The Draft Riots: Brooklyn

Brooklyn had a free black community as well, called Weeksville. Established in 1838, and allowed economic mobility, intellectual freedom, and was self-sustaining . By the 1850s, Weeksville had over 500 residents, “ boasting more opportunity for homeownership, employment and success for its black residents than any other part of Brooklyn, and well beyond.”[1]. Many African Americans fled from Manhattan to seek refuge in Brooklyn, In an article in the New York Daily Tribune published on Saturday, October 10th 1863, the Merchants Relief Committee for Suffering Colored People recounts the events of that day. The Secretary of the committee, Vincent Colyer, writes on the African Americans who escaped to Brooklyn from Manhattan that day, “…these people were forced to take refuge on Blackwell’s Island (today known as Roosevelt Island), at police stations, on the outskirts of the city, in the swamps and woods back of Bergen, New Jersey, and Weeksville, and in the barns and outhouses of farmers on Long Island and Morrisania.” [2]In this we see fully the urgency to flee for safety, as many African Americans scrambled for safety anywhere where the mobs would not discover them. He also reported that 5,000 men, women and children were given aid to “restore peoples faith & distill fear.” The free black men’s occupations ranged from oysterer to landlord, and women were listed mainly as house wives and servants, but one was a boarding house keeper.

A Rev. Mr. Dennison is credited promptly providing aid to the victims, namely furniture and clothing, through the Society for Improving Conditions of the Poor; the proposition was approved on July 21st, and aid was given to 38 applicants on July 23rd, 318 on July 24th, and “on the next day the streets were crowded.”  Even an upper class Brooklyn woman named ‘Phebe’ Gertrude Lefferts Vanderbuilt wrote on the riots. One must note that her family previously owned slaves and the land that Weeksville was built on, and has a condescending view of African Americans as ‘simpleminded’.  One must also note that Phebe formed the Society for the Amelioration of the Colored Population of Flatbush, an organization committed to raising funds for the education of the town’s African American community. She sympathizes with the victims that the mob wreaked its fury upon, regarding the ‘negros’ as the “…the most helpless class in the community.”  She describes the actions of the rioters; “The burning of the Asuylum for colored orphans was a despicable act: the poor and unoffending race of negros were selected as the most desirable victims for its vengeance. Vainly did the voices of authority… make itself heard, law was afraid…no wonder that the colored people in New York and its vicinity became terror stricken” [3]Colyer seems to exemplify Brooklyn’s acceptance of African Americans and their sympathy to their plight in his conclusion, “the work before us now is chiefly to take care of the claims against the city of those who lost property by the riots”. However, this charity and compassion must have had a sort of presence throughout the city, as he lastly thanks the New York press for their help in providing aid to the victims, though he mentions no specifics other than that.

Brooklyn also had a militarily involved response to the riots. Part of the Second infantry (a.k.a. the 82nd New York Volunteer Infantry Regiment) which had ‘mustered out’ in May of that year, were residents of Brooklyn who responded to help regain order in New York City. Frank J. Bramhall, a historian of the civil war, was tasked by the War Fund Committee of the City of Brooklyn and County of Kings to gather accounts of those who were in the war. A handwritten account from the draft riots survives today, titled “The July Riots of 1865, Brooklyn Boys on Guard.” Less than five pages, the account describes the ‘boys’ of the second infantry’s participation, “While the excitement in New York has at its height and most of the citizens of that city and the surrounding suburbs were almost paralyzed with fear of excess which seem to have no limits or know no bound a gallant band of men was organized in Brooklyn who undevoused at the building known as Gothic Hall in Adams (street). The City of New York was then so completely in the hands of the mob that they could not march through the streets without being inevitably cut to pieces.” [4]Due to the massive crowds, each man individually reported to Major General Landfall at the arsenal on 35th St. and 10th Ave. to aid in the ‘bare bones’ hold of the building by guarding the prisoners there. The urgency to guard the arsenal arose for this in that the rioters made “determined attacks on the building”, having already raided gunsmiths to “maintain their position”.

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  • The Draft Riots: Brooklyn

    Brooklyn had a free black community as well, called Weeksville. Established in 1838, and allowed economic mobility, intellectual freedom, and was self-sustaining . By the 1850s, Weeksville had over 500 residents, “ boasting more opportunity for homeownership, employment and success for its black residents than any other part of Brooklyn, and well beyond.”. Many African ...

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    The riots were quelled when federal troops faced off with rioters on Thursday, July 16th, eventually ending the immediate disarray in New York City. After the riots were over, Governor Horatio Seymour addressed the people of New York City and made a statement to the rioters, “I know that many who have participated in these ...

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    The New York City Civil War Draft Riots of 1863: Four Days of Unrest On the morning of July 13th, 1863, the American Civil War had been ongoing for two years. The Emancipation Proclamation was issued by President Lincoln on the first of that year, freeing the slaves. The battle of Gettysburg had claimed its lives, ...

  • The Draft Riots: Staten Island

    Staten Island traditional oral history recalls the events of the initial response to the riots as a single noble defense, but in actuality had two outcomes. The main telling goes that citizens in Port Richmond, which was a ‘hop, skip, and jump’ away from Manhattan, pointed a cannon towards the bridge at Bodine’s Creek to ...


[1] “The Inspiring Story of Weeksville, One of America’s First Free Black Communities” http://www.brownstoner.com/history/weeksville-brooklyn-history-heritage-center/

 

[2] “New York City Tribune October 10th, 1863.

[3] Document available at the Brooklyn Historical Society in the Lefferts Family Papers, box 5, folder 38.

[4] Document available at the Brooklyn Historican Society, Frank J. Bramhall Collection,

https://dmna.ny.gov/historic/reghist/civil/counties/countiesIndex.htm

 

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