Greenwich Village: The Harlem of Antebellum New York

With Lincoln the movie dominating the Oscar nominations this February, never has a Black History Month been given such a national focus on the abolition of slavery. That said, it might be a good time to take a closer look at what was left out of this nearly-three-hour movie – black people. Yes, servants and soldiers are included, but not a single mention is made of the prominent role African Americans played in the long struggle that led to the passage of the 13th Amendment. This article is written in tribute to those mostly unknown people and to commemorate how the Village became the refuge of black identity, culture, and community in the turbulent decades leading up to the Civil War.

Not Just Victims

When the Marquis de Lafayette visited Public School no. 3 at Hudson and Grove Streets in 1824, he also stopped by the African Free School no. 2 on Mulberry Street, where an 11 year old, the school’s star pupil, read a moving tribute to the General. The boy then disappeared down that deep memory hole of black history until the 21st century, when a descendant, researching her family’s genealogy, discovered that her great-great-great grandfather James McCune Smith, supposedly born in Scotland, was actually born a slave, that he was the boy who read the tribute to General Lafayette, and that he was one of a dozen or more graduates of the African Free Schools who later became leaders of the black abolitionist movement in New York City.

When New York State abolished slavery in 1827, the city already had the largest black urban population in the country and the number of African Free Schools expanded to seven to accommodate their children. Free School no. 3 was established in 1831 on MacDougal and Amity Streets (now West Third), just south of a potters’ field and public execution site where the gallows had recently been taken down to make room for a military drilling field. The streets surrounding Washington Square were hardly the exclusive neighborhood it would later become, but the school was welcomed by the predominately black community.

According to historian Kathleen Hulser, the African Free Schools nurtured “a brilliant cohort of political, intellectual, religious and social leaders who wrote, agitated, prospered and created America’s earliest black political thought.” One of the most influential of these graduates was James McCune Smith. After being rejected by every college to whom he had applied, he attended the University of Glasgow, more prestigious than any of the institutions that rejected him. There, he thrived in an environment virtually free of the racism he had always known, graduated at the top of his class, and went on to earn a medical degree. His scientific training motivated him to study racism as a disease, one of many ideas he would pursue that were virtually unthinkable at the time.

James Smith, M.D., returned to New York City and became part of a group of black leaders who were increasingly disenchanted with the timid aims of white abolitionists. They met regularly in the back room of Smith’s medical office on West Broadway and, in later years, his apothecary on Sixth Avenue and 14th Street. Smith influenced his former classmates by the sheer force of his intellect. The light-skinned son of a white man, he was an early advocate of using the word “black” instead of “colored,” which implied an African American hierarchy based on hue. He also championed another unthinkable that white abolitionists never addressed – social equality – calling not only for an end to slavery but its diseased underpinnings of racism. “The hearts of the whites must be changed,” he said, “thoroughly, entirely, permanently changed.”

Free, Confident, and Socially Equal

On July 5, 1827, when Smith was 14 years old, he observed the first Emancipation Day Parade in New York City. “A real, full-souled, full-voiced shouting for joy!” he wrote years later. “Marching through the crowded streets, with feet jubilant to songs of freedom!” The July 5 parade became an annual celebration, but taking to the streets became an everyday affair. European travelers to the city were surprised at the highly visible presence of black people, their self-assurance, stylish dress, and “air of consequence.” This custom of walking the streets for no reason other than to be there, looking good, was an emerging custom unique to urban blacks that became known as “the stroll.” Even the local underground railroad became a hide-in-plain-sight operation where fugitives did not steal away in the dead of night but took trains from Grand Central Station. New York City was still a dangerous place for black people to live, but that made their precarious declaration of the right to the streets all the sweeter.

The heart of their community was the Five Points, the most notorious slum in the city, but not all the black residents were poverty stricken. Refusing to be relegated to the back pews of local churches, Ethiopian sea merchants founded the Abyssinian Baptist church, after the ancient name for their homeland. Banned from white-owned social establishments, black entrepreneurs opened tea gardens, theaters, dance halls, and literary societies, creating an emerging cultural identity that resulted in an explosion of artistic expression. Even before the end of slavery they had their own theater, the African Grove at Bleecker and Mercer Streets, where, ignoring the sneers of white critics (“Negroes? Acting?!”) they staged Shakespeare plays. Performers often improvised on the language, anticipating 20th century jazz players who would develop their own interpretations of European music. One actor playing Richard III leaped onto the stage with this riff on his opening line, “Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer by this son of New York.”

In 1826, the theater on Bleecker Street mysteriously burned to the ground, a forerunner of decades of mob violence fomented by the increasingly militant demands of the abolitionist movement. The violence was widespread but New York City was the scene of the worst riots in antebellum America. The worst of the worst took place in the Five Points, causing many blacks and their institutions to move to the somewhat less dangerous neighborhood of Greenwich Village. The Abyssinian Baptist Church relocated on Waverly Place, across from the Northern Dispensary, its home for many years on its slow journey north to Harlem. Nevertheless, all the hatred didn’t stop the growth of the movement, or the joyful gatherings. In the 1840s, the floor of a ballroom on Greenwich Avenue nearly caved in under the weight of too many dancers.

A Racial Identity Not of Hues

James McCune Smith’s prophetic vision was that one day African Americans would reshape the country’s culture from that of a provincial offshoot into something uniquely American. It was through the power of their art that black people would “penetrate the hearts of those who oppress us and give life to those long dormant germs of our common humanity,” he predicted. “We have already, even from the depths of slavery, furnished the only music the country has produced.” It’s been 150 years since the Emancipation Proclamation and the son of a black man has been elected, twice, to the highest office in the land, but racism is still the American psychosis. Birtherism. Voter suppression. Stand Your Ground. Redlining. Stop-and-frisk. “You lie!” Progress has been made, but there’s still a long way to go.

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