The success of the fight against slavery rested upon the creation of local abolitionist cultures and organizations like those in Williamsburg & Greenpoint. Elite cosmopolitans seldom win the big moral fights if local outsider voices are inarticulate, unorganized and unheard. Talking heads need to be joined to the body of the grassroots.
The elite view from the top tends to see first the value of the status quo. In the 19th Century industrialists like the Havemeyer family needed a steady supply of slave-produced molasses to keep their sugar factories in New York City going. After they built a large factory in Williamsburg during the Civil War, the Havemeyers also wanted locally compliant workers for the hot, dangerous work of turning molasses into sugar.
The slave-based capitalists faced off against a hotbed of anti-slavery sentiment in Brooklyn. Even among industrialists there was some conscience. Evangelical businessmen like the abolitionists Lewis and Arthur Tappan supported the Amistad prisoners during their trial in Brooklyn. Then, the brothers opened the Brooklyn Anti-Slavery Society, which had subscribers in Williamsburg and Greenpoint. New York Methodist churches followed the English founder of the Methodist Church, John Wesley, in his ardent opposition to slavery. In 1844 the northern Methodist churches forced the suspension of a southern bishop who owned slaves. The confrontation led to a splitting of the denomination along regional lines. Even in New York City and Brooklyn, not all evangelical churches favored such a strong confrontation over slavery.
For example, some of the Havemeyers went over into the Methodist church and opposed slavery. Their views were similar to those of other Germans immigrants who had settled in Williamsburg and Greenpoint. However, even the Methodist Havemeyers had a hard time overcoming an elite preference for slow, gradual social change. These Havemeyers opposed the spread of slavery but not its forced abolition in the South. The common theme of the leading members of the Havemeyer family was the desire for social harmony: peace with the South after the war; and peace on the labor front in the North. It was a benign seigniorial view that got challenged by grassroots leaders.
African Americans were asserting their spiritual leadership through the founding of several “colored” churches and abolitionist organizations in Williamsburg, Greenpoint and elsewhere. Their Christian voices were hard for church-going industrialists to ignore, particularly if their churches were organizationally related. In 1846 the Episcopal church established The Episcopal Church of Saint James (colored), the same year that the white Episcopal Church of the Ascension started meeting. The two congregations had no choice but to talk to each other.
The African Americans’ voice became more prominent as Williamsburg became one of their primary settlements in Brooklyn. Centered around churches, the African Americans created a culture of faith based activism that emphasized abolitionism, helping escaped slaves to assert their dignity, become educated and flee to Canada if necessary.
In the Southern states, owners had prohibited their slaves from reading the Bible, forming Sunday schools and churches. Willis A. Hodges recalled that before fleeing to Williamsburg that his brother was a member of the Babtist church in Virginia where he served as “an ‘exhorter’ (it being then as now, unlawful for a black man to preach or take a text from the bible).” Some Northern Christian owners also greatly hindered their slaves' spiritual or intellectual progress.
In Williamsburg, the Bible society and the Sabbath and Colored School put the sacred book into the hands of escaped & newly freed slaves which created a rising consciousness of self-worth and empowerment. For example, John Jea, a slave in New York who obtained freedom, was fearful of grasping for education as a goal beyond an African American. He wrote, “I wondered within myself whether I could read or not, but the Spirit of the Lord convinced me that I could.” Jea became an evangelist in the New York City area and elsewhere and hymnwriter. In 1829 James W. Pennington escaped to Brooklyn and entered a Sabbath school. He reflected on how the education opened his mind, writing, “I was enjoying rare privilege in attending a Sabbath school; the great value of Christian Knowledge began to be impressed upon my mind.”
With such sentiments propelling them forward, William and Willis Hodges and their neighbors in Williamsburg founded Colored School No. 3 in the 1840s. The school became a hotbed of African American activism. While the African schools in Manhattan were founded by white donors, the school in Williamsburg came more from the grassroots of the African American community, from the downtrodden not directed by the elites. The schools consequently turned out their students for public celebrations of abolitionist victories.
In the summer of 1841. Willis Hodges helped to organize a massive celebration of the emancipation of slaves in the British West Indies. The Colored American reported that a crowd of 1,000-1200, including students from several schools, stretched from the ferry docks on the East River up through Grand Street. The reporter noticed that the general sentiment of the crowd was a “deep sense of divine superintendence.” The fire behind local abolitionism was a sense of the presence of the fiery Glory of God coming with judgment and salvation, what James Baldwin called “the fire next time.”
