As he considered moving to Harlem to escape hostility from racists, the abolitionist Protestant cartoonist Thomas Nast provided some of the most famous editorial cartoons upholding the human dignity of African Americans against the claims of slavocrats. His relocation to Harlem in 1864 with its African American population and lingering Dutch traditions resonated in his work as a cartoonist.
In his famous “Emancipation” cartoon published on January 24, 1863, he contrasted the lovely family life of free African Americans to the violence and degradation visited upon slave families. At the end of the Civil War in 1865 his drawings showed that he trusted African Americans as much as Whites. In fact his portrayals show that he didn’t much trust some Whites like White Roman Catholics, because of their participation in lynching of African Americans in New York City. Unfortunately, Nast's reactions lodged into the American mindset as an anti-Catholic disposition. Nor did he trust the new sect of Mormons who used derogatory stereotypes to relegate African Americans to a subsidiary position in their church (so few joined).
However, at the same time, Nast was reaching toward a generous vision of American democracy. He was sketching a picture of a more tolerant America in which various cultural traditions contributed to what it means to be American. He etched Dutch and German cultural traditions to the American calendar of national celebrations.
His efforts included some of the typical Christmas images that we use today. In a 1863 cartoon he provided the visual image of writer Washington Irving’s and seminary professor Clement Clark Moore’s recasting of the Dutch idea of Saint Nicholas (Sinterklass) into Santa Claus. He was inclusive of African Americans in the great national celebrations of Christmas and Thanksgiving. Consequently, after the Civil War, many African Americans saw Nast's emphasis on love of family, places of joy, safety and Thanksgiving as representing good arguments for moving from the south to New York City. These holidays became symbols of the promised land that God would provide African Americans in the North.
So, by 1872 Harlem had grown to 50,000 people. African American church baptisms in the Harlem River became a common sight. However, even as African American church attendance grew, it wasn't fully accommodated because of racism.
In 1867 an anonymous author, perhaps Father Thomas Farrell of St. Joseph’s Church in Greenwich Village , wrote in an article in the Catholic Mirror published in Maryland, to complain that while there were 1500 African American Catholics in New York, less than 100 were attending Mass because there were few church options for them.
Some downtown churches did respond to the new influx by establishing new churches. In 1869 evangelical leader S. H. Tyng of Trinity Church laid the cornerstone for Trinity Church in Harlem at Fifth Avenue and 125th Street. Nast himself lived next door to the church.
From his Harlem perch, Nast foresaw the emergence of a different America in which his African American neighbors, new Chinese immigrants, and others would join together as one in Thanksgiving. In 1869, he published his legendary “Uncle Sam’s Thanksgiving” (1869) showing that everyone had a place at the table. However, his continuing criticism and negative porrtrayals of Roman Catholics and Mormons certainly undermined his bigger vision.
Today on Thanksgiving Day, we can be thankful that we have more fully realized Nast's vision while leaving behind some of his failings. The events of Ferguson, Missouri, Dallas, Texas, Charleston, South Carolina, and the election of 2016 indicates that our work is not finished.