The History of Urban Life
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Black New Yorkers’ Struggle for Liberation

Black New Yorkers’ Struggle for Liberation (1613-1865)

This episode documents the history of Black New Yorkers’ and their struggle for liberation from times of first contact with Native Americans by people of African and European descent. For many Lenape on the island called Manahatta, in 1613 Jan Rodrigues became their first and only connection to Jan Rodrigues another world. Dutch slavery took hold within a few decades, however, conflict between the Europeans of New Amsterdam and the native communities forced from their lands, created opportunities for enslaved peoples who gained their freedom to serve as a buffer between the two groups. With the British takeover in 1664, the black community, both free and slave, saw their limited rights erode. The year after the British set up a slave marked at the foot of Wall Street, black New Yorkers rebelled. Though the insurrection was violently put down, a set of mysterious fires in 1741 was assumed to be a plot by members of city’s black community, joined with some Irish New Yorkers to destabilize the structures that allowed slavery and discrimination. Slow for a Northern state to achieve emancipation, which was finally secured in 1827, NYC became a center for both slave hunters and black organizers, notably David Ruggles of the Vigilance Committee. The episode then examines the economic and social context that made NYC pro-southern city in the 1850s and 1860s culminating in the Draft Riots of 1863 that forced much of the black community to flee to Brooklyn. Throughout the episode, Dr. Finesurrey documents the ways black New Yorkers organized for African-American liberation by operating key stations on the underground railroad, creating autonomous communities likes Weeksville, and NYC’s black community’s significant contribution to the Union effort in the Civil War.

 

Black New Yorkers’ Struggle for Liberation (1865-1917)

This episode begins with Lincoln’s death exacerbating the trauma faced by African Americans in the U.S. South. Dependent on congressional action, rights were secured through the passage of the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments and the sending of Northern troops to occupy the South. For a time the lives of black southerners improved, however, with the end of Reconstruction white supremacy was reinstalled through violence. By the 1910s Jim Crow was in full swing with confederate statues popping up throughout the South to honor the “Lost Cause”. The violence grew more widespread after black troops returned from World War I as decorated heroes having just fought to “make the world safe for democracy.” Attempts to exert their rights in the country that they fought for led to violent reprisals from whites in the North and the South. While Harlem was both segregated and discriminatory towards blacks, for many African-Americans, the home of the Harlem Hellfighters, became a haven from the struggles blacks faced elsewhere in the nation. The ingenuity of black businessmen like Philip A. Payton, and the flight of blacks from the terrorism in the U.S. South created the context for Harlem to become a majority black neighborhood and a cultural capital from which black art and organizing could be nurtured.

 

Black New Yorkers’ Struggle for Liberation (1917-1945)

The episode first dives in the development of different black strategies for liberation in the late 19th and early 20th century New York City. Dr. Finesurrey discusses two political organizations founded in NYC designed to create equity between the races in very different ways. The NAACP began in the Henry Street Settlement of the Lower East Side by Black and White activists led by W.E.B. Du Bois. The organization sought for Black Americans all the rights and privileges enjoyed by White Americans. By contrast, Marcus Garvey’s UNIA, based in Harlem, sought not to be integrated as equals into American life, but instead worked to gain black autonomy so they controlled their communities. Dr. Finesurrey shows how New York generally, and Harlem specifically, became a center of black culture and organizing. Harlem giants Zora Neale Hurston, Father Divine, Adam Clayton Powell Jr., and Paul Robeson are examined in the context of the Harlem Renaissance, the Great Depression, and World War II. The episode explores how the betrayal of Ethiopia by the League of Nation galvanized Harlem’s solidarity with the people of that nation. Finally, Finesurrey traces the political strategies developed between 1918 and 1945 that would be employed in the struggle fo black liberation. The tactics of civil disobedience and boycotting that made the Civil Rights movement of the 50s and 60s successful was first tested in Harlem decades earlier. Further, the background and character of the Harlem uprisings of 1935 and 1943 are excavated as insurrections against racist conditions within a larger conversation about Jim Crow on 125th street and tension between immigrant and black communities.

 

Black New Yorkers’ Struggle for Liberation (1945-1970)

This episode begins with an exploration of the Second Great Migration. With limited economic opportunities and frustrated by the slow progress on Civil Rights in the U.S. South African Americans abandoned their southern homes in large numbers coming to New York State and Harlem in particular where 300,000 would live the early 1940s. These new residents made Harlem overcrowded which hurt Black residents and labor in the neighborhood. As the white and Black middle-class New Yorkers left for the suburbs, Harlem became a prime target of the City to divest from and eventually destroy large parts of. At the same time African Americans were denied access to publicly funded building complexes like Stuyvesant Town, were economically knee-capped through policies like redlining, and offered less safe and less desirable housing alternatives. From many in Harlem and from Black residents throughout the five boroughs there was a strong push to make the city less segregated and ensure equal enforcement of the law. For these integrationists there was some reason to celebrate. In 1947 Jackie Robinson broke into Major League Baseball with the Brooklyn Dodgers. In 1948 the U.S. Military was integrated. Yet struggles remained. Five years after Brown v. Board of Ed. outlawed segregation in public schools in 1959 the mothers of the Harlem 9 were prosecuted for demanding their children be given equal educational opportunities as the white students. This lack of progress led many African Americans to radical visions for Black liberation. Black New Yorkers like Renaissance Man Paul Robeson, Communist leader Claudia Jones and New York City Councilman Benjamin Davis, Jr. worked with white allies in pursuing a more equal and just world. Marcus Garvey, Carlos Cooks and Malcolm X sought to empower Blacks through the development of Black-run institutions. All six were persecuted by local and/or federal authorities for their efforts. Garvey and Jones were deported; Robeson was stripped of his passport; Davis served a three-year stint in prison; and Malcolm X was murdered, seemingly with the involvement of the NYPD. The Black Panthers inherited this radical Black legacy in the mid-1960s. They too were targeted and devastated by law enforcement, but not before inspiring new radical movements emerging throughout the city and nation by the end of the 1960s.

 

Black New Yorkers’ Struggle for Liberation (1970-2020)

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