New York City, African Americans and Selective Memory: An Historiographical Assessment of A Black Presence before 1877

Article excerpt

New York City, African Americans and Selective Memory: An Historiographical Assessment of A Black Presence Before 1877


My grandmother kept an old cedar chest up in the attic filled with family memorabilia. Periodically she would allow us youngsters to bring it down so that she could share its contents with us as a reminder of the family's rich history. There were old photos, lockets, books, some wearing apparels, old fountain pens and pencils, mechanic tools, our great grandfather's eyeglasses, and, of course, the family Bible, that contained a written genealogy dating back to the early nineteenth century. To view the contents was a renewal, a reconnecting with a historical past - in essence, a positioning of one in the midst of the stream of humanity.

The writing of history, in terms of all that it entails - the rigor of research, analysis, interpretation - should, in the final analysis, represent a true historical reflection of a people. As one reads the history, what should become evident is that, like the contents of my grandmother's cedar chest, it is a reconnecting, a renewal with historical roots, and it is a history that positions the reader in the midst of the stream of humanity.

Now with some of the most recent histories on New York City (especially that of the nineteenth century(2)) this positioning in the stream of humanity, this reflection of a collective family history, is history in apparent "altered states." What is meant by this is that the positioning of Euro-Americans in that stream is there. For African Americans their positioning at best is almost nonexistent and at the least quite precarious. Unlike my grandmother's cedar chest, the contents of New York City history have been tampered with: altered to appear historically what they were not, and even with some items removed to paint a picture of the City and its peoples in "altered states."

How was this possible, and why write history in this fashion? Also, what was the true positioning of the African American in that stream of humanity? Let me share with you some possible answers to these questions, as well as succinctly demonstrate an enhanced richness of New York City history with a more substantive image of African Americans positioned in the midst of the stream of humanity for the nineteenth century.


In the reading of some of the most recent publications on the social and economic history of New York City, what becomes evident is that the writers would have their readers believe that because of a small and/or dwindling Black presence in New York City before 1877, it was not significant enough for inclusion in the overall thrust of their books' theses. Such an approach reveals at least two disturbing points. One, this view of history completely disregards the inherent racial diversity in New York City, and sends a subtle message to students of history that a Black presence was historically insignificant prior to 1877. Two, such an approach as well, and at this late date in the twentieth century, could lend credence to the existence of a continuity with earlier historical literature that gave preference to history in an "altered state" rather than a form of history that was "unaltered," i.e. not distorted.

It is the goal of the paper to demonstrate that, first, a Black presence in New York City before 1877 was a historical fact. Two, that in spite of what appeared to be an insignificant Black presence was in fact acknowledged by the growing contemporary white population. And three, that the attempts by some writers to reconstruct New York City history were flawed either because of a misreading of their sources or there was a deliberate resort to selective memory in order to produce history in an "altered state." The writings of some of these historians will be challenged by citations from both contemporary documentations such as eyewitness accounts, and other historical literature that give every indication of a significant Black presence in New York City prior to 1877. …


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