Black Gotham Stories

A Black Aristocracy

A letter published in the April 22, 1852 issue of Frederick Douglass’ Paper, signed with the pen name “Ethiop,” made the following observation about black New Yorkers:  “Quite a combination of enterprising blacks are beginning to appear.  They begin to take their places in every pursuit about town and country; and as their thoughts and sympathies partake of their varied and independent occupations, they naturally form an active and efficient business class.  I call it an ARISTOCRACY.”

The Five Points in 1859: Crossing of Baxter (late Orange) Park (late Cross) & Worth (late Anthony) Sts.

The Five Points in 1859

Who was this new aristocracy and where could they be found?  Many still resided and worked in and around the Five Points whose southern border overlapped with Chatham Street which was filled with shops of all kinds.  Some settled farther downtown close to the city’s commercial center, while others moved eastward into an area known as the Swamp (east of today’s City Hall) or west around Greenwich and Church Streets. 

In many respects, the origins, activities, and values of this black aristocracy were similar to those of the city’s white merchant class, or Knickerbockers as Washington Irving liked to call them.  Despite stark differences in race, educational level, and socioeconomic status, both groups constituted what observer George Foster termed a “shopkeeping aristocracy.” 

Old Houses in Chatham Street, opposite the park, 1857

Chatham Street