Henry Highland Garnet. Collection New-York Historical Society.
Speaking for Ourselves
Freedom's Journal, the first black newspaper in the United States, proclaimed, "We wish to plead our own cause." Samuel Cornish and John Russwurm started this publication on March 16, 1827, just before the abolition of slavery in New York. Its weekly columns reported on the enterprise of African Americans throughout the nation and their labors for freedom, equality, and improvement. For the first time, black Americans had a regular vehicle for communicating among themselves.
Freedom's Journal survived for more than two years and opened the gates. A torrent of printed manifestos, sermons, orations, and essays followed. Black men and women had found a stronger voice and proclaimed against slavery and racial hatred as never before. David Walker challenged African Americans to submit no longer to sinful slavery and white superiority. Henry Highland Garnet declared that blacks alone were the vanguard of freedom and equality in America. Maria Stewart was the first American woman to speak publicly for the equality of blacks and women. Courageous words elevated new leaders and spurred a bolder activism among blacks.
The American Colonization Society and its local chapters advocated the settlement of West Africa by black Americans. Between 1817 and 1867, it assisted 13,000 emigrants, who founded the independent nation of Liberia. Some whites, including Abraham Lincoln, viewed colonization as a way to encourage emancipation in the United States.
By the late 1820s, even some longstanding white enemies of slavery in the city's Manumission Society concluded that free blacks would be better off in Africa. For black Americans in the 1830s, the scheme to resettle people of color in Africa had become a practical and symbolic obstacle to equality in America. Black newspapers and conventions, led by courageous ministers — Samuel Cornish, Peter Williams, Jr., Theodore Sedgwick Wright, and Christopher Rush — claimed the United States as their home and equality as a birthright.
The Fourth Annual Convention for the Improvement of the Free People of Color met in New York in June 1834. The 48 delegates, coming from as far as Baltimore and Cincinnati, voted to endorse immediate emancipation in the United States and to oppose colonization in Liberia.
Black opposition converted several white colonizationists, who lent their talents and money to the radical cause of immediate emancipation. William Lloyd Garrison's Thoughts on Colonization quoted American Colonization Society documents to prove the society's prejudice against blacks. Arthur Tappan, scandalized by the reliance of the Liberian enterprise on rum selling, became the most vigorous white advocate of radical antislavery in New York.
Celebrating British Emancipation
Abolitionists in New York celebrated Parliament's passage of the Emancipation Act on August 1, 1833. After a half century of struggle—Victory! American anti-slavery forces emulated the British tactics of mobilizing the public through speakers, pamphlets, and local antislavery societies. By the terms of the federal constitution, no single legislature in America could outlaw slavery in the nation as Parliament could in the British empire. Ending slavery would be far more difficult in the United States.
Radical Abolitionism in New York City
Assembling in Philadelphia, the city of the nation's birth, abolitionists from all over the North founded the American Anti-Slavery Society (AA-SS) in December 1833. They planted their faith squarely "upon the Declaration of our Independence" written 57 years earlier. They acknowledged that the U.S. Constitution forbade interference with slavery in the southern states.
Taking a new radical approach to the fight against slavery and for equality, the AA-SS announced that God condemned slavery as a crime and a sin. Slavery would be attacked nationally, without compromise, without respect for economic interests or legal precedents. No fundamental American institution had ever before been targeted in this way. The AA-SS activists believed that excluding blacks from America was no answer. Instead, by combating the sinful racial prejudice in their hearts, white Americans could come to recognize African Americans as free laborers and citizens.
The Anti-Abolitionist Riots of 1834
Across the North, many "gentlemen of property and standing" — lawyers, editors, merchants — responded furiously to the abolitionist campaign. Mob violence exploded in a hundred cities and towns, targeting anti-slavery societies and black Americans.
New York's pro-slavery newspapers reported daily "outrages" in June 1834. William Leete Stone, editor of the New York Commercial Advertiser, reported that Rev. Samuel Cox, minister of the Brick Presbyterian Church had even preached that "JESUS CHRIST WAS A COLOURED MAN."
On July 4 and 7, fights broke out at abolitionist meetings. Full-blown rioting erupted on Wednesday the 9th and continued for three days. A mob of more than 2,000 counting-house clerks and laborers attacked the homes of abolitionists and anti-slavery churches. On Friday, July 11, a race riot devastated black residences, churches, meeting halls, and businesses. In the Five Points district, rioters demanded that white residents stand in front of candle-lit windows so the mob could bypass their houses. On Saturday, the mayor mobilized the National Guard and the worst rioting to this point in New York's history ended.
Shock prevailed among New Yorkers of all political stripes. Anti-abolitionist editors muted their attacks. Anti-slavery leaders also beat a hasty retreat. After the riots, these white abolitionists focused their labors against slavery and for black political rights, withdrawing support for the social equality of black New Yorkers.