A Slow Burn: The Incendiary Politics of Race and Violence in Antislavery Conflict and the Effects on the Civil War Draft Riots in Richmond County, New York 1855-1865

Debbie-Ann Paige

     Richmond County during the antebellum period was a microcosm of the United States. The residents of the pro- and antislavery communities found themselves struggling through similar issues of racism and violence that plagued the nation as a whole. Throughout the late antebellum period, the ubiquitous political arguments traversing the island eventually led to an environment replete with fear and resentment. Although the antislavery community was stigmatized by the Northern supporters of slavery, somehow they still managed to create an environment whereby they could become an essential part of the abolition movement, possibly shaping antislavery ideology and politics towards the single goal of abolishing the institution of slavery.

     Richmond County, in the early republic, had more than 20 percent of its entire population held in racial bondage, and as such, the county became one of several New York communities with a strong proslavery position. County delegates tactically voted against the first round of gradual abolition measures which resulted in the defeat of the earliest earnest emancipation legislation proposed in New York in 1785. Richmond County slaveholders were repeatedly among those who helped develop strategies and policies that ensured the perpetuation of racialized slavery in the newly chartered state. By the late eighteenth century, the abolition of chattel slavery and what would become known as “the Negro problem” became a significant political and legal concern to New Yorkers

     On July 5, 1827 nearly every African American man, woman and child gathered in Richmond County at the Swan Hotel to celebrate the official end of slavery in New York. To commemorate the long anticipated event, “the more prominent colored men” of the island arranged one of the largest emancipation day celebrations in the state. To help celebrate the historic occasion the local African American community was joined by their brethren from Long Island and New Jersey on the banks of the Kill Van Kull in West New Brighton to participate in the celebrations that lasted the “better part of two days.” The jubilant celebrations were made possible with the execution of the New York State gradual emancipation law.

     After emancipation, African Americans established two communities in Richmond County: the Sandy Ground settlement and what would later become known as the McKeon Street neighborhood. Although newly freed African Americans returned to the homes of former slaveholders to labor on their previous farms and oyster vessels after the Emancipation Day celebrations, some as freedmen, others to finish their debt of indenture, a small number became heads of households by the 1830 census. Both communities were partially integrated, but the vast majority of Richmond County African Americans called one of these communities home. This is not to say that African Americans did not live in the other towns and villages of Richmond County; but more to the point that during the antebellum period African Americans were most often found in one of these two neighborhoods.

     Richmond County African American residents were involved in the burgeoning Underground Railroad of the 1830s through 1840s. Freedomseekers departing the Chesapeake were reported to have found assistance from the African American community when they reached the South Shore of Richmond County. On the North Shore, tails of escape from southern ports through the Quarantine Station were recounted in several slave narratives. African Americans took huge risks to assist selfemancipators under threat of harsh reprisals from an intensely proslavery white population.

     The African American Methodist communities participated in annual religious camp meetings and antislavery picnics called “First of August” celebrations which corresponded with the end of slavery in British colonies and invited prominent abolitionists to be the keynote speakers. In 1855, Staten Island hosted one of the largest August First celebrations with more than five thousand, mostly African American celebrants from New York and New Jersey. Alexander Crummell and James McCune Smith, two prominent African American abolitionists, coordinated the event with invited keynote speaker Stephen Myers of Albany, also a prominent abolitionist and Underground Station Master.

     Dr. Samuel McKenzie Elliott, a distinguished oculist, was the first of the prominent abolitionists to arrive in Richmond County. Beginning in the 1840s, Dr. Elliott purchased property across the north shore, much of it overlooking the beautiful Kill Van Kull. He later named the area Elliottsville. Over time, several parcels of land were made available to his abolitionist friends and collectively the neighborhood evolved into an enclave of literary Unitarians, Free-soilers and radical abolitionists in what is now called West New Brighton. By the mid-1850s, the principal abolitionists living in Richmond County can be characterized as mainly expatriates from New England including philanthropist Francis George Shaw and family; journalist Sydney Howard Gay and family; George William Curtis; George A. Ward and son George C. Ward; Frederick Law Olmsted; William Emerson, brother of Ralph Waldo Emerson, and for a short period time Henry David Thoreau. Others were important New York names including the DePeyster and Willcox families. Captain Frederic Augustus DePeyster and his daughter Maria; Albert O. Willcox and his three sons Hamilton, Albert Jr. and David; Dr. Samuel McKenzie Elliott, Lewis Brownell, George Bechtel, the Bard, Delafield, and Minturn families were lesser known supporters of the antislavery movement. A good number of these local abolitionists were ardent supporters of the American Anti-Slavery Society and its literary arm, the National Anti-Slavery Standard. Their financial contributions to the organizations were faithful and consistent and were an integral part of keeping the organizations running.

