Brooklyn's "Colored Society": A Minister's Observation, 1876-1877

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Brooklyn's "Colored Society": A Minister's Observation, 1876-1877

Brooklyn, an independent city until its merger with New York City in 1898, was throughout the nineteenth century a vibrant community for African Americans. From the turbulent years of the Civil War to the end of the century, Brooklyn was the home of prominent men and women such as Sylvanus Smith, a successful entrepreneur; his daughter, Dr. Susan Smith McKinney-Steward, a prominent and wealthy physician; Rufus Perry, newspaperman and Greek scholar; Samuel Scottron, who, by 1888, was a wealthy inventor; Edwin Horne, a successful newspaperman and Tammany political figure. Edwin was also the grandfather of Lena Horne. Brooklyn was less crowded than Manhattan and it offered an opportunity for a rising middle class to live in a more spacious area. By 1875, the Empire State's African American population had reached 56,121, an increase of 3,572 since 1870.(2) Brooklyn's "colored" population of 6,178 was diverse. Just over one-half or 3,964 were native born. Females outnumbered men by 3,567 to 2,611. Intensely outnumbered by the city's nearly half-million whites, the African American citizens struggled to survive.(3)

The census reports provide the stark reality of Brooklyn's working class colored population. The majority of the men held menial jobs such as laborer, porter, whitewasher, hostler, cartman and street sweeper. Denied the luxury of easy work, women toiled as washerwomen, dressmakers, seamstress, and domestic servants.(4) Maritcha R. Lyons, a Brooklyn educator, noted that in the years immediately following the Civil War that "many of our people were compelled to accept less congenial employment and lower compensation." She added, "discrimination in apprenticing of our boys, the pernicious cast exclusion by rising labor unions, combined to develop a triangular conflict with cupidity, caste and callousness."(5) Some of Brooklyn's poor, like their counterparts in Manhattan, had to sell personal possessions to pawn dealers in order to "provide food and fuel" during the winter months. Yet, within this sea of poverty existed small islands of prosperity. The small but stable African American middle class boasted a membership that was well read, had traveled to Europe for pleasure and business, and were fluent in French, Spanish and German. Fraternal organizations, benevolent societies, lyceums and churches occupied their time and satisfied their need for civic and religious involvement. The Brooklyn City and Business Directory for the year 1873-74 indicated that Brooklyn's small colored population supported six African Methodist Episcopal Churches, two colored Baptist churches and five public schools.(6)

These cold statistics take on life when we associate them with people who walked the streets of yesteryears. Some of Brooklyn's African American elite left personal papers that illuminate the hustle and bustle of these various race organizations. Extant newspapers chronicled the activities of both organizations and individuals.(7)

One such individual was Theophilus Gould Steward, pastor of Bridge Street African Wesleyan Methodist Episcopal Church (AME) from 1874 to 1877, who, in 1876-1877, wrote a series of seven provocative essays, "Colored Society." Steward was born in 1843 in Goultown, a South New Jersey community of racially mixed people dating to 1683 when Gould, an African slave, mated with Elizabeth Fenwick. Theophilus came from a poor but hard working family. His father, James, influenced him to strive for a sterling character, to never back down from hard tasks, and to refrain from profanity, drinking or Sabbath breaking. His mother, Elizabeth, was a voracious reader who encouraged her son to seek knowledge in both secular and sacred areas.(8)

From his ordination in 1864 to 1891, Steward was a major force in the AME itineracy as he was active in church politics. He pastored churches in Reconstruction South Carolina and Georgia as well as in Delaware, Pennsylvania and Washington, D. …