Black Gotham Stories

Elite Values

The black elite was determined to prove that they were just as capable of succeeding in life as white New Yorkers.  They admonished blacks to be self-reliant in bettering their own circumstances and those of the community.  Like their white counterparts, they preached a Protestant gospel of hard work.  They promised that education and dedication to work would eventually lead to success in business and entrepreneurship, and ultimately to profit and wealth. 

Reliable accounts of black wealth are hard to come by.  One report from the late 1850s claimed that the total value of the real estate on which the 1,000 most prominent black citizens paid taxes was $1, 400,000 while the total of their deposits in savings banks was estimated at $1,121,000.  Like the Knickerbockers before them, this new black aristocracy understood that, just as much as personal income, investment in real estate was a path to wealth.  Boyd’s Tax Book for 1856 and 1857 valued Philip White’s real estate at $9,300, James McCune Smith’s at $7,734, and Charles Ray’s at $3,000.  

No. 86 North Moore Street

House on N. Moore Street

Many black families were not nearly so well off, and all remained conscious of the fragility of their financial status.  In his transition from hairdressing to pharmacy, Peter Guignon fell on hard times.  His wife Cornelia was obliged to write Albro Lyons a note apologizing for the fact that they were unable to pay back the money they owed him.

Cornelia Guignon letter (repayment of debt)

Letter from Cornelia Guignon to Albro Lyons

Wealth, however, was not the most important criterion for membership in the elite.  It still held fast to the traditional values of “character” and “respectability.”  Character meant cultivating the inner values of piety, temperance, moral development.  Once acquired, character would reveal itself in respectability, outward conduct marked by sobriety, modesty, industriousness, economy.  The elite was convinced that if the black community came together to work toward these goals, they would ultimately garner the respect of white America and, in due course, achieve political and civil equality. Throughout the 1840s and 1850s, James McCune Smith was the undisputed leader of black New Yorkers' activism and the backroom of his pharmacy a frequent meeting place.

Bobo, William M. Glimpses of New-York, by a South Carolinian (who had nothing else to do). Charleston: J. J. McCarter, 1852.

Foster, George G. New York by Gas-Light (1850).