     By the 1850s the once reverent believers of Garrison’s antislavery ideology turned their attention to electoral possibilities. The political affiliations began by experimenting with memberships in the Whig, Know Nothing, Liberty and Free Soil parties. For the elections of 1856 the reformers joined forces with the Republican Party and by the 1860 elections the Richmond County antislavery defenders became solid Lincoln Republicans. Moral suasion was combined with political arguments of antislavery theory that continued the demand for unconditional immediate emancipation.

     Eventually, Richmond County abolitionists and Republicans set their sights on the 1860 election of Abraham Lincoln. Sydney Gay left his position as editor of the National Anti-Slavery Standard and took the position of managing editor with the New York Tribune. The Tribune was transformed into a substantial pro-Lincoln voice for the Republican Party, sometimes to the dismay of Horace Greeley, its founder and editor. Shaw, Curtis and Gay had visibly influential roles within the Party. Based on their considerable involvement as political activists and role as Republican “insiders” the trio exerted a good deal of influence within the Party. Gay and his companions settled on the certainty that a win for Lincoln was a win for the abolitionist cause.

     Gay, Shaw and Curtis purportedly opened their West New Brighton homes, lives and resources to freedom seekers during the antebellum period as a part of the Underground Railroad, but lacked the commitment to accept the local African American communities into the antislavery fold. For this reason James McCune Smith regularly accused Gay and Garrison of racism. Smith incessantly challenged Garrison’s abolitionist press about disparities in salary, lecture and journalism opportunities between white and black abolitionists, and on more than one occasion he openly accused William Lloyd Garrison, Gay and the National Anti-Slavery Standard of discrimination and favoritism.

     During the mid-nineteenth century, Richmond County’s white community regardless of social class or ethnic origin, on countless occasions exhibited a clear racial bias against African American communities. On the North Shore, the Irish immigrant community continuously disparaged the African American community as inferior, in an attempt to escape the anti-Irish torment leveled against them by the WASP (White Anglo-Saxon Protestant) community of the island. A good number of new Irish residents lived in relatively close proximity to the African American community of McKeon Street and Rocky Hollow. Clashes occurred between African American and Irish residents on a fairly consistent basis up through the end of the Civil War. White Staten Islanders had a penchant for using violence to resolve difficult problems. In 1858, a Staten Island mob of more than one thousand men attacked and burned the Quarantine buildings to the ground. Threats of physical violence abounded on the island and verbal attacks on abolitionists and Republicans became commonplace in the local newspaper. For this reason, both local and national abolitionists acknowledged a need for new strategies if they were going to be successful in the approaching1860 elections.

     The 1860 elections in Richmond County hinged on two key issues, the presidential race of Abraham Lincoln and the question of unencumbered suffrage for African Americans. Richmond County residents viewed a Lincoln presidency with vastly different lenses. On one hand, Lincoln represented the long awaited, although symbolic conclusion to slavery the abolitionists had worked tirelessly towards. On the other hand Republican supporters looked to Lincoln to fulfill the Party’s agenda prohibiting the expansion of slavery into the western territories. In the meantime, Richmond County conservatives began organizing in preparation for the pending elections. They readied themselves for what they believed would become a nasty fight during the election period to ensure Lincoln did not get elected.

     Also on the ballot in New York was a referendum on “Negro suffrage.” The intent of this measure was to remove the two hundred and fifty dollar freehold qualification for African Americans and centralize the black-white dichotomy of equality and the rights of full citizenship without encumbrances in nineteenth-century New York. The combination of all these issues represented the complexities of putting ideological beliefs into practice and the inability of radical abolitionists and Garrisonian Republicans to follow through on the idealisms of equality at a critical moment in Northern antebellum politics.

     Despite the antislavery violence and racial politics exhibited throughout the late 1850s, by 1860 the new Republican leaders of Staten Island still maintained a general belief in equality and offered their support for the referendum on equal suffrage for African Americans. However, not all Republicans agreed with the suffrage measure. A considerable number of Republicans held beliefs in the ideologies of white supremacy and flat out refused to support the suffrage referendum. By 1860, many Staten Islanders still held fast to their deep-seated anti-black feelings, which presented a serious problem for the Republican Party. Racial prejudice and exclusionary practices towards African Americans had the potential to tear the party apart and the possible loss of the presidency. Republican abolitionists had to find a way to create an atmosphere of tolerance between the friends and opponents of African American suffrage, so that the focus could remain on acquiring the votes needed to place Lincoln in office.

