An African Immigrant Learns About Segregation in 1860s New York City

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A riot in Boston to break up an Abolitionist meeting.

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Nicholas Said, soon to be one of the first African immigrants to serve in the United States Army during the Civil War, travelled to the United States as the free servant of the Dutch merchant Jacob Rochussen and his wife a year before the war broke out. Said had been enslaved in Africa as a teenager and had served masters in Africa, Asia, and Europe. By 1860, he was finally a free man again. He and his companions sailed to the United States from Liverpool on December 21, 1859. The passenger list describes Said as a 23 year old, and incorrectly indicates that he was born in Austria. Because the entry above his is for a woman named Hannah Vincent describes her as being born in “Africa,” we can surmise that the clerk entering the birthplaces mixed them up.  The ship, the Bohemian, landed in Maine on January 5, 1861. Immigrants just a decade earlier had travelled on slow moving sailing ships that could take more than a month to get from England to America. Said was on a steamer, and the trip took just two weeks.1

The passenger list from The Bohemian showing Nicolas Said's entry. Obtained from Dean Calbreath.
The passenger list from The Bohemian showing Nicolas Said’s entry. Obtained from Dean Calbreath.

The Bohemian headed down the coast, first to Boston and then to New York.2

When Said and his white companions arrived in New York they went to the well-known Calvinist Church of the Puritans near Union Square in Manhattan. Rev. George Cheever, the pastor, was a prominent New York minister. He was a man of stern, not to say puritanical, beliefs. A dedicated temperance man, he had been arrested at the insistence of a distiller for libel for his anti-liquor public utterances. He had once promised his college classmate President Franklin Pierce that the politico would receive a “warm reception in hell” for his failure to oppose slavery in Kansas during the 1850s. Given to conspiracy theories, Cheever believed that Chief Justice Roger Taney’s Dred Scott Decision was part of a “Papal conspiracy to steal the people’s liberties.” Taney was a Catholic.3

What happened during that Sunday service Said attended would embarrass the Abolitionist Rev. Cheever and awaken Said to depths of racism in the pre-Civil War North.4

Engraving of the Church of the Puritans in 1868.
Engraving of the Church of the Puritans in 1868.

When Said’s traveling companions went into the Church of the Puritans, the former-slave went in with them. He sat in the row behind the white man he was a servant to. A letter to the New York Times from a critic of Rev. Cheever’s tells one version of what happened next. According to the letter-writer, who delighted in exposing the supposed hypocrisy of Puritanical abolitionists, “The audacity of the negro servant, exhibited by so cool and unpardonable an act, amused the Christian sentiments and philanthropic feelings of the Abolition representatives of the congregation. Two young men, of high promise in the community, who have been heretofore actively identified with the Anti-Slavery designs of the Church requested the sexton, very politely, to suggest to the colored gentleman the practicability of his taking a seat in the gallery — reserved seats for negroes, of course, in the dress circle, being a necessary concomitant of Abolition theatricals.” In other words, the men wanted him to go to the balcony, which was the church’s “Negro Section.”5

The sexton reportedly refused to remove Said, so, “One of the Trustees of the Church then called upon the gentleman [Jacob Rochussen], whose servant had committed a ‘breach of the Abolition peace,’ and informed him of the habits and customs upon Union-Square. The gentleman very specifically and emphatically inquired if ‘he was in Dr. Cheever’s Church’…Also, ‘whether colored men were not allowed there?’ He was told that they did not mingle promiscuously with the audience, — the audience…The gentleman then inquired ‘which door the colored people could go out of’ and, on being satisfactorily informed, he arose and left the Church, accompanied by all the party.” The letter writer, who signed his missive “C.E.H.,” clearly viewed this incident as evidence that while abolitionists posed as the friends of the black man, they were hypocrites who were every bit as racist as other Americans.6

Abolitionists were never even close to a majority in New York, however, New York and the then independent City of Brooklyn were home to some of the most prominent Abolitionists in the country. This engraving depicts Rev. Henry Ward Beecher of Plymouth Church in Brooklyn Heights conducting a
Abolitionists were never even close to a majority in New York, however, New York and the then independent City of Brooklyn were home to some of the most prominent Abolitionists in the country. This engraving depicts Rev. Henry Ward Beecher of Plymouth Church in Brooklyn Heights conducting a “Slave Auction.” The auctions solicited money to pay for the freedom of ranaway slves who had excaped from the South.