Hodges saw a strategic value in creating an African American center of abolitionist culture in Williamsburg and Greenpoint. He also saw a tactical strength in having African Americans to settle in such small towns on the frontiers of New York City.
Hodges promoted a move by African Americans to Williamsburg as a move in racial advancement.
In his autobiography covering the years of 1848-1849 Willis Hodges recalled his first public speech. “In it I have as my opinion that the people of color had to leave the crowded cities and town of New York, Brooklyn, Syracuse…and the rest and move into country and small growing villages like Williamsburg…I believe in that way they would overcome much of the prejudice against them, for, as a rule, there is a fraternal feeling between the people of small towns or places…that is unknown in the large cities.” In small, growing settlements along the edges of a big city Hodges may have read rightly the advantages, but misunderstood the causes. The unsettled mobility of masses of immigrants and outsiders on the urban frontier provided more flexibility for the outcast and the social stranger. Cities have “free air.” An inert rural society might not offer hospitality to Black strangers.
Hodges’s scheme for a rural settlement didn’t work so well. He cooperated with other abolitionists to found an African American agricultural utopia on 120,000 acres of land in upstate New York called Timbuctoo. The millennial hungers of the age for a better world led to the formation of many secular and religious utopias at this time. Unfortunately, few of them succeeded. In Timbuctoo the residents knew hardly anything about farming and weren’t well integrated in local society so the effort petered out in the 1850s. Hodges efforts in Williamsburg proved to be much more effective. He could fight the battles more easily as an outsider near the center of power but not so far outside as in rural upstate New York as to be invisible. This unique role of Williamsburg activists was proven by a fight that he had against the popular newspaper the New York Sun.
The establishment paper New York Sun refused to run Hodges’ rebuttal to its stand on limiting African Americans right to vote through rules that didn’t apply to white New Yorkers. So, Hodges paid the incredibly large sum for the time of $15 to insert it as an advertisement. Even so, the activist complained, the paper still excluded some parts of his rebuttal and buried the ad in an unfavorable position in the paper. According to Hodges, when he complained an editor quipped, “The Sun shines for all white men, not for colored men.”
Frustrated with the lack of African American access to the media, Hodges was inspired to co-found another newspaper, The Ram’s Horn on January 1, 1847. The paper featured African American writers and ideas that were clamoring for attention. African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church pastor Frederick Douglas was a contributor as was white abolitionist John Brown. The paper grew to about 2,500 circulation before closing in 1848 because of a dispute among the owners. However, Douglas gained some lessons on how a journalism enterprise worked and founded the well-known North Star newspaper.
At about the same time church planting started in Greenpoint. A Methodist mission began shortly before 1847, in a small one-story building on the east side of Franklin Street near Huron. From this sprang the First Methodist Episcopal Church of Green Point on Union (Manhattan) Avenue, between India and Java streets. In 1848 the Reformed Protestant Dutch Church of Green Point was established.
As in Williamsburg, African Americans organized their churches very quickly in Greenpoint. In 1847 The First Bethel (African) Methodist Episcopal Church started services, and in 1849 the Green-Point Mission Zion (colored) opened its doors.
In 1850 Williamsburg and Greenpoint churches got into an uproar over the arrest of one of their members as an escaped slave. Eight days after the U.S. Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850, James Hamelet, who lived in Williamsburg with his wife and three children, was snatched off the streets of Manhattan and sent to a holding jail in Baltimore, Maryland. With the help of other churches across the country, Williamsburg and Greenpoint churches leaped into action to raise funds for his release. The abolitionists printed a pamphlet to raise money and sold 13,000 copies in a week. They raised enough money to buy Hamelet out of slavery, and he returned to a jubilant crowd of supporters on October 5, 1850.
Also see previous features on A Journey through Williamsburg and Greenpoint religions:
Stat Facts on Williamsburg & Greenpoint. Think of Brooklyn Community District 1 as a city with over 173,000 people in 2010;
Surprising truth about Billburg & Greenpoint: thick with religious faith and practice. There are over 300 religious organizations in the area; and
The Jews of Williamsburg & Greenpoint. About 61,000 Jews live in the NYC community district of Williamsburg-Greenpoint.
The evangelical Christians of Williamsburg-Greenpoint. There are sixty-four evangelical Christian congregations in Williamsburg-Greenpoint.
The evangelicals in 19th Century Williamsburg and Greenpoint. The faith-flavored identity of New York City was decided on the frontiers of social controversy in religious places like the evangelical Protestant churches of Williamsburg and Greenpoint.
Also see our series on: African American faith and freedom in Harlem
Next week: Evangelicals after Williamsburg turned into a city