     Republicans held large rally-styled meetings to ratify the presidential and gubernatorial nominations previously established by party members. The meetings met predominantly on the North Shore in the towns of Castleton, Northfield and Middletown because Republicanism had not extended past these three towns with any substantial significance. One mass meeting convened in the North Shore neighborhood of Clifton scheduled George W. Curtis, Horace Greeley and Gustav Struve as guest speakers. The simple purpose was to address the crowd and fire them up for the upcoming elections. Tremendous fanfare preceded the meeting, with the participants marching to music in the streets amidst great fireworks. The New York Times described the procession as, “headed by bands of music, marched with banners, torches, and amid a display of rockets, to the place of the meeting. A Great degree of enthusiasm was manifested.” Republican Party officials aimed this extraordinary event, filled with pomp and circumstance, primarily towards the working-class members of the Staten Island community. Ideally, such an expressive show of enthusiasm and energy would attract the highly sought after working-class demographic to the party.

     The 1860 election returns were truly disappointing for Richmond County Republicans. While Lincoln received nearly 60 percent of the electoral votes and secured the presidency, not one of his Staten Island contemporaries were able to capitalize on the momentum of a Lincoln presidency in Richmond County. The Republicans failed to reach far enough across party lines in the general elections as they had done for Frank Shaw earlier that year in the local elections and consequently failed to get themselves elected to any post in any of the island’s statewide districts. At the same time, opponents of the suffrage proposal managed to have the measure defeated by sizeable margins in all five towns of Richmond County, which makes it unmistakably clear that Richmond County abolitionists and their Republican friends failed to support the suffrage referendum. The referendum returns, especially those in Staten Island, delivered a powerful message to antebellum African Americans: white New Yorkers would not offer their black brethren the opportunity for equality. This was just one more incident that reinforced the growing complaints by African Americans regarding the inability of their Republican supporters to reconcile race and prejudice. Of the total votes cast on Staten Island, less than 5 percent of the voting populace cast a ballot in the affirmative. While the rest of the New York overwhelmingly elected a new Republican president, Staten Islanders were proud to have voted for a straight Democratic ticket and their ability to overwhelmingly reject the referendum on “Negro Suffrage.”

     Lincoln’s policies certainly found little favor in Richmond County, where his decision to free southern slaves was met with open resentment by the county’s mostly Irish working-class communities. By 1862, White residents began openly attacking African Americans on the North Shore. White abolitionists and the various African American communities of Richmond County were terrorized for several days during the sweltering July summer of 1863. By July 17, news of the draft riots raging in New York City trickled into Richmond County from various places and filled the county residents with unprecedented anxiety. In the early hours of July 17, rioters spilled out into the streets and lashed out at anyone or anything that got in their way. By many accounts, members of the Irish community roamed the island, laying siege to the homes and businesses of North Shore abolitionists and the African American communities..

     When the riots first began, the participants were a disorganized group. Dis-jointed gangs sprang up in several townships across the island with the intention of causing harm to abolitionists, Republicans and the general African American population whom rioters blamed as the sole cause for the war. During that first night of rage, a crowd gathered in Factoryville and began to make its way towards New Brighton creating mayhem as they moved through the streets. In New Brighton the crowd’s intended target was the confectionary business of a man named “Green,” who was an African American businessman from Virginia that lived in the town of Castleton and ran a successful ice cream saloon in New Brighton. As rumors of the crowd’s intent became clear, George Green closed the store, gathered his family and fled for his own safety. Having discovered the store closed and Green gone, the crowd then turned its anger on the neighboring drug store they believed must also have had an African American owner. They attacked the store and went after it proprietor, whom they mistakenly believed was George Green. However, as the mob dragged the druggist named Christie from his hiding place in the cellar, they soon realized he was indeed white and released him without inflicting any further harm.

     At the same time, another portion of the mob launched an attack on the home of an African American named David Wormsley, who lived in the McKeon Street neighborhood. The mob targeted Wormsley in part based on rumors that he had been an especially vocal advocate for the government to arm African Americans to enforce the draft.

     In the dawning hours of July 18, Staten Island’s draft riots began to wane, and by the day’s end, the violence had completely subsided. The mobs dissipated, the streets cleared and the fires which set structures ablaze were extinguished. Staten Island abolitionists, white and African American alike, were stunned by the previous days of rioting, but began to quietly rebuild their lives. Overall, the island’s white abolitionists fared far better than the African American community and emerged from the riots relatively unscathed. Horace Greeley and Wendell Phillips quietly endured the riots at George W. Curtis’ home on Staten Island; but some, like Elizabeth Gay, lost a piece of themselves during those fearful nights and were forever changed by the event.

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