What the letter writer left out was that Cheever, who was not in the pulpit when the attempt to move Said to the “Negro Section” of the church occurred, presided over a divided congregation that included both pro-and anti-slavery congregants. In fact, the church was so riven by dissent that legal efforts would soon be made to remove the pastor.7

Cheever was a dedicated opponent of slavery. Just three years before Nicholas Said sat down for religious services, the Calvinist minister had written that “God’s word not only does not sanction slavery, but is against it, wholly and utterly, from beginning to end.” This embarrassing incident would be used by pro-slavery men to ridicule the Puritan opponents of slavery. Nicholas Said, who would soon be fighting to end slavery, had unwittingly become a pawn in the fight to preserve it.8

Video: Brooklyn Abolitionists

BK Live 2/12/14: Brooklyn Historical Society Brooklyn Abolitionists segment from BRIC TV on Vimeo.

Sources: 

  1. Thunder at the Gates: The Black Civil War Regiments That Redeemed America by Douglas R. Egerton published by Basic Books (2016) p. 16; Passenger List of the Bohemian; The Negro As A Soldier in the War of the Rebellion by Norwood Penrose Hallowell published by Little, Brown (1897); The Autobiography of Nicholas Said; a Native of Bornou, Eastern Soudan, Central Africa by Nicholas Said published by Shotwell & Co. (1873); Summary of the Autobiography of Nicholas Said by Patrick Horn; “Mohammed Ali Ben Said: Travels on Five Continents,” by Allan Austin published in Contributions in Black Studies: Vol. 12, Article 15 (1994). Available at: http://scholarworks.umass.edu/cibs/vol12/iss1/15
  2. Thunder at the Gates: The Black Civil War Regiments That Redeemed America by Douglas R. Egerton published by Basic Books (2016) p. 16.
  3. The Revival of 1857-58: Interpreting an American Religious Awakening By Kathryn Teresa Long published by Oxford University Press (1998) p. 209; The Slave’s Cause: A History of Abolition by Manisha Sinha published by Yale University Press (2016) Kindle Location 5186; Memorabilia of George B. Cheever, D. D., Late Pastor of the Church of the Puritans, Union Square, New York: And of His Wife, Elizabeth Wetmore Cheever; in Verse and Prose Preface xiv-xv.
  4. Thunder at the Gates: The Black Civil War Regiments That Redeemed America by Douglas R. Egerton published by Basic Books (2016)
  5. New York Times January 18, 1860 Sham Philanthropy http://www.nytimes.com/1860/01/14/news/sham-philanthropy-practical-illustration-sincerity-abolitionists-new-york.html
  6. New York Times January 18, 1860 Sham Philanthropy http://www.nytimes.com/1860/01/14/news/sham-philanthropy-practical-illustration-sincerity-abolitionists-new-york.html
  7. New York Times May 22, 1860 The Cheever Church Controversy http://www.nytimes.com/1860/05/22/news/the-cheever-church-controversy.html; New York Times May 4, 1860 The Cheever Church Difficulties.; AN IRREPRESSIBLE CONFLICT http://www.nytimes.com/1860/05/04/news/the-cheever-church-difficulties-an-irrepressible-conflict.html
  8. “God against slavery: and the freedom and duty of the pulpit to rebuke it, as a sin against God” by George Cheever (1857) Preface; Dr. Cheever’s Dilemmas New York Times January 18, 1860 http://www.nytimes.com/1860/01/18/news/dr-cheever-s-dilemmas.html


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