Answers About Black Life in 19th-Century New York, Part 3

Here’s the third set of responses to readers’ questions about black life in 19th-century New York City from Carla L. Peterson. Dr. Peterson is an English professor at the University of Maryland and the author of “Black Gotham, A Family History of African Americans in Nineteenth-Century New York City,” a book now out in paperback from Yale University Press.

We are no longer taking questions on this subject.

Did many African-Americans work in domestic service in 19th Century New York? I know, for instance, that Edith Wharton’s family employed African-American cooks during her childhood. However, one gets the impression that most servants were Irish or Northern European immigrants. Did many households employ racially mixed domestic staffs? Or was it more likely for an African-American to be the only servant in a smaller household?

What was life like for black women in 19th century New York? Did they have opportunities outside of domestic work? What are some notable achievements made by them?

Have you seen the Rosena Disery sampler at the New-York Historical Society? Ms. Disery stitched it when she was a student at the African Free School in 1820. How significant was the African Free School?

Your questions made me realize that in my answers so far I’ve ignored the experience of black women in the city. Their experiences are so difficult to get at! There is much more archival material on black men who were community leaders operating in the public sphere. Frustrations are compounded when issues of class are added to those of gender.

Domestic work was indeed a common occupation for black women at this time. Black women also found employment as cooks, laundresses, seamstresses, charwomen; they worked in households either alone or along with immigrant women (mostly Irish or German).

Because my great-grandaunt, Maritcha Lyons, left a memoir, I’ve been able to learn something about the work experiences of my great-great-great-grandmother, Elizabeth Hewlett Marshall. She married a house painter, and after his death needed to find a way to support herself and her family. She did so by converting the basement of her home into a bakery, and also by working “abroad” for families that she insisted were “of quality.”

Less skilled women found work as hawkers selling their products in markets or on the street; the “hot corn girl” was a well-known street figure of the time. For the truly desperate, prostitution was a last resort.

Young girls were encouraged to get an education and attended the African Free Schools, although their curriculum followed the prescribed gender roles of the period. Rosena Disery would have been in her school’s female department, where she would have been taught reading, writing, arithmetic, English grammar and geography. She would also have been given training in needle work and knitting while boys followed classes in navigation, astronomy, science and natural history.

After graduation, some young women went on to become school teachers. It’s very frustrating to find lists of their names in early pre-Civil War records, yet to have no stories attached to them. In the postwar period, however, woman teachers became important leaders in the community, among them Maritcha Lyons, Georgiana Putnam and Sarah Garnet. Garnet’s sister, Susan McKinney Steward, attended a homeopathic medical school and became a doctor in the 1870s.

Were there any black writers, painters or poets who grew up in these surroundings?

Yes, there were! Another way of asking this question is whether there was a black Renaissance before the Harlem Renaissance. When we think of black New York, we tend to focus on early 20th-century Harlem as both a black neighborhood/community and a cultural movement without paying much attention to what went before.

We need to remember that in the 19th century, Harlem was a mere village; blacks lived in Lower Manhattan and then after the Civil War increasingly in Brooklyn. Those in the black community who had received an education were highly invested in cultural production (although Boston and Philadelphia probably had more writers and artists at the time). Black New Yorkers visited Goupil’s art gallery. They read widely among British Victorian writers, especially Charles Dickens and Tennyson; favorite American authors were Washington Irving and Longfellow.

Patrick Reason became a well-known engraver, famed for his engraving of a kneeling female slave with chains hanging from her wrist accompanied by the inscription “Am I Not a Woman and a Sister?” Black writing is somewhat more difficult to identify. Financial resources and publishing opportunities were scant, so much of the writing appeared in newspapers and magazines, and much of it took the form of the essay rather than poetry or the novel.

The beginnings of black literary endeavors in New York took place in literary societies established within the community, notably the Philomathean Society and the Phoenixonian Society. Charles Reason wrote both political and romantic poems for these societies, which were then published in the Colored American newspaper.

James McCune Smith’s essays on citizenship and other topics appeared in the Anglo African Magazine. Frederick Douglass’ Paper published lively exchanges on literary and social issues among three New York correspondents who used pseudonyms (Ethiop, Communipaw, Cosmopolite). The Weekly Anglo African newspaper serialized Martin Delany’s novel “Blake.” In the post-Civil War period, Henrietta Cordelia Ray wrote poetry.

The eminent Episcopal clergyman Alexander Crummell penned many essays and sermons, some of which were collected and published in book form. Crummell was W.E.B. Du Bois’s mentor, and his writings contain extensive meditations on the meaning of “soul.” Clearly, without Crummell’s inspiration, Du Bois’s “Souls of Black Folk” would have been a vastly different book.

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