American urban experience in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century would have added to this fine piece of work. This shortcoming notwithstanding, for its treatment of antebellum class relations and urban community development, Harris' In the Shadow of Slavery ought to become a staple of undergraduate and graduate reading lists for several years to come.
University of California, Davis
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|Publication:||Journal of Social History|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Dec 22, 2005|
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