Black Gotham Stories

Collect Street

So how did black New Yorkers fit into Gotham both geographically and socially in the early decades of the nineteenth century?

Several black families lived on Collect Street, or what is now Center Street.  Around 1819, a group of black men bought lots of land from none other than tobacco merchant and real estate speculator, George Lorillard, and built houses on them.  Among these early property owners were George DeGrasse, Boston Crummell, and my great-great-great-grandfather, Joseph Marshall. 

The history of Collect Street, and of the Five Points more generally, typified the changes that were taking place in early nineteenth-century New York.   The street was built on what had once been Collect Pond (Kalkhook), a beautiful spring-fed pond surrounded by wooded hills.  According to many, “there was no more beautiful spot on the lower island.” 

The Kolch or Kalch-Hook Pond, as it was in Olden Times

Collect Pond

But the carelessness of New Yorkers quickly led to its pollution and the city eventually decided that the pond needed to be filled in.  Yet in 1812, a grand jury still found “much to complain of; besides great quantities of stagnant water it seems to be made the common place of deposit of dead animals & filth of all kinds, where they are left to corrupt the air and endanger the health of the City.”  Despite these warnings, the city began selling off lots to prominent, wealthy men like George Lorillard in and around the Collect on which buildings soon arose.  Going through city directories, tax assessment records, and minutes of the Common Council at the Municipal Archives, I discovered that in 1818 Lorillard bought lots at auction on Collect Street from the city and then promptly leased or sold several to my great-great-great-grandparents and their friends.

During this same period, George Lorillard gave the African Episcopal Society, an organization for Trinity Church’s black parishioners, a sixty-year lease on another lot of land on which to build their own church, St. Philip’s Episcopal Church.  Up until then, black families had been worshiping at Trinity Church, but over time became increasingly dissatisfied with their second-class status—in church worship, religious instruction, and cemetery privileges.  The African Episcopal Society was their first step towards autonomy.  But in 1819 a group of black men, led by Peter Williams, pressed Trinity for a parish of their own. The result was St. Philip’s Church and Peter Williams was its first pastor.

St. Philip's Church, Centre Street

Collect Street, later renamed Centre Street, with view of houses and St. Philip's Episcopal Church

Living conditions in the area never changed.  Years later, a newspaper commentator assessed the social ills created by this “made ground”:

"This will for ever remain of a very porous nature, and the exhalations arising from putrid matter collected in such places, must consequently be a continual annoyance to the inhabitants, and a prolific source of disease.  All these things show how extremely improper, nay, how utterly unjustifiable, was the policy which allowed the entire ground to be covered with buildings, without the least regard to future consequences, without taking into consideration the health and comfort of a numerous population thus huddled together.  .  . "

It’s little wonder that in the mid-1820s George Lorillard successfully petitioned to have the street renamed Centre Street, hoping to erase the sad history of Collect Pond.

Peter Williams Jr.

Peter Williams Jr., first pastor of St. Philip's Episcopal Church