"I Have Gone Quietly to Work for the Support of My Three Children:" African-American Mothers in New York City, 1827-1877

Article excerpt

Phoebe Morris was born in New Jersey in 1820 and moved to New York City with her family in 1827, the same year that New York State abolished slavery. She had met her husband, Samuel Sisco, "sometime during the war with Mexico" and they had had four children over the next decade. "No we were never married but lived together as man and wife and were so recognized by all our friends," she recounted. "I was a New Jersey slave and we were not as particular in old days about getting married as they are now but I always considered myself his wife just the same as if we had been married by a preacher." In the city, the couple had first lived on Le Roy Street and then moved to Houston Street to a larger dwelling, which could accommodate their growing family. Phoebe Sisco worked as a servant while her husband took a job as a whitewasher.

The Sisco family, like all of New York City's African Americans, witnessed the violence and depravity of the Draft Riot that erupted in July of 1863. During the four-day melee, white mobs protested the first federally enacted draft. Blaming the black population for the Union's involvement in the Civil War, rioters targeted the city's African Americans. After the race riot, however, over one hundred black men from the city enlisted in the United States Colored Infantry in order to demonstrate their support for the Union troops. Samuel Sisco was no exception. He mustered in as a private for one of New York City's three black regiments on March 5, 1864. "While he was in the army he sent me relief money," recalled Phoebe Sisco. "I got $60 first and after that Mr. Cooper of 71 Jayne Street collected the money for me and my children. We got a card to come and get the relief money for soldiers' families." Following his discharge in 1865, Samuel Sisco reunited with his family and went back to his work as a whitewasher. He fell ill shortly after his return to the city and, unable to work any longer, he moved to the Colored Home near 72nd Street where he died in 1880. According to Phoebe, "Samuel Sisco did not leave me a thing whatsoever. I can get out days work. I do what I can. I am too old to work much.... I have to depend on charity and such assistance that my neighbors and children can give. I have no other means of support and have no property or income of any kind." Her neighbor confirmed that, "Phoebe has (no) income except from her own labor."(2)

For emancipated women in the North, like Phoebe Sisco, freedom allowed them to own their labor, reunite with their families, and live wherever they wished. Yet emancipation also brought about a number of seemingly insurmountable challenges for African-American women. Like all free women of African descent in the Americas, women in New York City negotiated the economic and social legacy of slavery. They endured both sex-based and race-based discrimination in all aspects of their lives, including employment, housing, and associational activities. Moreover, they often grappled with the difficulties of urban life in overcrowded cities like New York. In spite of these dire circumstances, however, these freedwomen managed to eke out an existence, raise their families, and sustain their communities.

African-American freedwomen residing in New York City worked to support themselves and their families. They played a central role in the city's labor force, although gender and racial expectations relegated them to the fringes of the changing economy. They also helped to sustain their community by providing emotional and financial support to its numerous black institutions and clubs. During the racial violence of the New York City Draft Riot in 1863, black women protected their families and neighbors. And when their husbands, fathers, and sons joined the United States Colored Troops to fight in the Civil War, those same women took on the responsibility of providing financial stability for their families. When the war ended and the federal government set out to reconstruct the South, African-American women in New York City repaired their community that had been ravaged by racial violence. …