"The Fifteenth Amendment, Celebrated May 19th, 1870." Thomas Kelly after James C. Beard. Collection New-York Historical Society.

New Yorkers, 1870

The return of peace allowed New York's business elites to expand and consolidate their wealth and power. For European immigrants, who numbered nearly half the city's population in 1870, New York life was lived in tightly knit, insular communities. For black people, the years after the draft riots and the Civil War meant an increasingly fragmented community scattered through northern New Jersey, Westchester, Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Staten Island, but these distinctive neighborhoods developed their own civic, religious, and social organizations. The following profiles introduce some of the people who called New York home in 1870.

Abram S. Hewitt

Son-in-law and partner of Peter Cooper in the iron business, Abram S. Hewitt had made gun barrel iron for the Union Army at the cost of production. From knowledge gained as commissioner to the world's fair in Paris in 1867, Hewitt introduced open-hearth manufacturing of steel into the United States. His business grew, and with it the economic importance of his city and his nation.

From his Lexington Avenue mansion and his nearby office, Abram Hewitt used his post-war wealth and status to:

  • buy up businesses in the South and West;
  • serve as New York Congressman, director of the executive committee of the Brooklyn Bridge Company, and Mayor of New York.
  • oppose the Tweed Ring's corruption of city administration, propose a subway system, and build parks throughout residential neighborhoods;
  • indulge himself and his family by acquiring a suburban estate and traveling abroad;
  • contribute to great cultural and educational institutions, befitting the world's fastest growing economic center.

Adolph Schmager

By 1870 the Lower East Side neighborhood known as "Kleindeutschland" or "Little Germany" was the fifth largest German-speaking community in the world. Berlin native Adolph Schmager's household lived with nineteen others at 97 Orchard Street, now the location of the Lower East Side Tenement Museum. Many of the neighbors made and sold cigars, shoes, jewelry, furniture and medical instruments — usually working at small factories and stores located nearby. Dozens of shooting galleries, turnvereins (social clubs), and local saloons dotted the streets of Kleindeutschland, creating a rich social life outside home and workshop.

Sylvester Murphy

By 1870, Sylvester Murphy (1823-1899) of County Wexford, Ireland, had been a New Yorker for nearly twenty years. One in five of his fellow New Yorkers was Irish born. From his beginnings as a laborer on the New York Central Railroad, Murphy eventually built a business constructing and developing brownstones on Manhattan's Upper East Side. Murphy lived close to his job sites, not in a predominately Irish neighborhood like Hell's Kitchen. Like many immigrants, Murphy worked and socialized alongside other immigrants from his part of the Old Country. Numerous county-based social and benevolent organizations flourished throughout the city offering aid, employment, and comradeship.

While many Irish still shaped up for day-labor crews, others came to political and economic prominence in New York City. Public-sector jobs and patronage contracts helped advance second- and third-generation Irish-Americans. Symbolic of the community's success was the construction of a magnificent new St. Patrick's Cathedral on Fifth Avenue and 50th Street, completed in 1879.

Philip A. White

A protégé of James McCune Smith, Philip A. White played a major role in the development of social and cultural institutions in Brooklyn's black community. For over forty years, White operated a successful pharmacy and wholesale drug business in lower Manhattan. Strong ties with Irish neighbors helped him avoid the destruction of his shop during the 1863 riots. Appointed the first black member of Brooklyn's Board of Education, White successfully won full equality for that city's black children but also managed to keep the best of the colored schools open. White's generation of African American professionals and businessmen socialized in groups that prized their New York ancestry, including the Society of the Sons of New York and the Brooklyn Literary Union. Alone among his friends he became a subscribing member of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1874, and remained a member until his death. His funeral and memorial services in 1891 brought together an extraordinary array of black religious and civic leaders and white politicians.

The Last Battle

Though slavery had been defeated, racial prejudice thrived in post-Civil War New York. Democrats whipped up anti-black sentiment to rally white working men to their banner. Republican ally Thomas Nast struck back.

In New York, one final battle remained to preserve inequality and prevent black suffrage. In April 1869, the state legislature ratified the Fifteenth Amendment to the federal constitution, guaranteeing the right to vote to black men. But a New York State constitutional amendment for equal rights was voted down in November 1869, losing by 70-30% in New York City. In January, the new Democratic majority in Albany repealed the federal ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment by a vote of 69-55.

Despite New York's reversal, enough states did approve the Fifteenth Amendment, which was certified on March 30, 1870. Black Americans took the opportunity to celebrate a momentous victory.

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