Black Gotham Stories

Merchant Princes of Color

 New York's Knickerbocker society had taken shape during the eighteenth century, but in the early nineteenth century an elite class was similarly emerging from New York's black community.  Men of the black elite obviously never had the same educational advantages as did their white counterparts, nor did they ever achieve anywhere near the same socioeconomic status.  They did not own ships that plyed the high seas to China, India, or the West Indies.  But they too set up shop as merchants, determined to succeed in business.  So much like John Jacob Astor and his ilk, these black men formed a “shopkeeping aristocracy.”  Over time, their descendants came to be called "black Knickerbockers."

The men who lived on Collect Street exemplified this entrepreneurial spirit of skilled, self-employed tradesmen.  Boston Crummell was an oysterman.  George DeGrasse ran a provisioning business.  Joseph Marshall worked as a house painter.

 Thomas DowningOthers achieved even greater success.  Thomas Downing, for example, was born into slavery in Virginia, but escaped North with his family and settled in New York City.  An early prominent leader oDowning's Restaurantthe black community, he ran an oyster house on Broad Street.  Because of its proximity to the Customs House, the port, banks, the Merchant Exchange, and other important businesses, Downing’s restaurant counted some of New York’s most powerful men among his customers.  It was said that he often passed messages back and forth between customers at different tables and that people then assumed that he wielded influence at the highest level of city government.  As a result, scores of office seekers flocked to his restaurant.


Thomas Downing

Pierre ToussaintJust as eminent was Pierre Toussaint.  Also born a slave, Toussaint belonged to the Berards, a grand blanc slaveholding family from St. Domingue, who brought him to New York when they fled the Haitian revolution.  Emancipated in 1807, Toussaint became a hairdresser.  He owed much of his success to white patronage; despite the fact that he had been a slave, Toussaint remained loyal to New York’s circle of Haitian émigrés.  They, in turn, introduced him to many of white elite families who became his loyal clients.  Although he maintained a hairdressing salon in his successive homes on Reade, Chamber, and Canal Streets, but the most lucrative part of Toussaint’s work came from home visits to elite families where he cut and styled their hair.  As contract clients, they paid him a fixed sum of money.   As his business expanded, Toussaint became a wealthy man and was able to buy substantial property.

Pierre Toussaint

                             Euphemia Toussaint

Juliette & Euphemia Toussaint