Program for an 1853 performance of Christy's Ethiopian Opera Troupe. Collection New-York Historical Society.

New York's Southern Accent

Many white New Yorkers joined their white guests from the South in prizing southern plantation life and its "aristocratic" values. New York's most important newspapers—the Herald and the Courier and Enquirer—often published flattering depictions of southern life and caustic comments about free African Americans.

A hard economic reality underscored this courteous relationship between northern and southern elites. Southern opinion-leaders periodically threatened to withdraw their patronage of New York businesses if the city flirted with abolitionism. But many white New Yorkers hated their black fellow-countrymen as much as any southerner.

Northern Hospitality

New York hotels went out of their way to make white southerners feel at home. Some displayed earthenware ceramics with transfer-printed scenes of hometown landmarks, including a landing along the Ohio River in Kentucky, the Bank of Savannah, and various sites in Baltimore.

City tours were offered as well, taking southern guests to the Astor House on Broadway, Barnum's American Museum (see the Feejee Mermaid!), the Merchant's Exchange on Wall Street, A. T. Stewart's department store, Castle Garden at the Battery, and Brooklyn's Greenwood Cemetery. For those so inclined, there were evening visits to the Five Points, America's most notorious home of poverty and crime, accompanied by an officer of the law.

Scenes of Prosperity and Harmony

American publishing was revolutionized after 1830 with the introduction of the steam press and color lithography. As the center of the industry, New York City produced the images that dominated the nation's visual vocabulary. Scenes of harmony—of enslaved blacks at work in cotton fields, of railways and steamboats nestled into the landscape, of stately hotels in northern resorts—reassured wealthy New Yorkers and their southern white guests that slavery was a beneficent, efficient, and nationally valuable institution. Nathaniel Currier and James Ives, based at 152 Nassau Street in lower Manhattan, were the greatest of these image-makers.

Exhibiting Nonwhite People as Non-People

Many of the attractions in P.T. Barnum's Museum had strong racial overtones — like Joice Heth, "the 161-year-old black nurse of George Washington," or the Siamese twins Chang and Eng. As racial prejudice intensified, nonwhite peoples became perfect objects for popular freak shows. African American visitors were not admitted to the museum.

During the 1830s and 1840s, pseudo-scientific lectures and performances stressed the inherent inferiority of nonwhite peoples. "Ethnologists" like Josiah Nott, an Alabama doctor, found similarities between black heads and those of primates. Phrenologists "discovered" that individual character could be discerned by reading the bumps on the head — and black heads invariably were read as lacking intellectual power. Pro-slavery ministers proposed that blacks bore the Biblical "curse of Ham," or were a physically and mentally inferior species.

James McCune Smith and others countered this poison. But day after day, the public representation of black people became increasingly offensive.

Ridicule Was the Talk of the Town

The city's theaters, lecture halls, and museums entertained residents and visitors alike by portraying black people as inferiors. Though only a tiny fraction of the city's population, black men and women were represented everywhere in the popular culture. Huge audiences listened to pseudo-scientific lecturers propound the deficiencies of "Negroid" brains and skulls.

Minstrel songs, skits, and dances evolved in theaters in New York and other eastern cities in the 1830s. By the next decade, white performers blackened their faces, mimicked enslaved black men and women on southern plantations, and performed evening-long minstrel "concerts." Playing both European- and African-influenced musical instruments, their songs and dances were strongly influenced by Scotch-Irish ballads. Tremendously successful minstrel troupes traveled throughout the United States and Europe for many years.

The blackface minstrel show came from many influences, but it was always rooted in anti-black prejudice.

Voices from the Edge

After 1827, when slavery was abolished in New York, black New Yorkers confronted severe obstacles to their progress. Without slavery to place whites on a higher footing or to explain why blacks were different, many whites intensified their racial prejudice. If all Americans were entitled to freedom, they reasoned, then blacks should not be considered American citizens.

These white attitudes made finding work and supporting families extremely difficult. Excluded from many jobs, black New Yorkers struggled in the low-paying work that other residents refused to do. Sometimes, parents had no choice but to board their children at the Colored Orphan Asylum.

Facing unrelenting hostility, black New Yorkers also developed strategies for survival—rescuing fugitives, finding jobs whenever whites refused to take them, and building self-respect through family ties and schooling. They constituted an underground presence in the city. Historians have to search hard for evidences of their stories. (Listen to imagined audio conversations between David Ruggles and a hotel pastry cooked named Rachel Saunders, and between Frederick Douglass and a whitewasher named William Dixon.)

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