Black Gotham Stories

Enterprising Blacks

The ranks of the black elite had been steadily expanding since the days when the Crummells, DeGrasses, and Marshalls settled on Collect Street.  Black men were engaged in a variety of businesses and trades.  In her memoir, Maritcha Lyons compiled a list that included “jewelers, carpenters, undertakers, printers, shoemakers, tinsmiths, crockery and china ware dealers.”  Maritcha was undoubtedly thinking of men like Patrick Reason who had opened an engraving shop on Bond Street and made quite a reputation for himself.  In addition, women could be found working outside the home.  Once widowed, Maritcha wrote, Elizabeth Marshall was obliged to labor “abroad” as a domestic to support herself and her family.

In addition to those trades, black men were engaged in other kinds of enterprises as well.  At the top of the list, one would have to place the venerable Thomas Downing who decades later still maintained his oyster house on Broad Street. And, until his death in 1853, Pierre Toussaint still ran his hairdressing business catering to the city’s most elite families.

Thomas Downing, New York City pioneer and restaurant owner

Thomas Downing, restaurateur

Downing’s son, George, followed in his father’s footsteps, opening a catering business on Broadway where he prepared such specialties as pickled oysters and boned turkey for both black and white customers.  He eventually moved to Newport, Rhode Island, where he built a fancy resort hotel, the Sea Girt House

George Thomas Downing, businessman and civil rights leader

George Thomas Dowing, restaurateur

It’s quite possible that Pierre Toussaint helped Peter Guignon establish himself as a hairdresser.  City directories indicate that Peter had a home and barbershop on Greenwich Street in the late 1840s and early 1850s. In the February 16, 1855 issue of Frederick Douglass' Paper, "Ethiop" gave a highly amusing account of the many changes Greenwich Street had experienced over time, from exclusive residence of Knickerbocker families to a place where people of varied other classes, races, and ethnicities congregated.

Corner Greenwich and Franklin Streets


Peter Guignon

Peter Guignon

After the death of his first wife, Rebecca Marshall, in the late 1840s Peter Guignon married Cornelia Ray, daughter of prominent community leader, Peter Ray.  Ray was yet another enterprising black whose skill attracted the attention of New York's mercantile elite.  He began working at the Lorillard tobacco company as an errand boy in the early years of the century.  Once the Lorillards recognized his uncanny ability at judging the quality of leaf tobacco, Ray became a highly valued employee.  By the time of his death, Ray had risen to the rank of superintendant at the Lorillard factory in Jersey City.

Lorillard Tobacco Advertisment


Peter Ray

Peter Guignon

Even after Rebecca's death, Peter remained close to his former in-laws, Mary Joseph and Albro Lyons.  Along with his good friend William Powell, Albro operated a Colored Sailors' Home on Pearl Street; he also owned a Seamen's General Outfitting Store on nearby Baxter Street.

Business Card, Albro Lyons & Co Seamen's General Outfitting Store

Albro Lyons' business card for his store on Baxter Street

Black men were also entering the liberal professions in increasing numbers.  Among the teachers at the colored public schools were men like Charles Reason, Ransom Wake, and John Peterson.  More black men were being ordained ministers as well.  Peter Williams, St. Philip’s first pastor, had died in 1840, but his example was taken up by Mulberry Street School graduates, Alexander Crummell and Henry Highland Garnet, although they were currently living away from the city. 


Philip A. Bell, newspaper editor

Philip A. Bell, newspaper editor, employment office owner, and coal peddler

Black newspapermen were also making their presence felt.  In 1837, New Yorker Philip Bell launched the Weekly Advocate.  After running into financial difficulties, Charles Ray, a Presybeterian minister who originally hailed from Massachusetts, took over editorship of the paper.  Shortly thereafter, the two men were instrumental in starting The Colored American, which ran from 1837 to 1841.  But both men needed to supplement the meager income they made as newspapermen.  Bell established an employment office in which prospective employers paid a fee for locating responsible domestic help; he also sold coal.  Ray rans a boot and shoe store.

Charles Ray

Charles B. Ray, Presbyerian minister, newspaper editor, and owner of boot and shoe store