One hundred and fifty-eight years ago this summer, a massacre occurred in New York City.
From history books to Hollywood, it has long been told as a violent uprising by poor, Irish men against conscription into the Union Army during the Civil War. But the so-called Draft Riots were more about economic insecurity and white supremacy than draft dodging. As wealthier white people were buying their way out of fighting in the war, the white working class was fighting the war itself, stating they did not want to fight on behalf of the freedom of Black people.
“What happened in New York City [was] the blueprint for how you foment, through politicians, white mob violence against Black bodies, to political effect,” said Kamau Ware, founder of the Black Gotham Experience, an organization dedicated to telling the untold history of Black New Yorkers. “That record was cut here. Everybody else borrowed from New York’s recipe. This happened 50 years before Tulsa. And it happened before all the other major race riots—or not race riots, massacres. They all happened mostly in the South, but it happened in New York first.”
Earlier this year, in the throes of the ongoing pandemic, The Shed, Hudson Yards’ cultural center, commissioned Ware to create Fighting Dark, a self-guided audio and video tour examining New York City’s Draft Riots and its legacy of racial violence towards African Americans in the city. I took that tour, which guided me through various stops in Midtown Manhattan, where several key incidents took place.
The anniversary of the massacre summoned me to revisit some of the sites again with Ware. But first, I wanted to know why, as a third generation African American New Yorker, I had never heard the full story of the Draft Riots before this. Neither had my parents, who were also native New Yorkers, nor my grandparents before them. So, I reached out to Professor Leslie Harris, author of In the Shadow of Slavery: African Americans in New York City, 1626-1863, for an explanation.
“One of the reasons why so much of this early Black history is not known in New York City is that the 20th century history, particularly the history of the Harlem Renaissance, which is this amazing flowering of Black life, has overshadowed a lot of the 19th century history with the New York City Draft Riots,” explained Harris. “I think the reason it’s not discussed and not widely known is that it really obscures the story of the ‘triumphant North’ ending slavery; this idea that everyone in the North was unified in ending Southern slavery.”
Harris described New York City as a place that had strong commercial and political ties to the South.
“Many people made their living based on Southern slavery. The port was fueled by cotton, in part. Cotton was a primary source of material for clothing, of course. So New York had a very complicated set of positions in relationship to the Civil War and to Southern slavery,” she said.
📍Bryant & Central Parks
I met Ware in Bryant Park, named after William Cullen Bryant, a journalist and publisher who was an advocate for greenspaces and abolition. The tragic irony is that the largest park he helped establish, Central Park, became the staging ground for the worst racial massacre in New York City history.
The date was July 11th, 1863.
“Central Park was the home to a mostly Black community, Seneca Village,” said Ware. “The mayor that ended Seneca Village under eminent domain was Fernando Wood, the same racist mayor that wanted New York to be its own satellite city outside of the union that would be in lockstep with the South and supportive of slave states, that utilizes slavery as a primary form of economy.”
(In 2011, an excavation of the Seneca Village site uncovered “stone foundation walls and thousands of artifacts from residents.”)
“Because of the creation of Central Park that was happening during the Civil War, Black folks were dispersed,” he added. “Which then connects to other parts of the story, because anywhere you go […] all the places where Black people were being attacked, that is a part of the dynamic of not having a central place.”
Ware explains that because Black New Yorkers were scattered throughout Manhattan, they were easily overcome by the mob. Unable to defend themselves as a collective group, some Black New Yorkers fled to Weeksville, an African American neighborhood in Brooklyn founded by freed slaves in the 19th century.
“People were going to Weeksville during this race massacre because it was a different city. It was further away from the rioters, and also because Black people that were able to own land also had firearms [and] were able to protect that community. But Black people that were dispersed, in part, because of the destruction of Seneca Village were easier targets when it came to the mobs attacking their homes and attacking their bodies.”
Vincent Colyer, the Secretary of the Merchants Relief Committee for Suffering Colored People, later recounted the displacement in the New York Daily Tribune:
…these people were forced to take refuge on Blackwells Island, at police stations, on the outskirts of the city, in the swamps and woods back of Bergen, New Jersey, and Weeksville, and in the barns and outhouses of farmers on Long Island and Morrisania.”
The mob gathered in the morning, and from a lot near Central Park they traveled down 5th Avenue.
📍The Colored Orphan Asylum, Fifth Avenue between 43rd & 44th
The Colored Orphan Asylum was established by Quaker women in 1836. It was rumored that the working class white men of New York were jealous that orphan Black children were getting this posh treatment from white women.
“Come over here to 43rd, 44th. Just walk up and down 5th Avenue and notice this blank space. It was once part of the Colored Orphan Asylum, which—after it was torched that afternoon on Monday, July 13th, 1863—was never rebuilt where it was,” said Ware. (It was rebuilt in 1867 on 143rd Street and Amsterdam Avenue.)
The New-York Historical Society has surviving records from the orphanage, including a record book with an entry from July 25th, 1863 describing what had occurred:
On the 13th July at 4 PM, an infuriated mob … surrounded the premises of the Asylum and 500 of them entered the house … they deliberately set fire to it … simply because it was the home of unoffending colored orphan children.
The rioters burned the building down, but the over two hundred children escaped, seeking refuge in a local police precinct. They were later relocated to Blackwells Island, today known as Roosevelt Island.
“Those children left here alive, but other children were killed that week. There’s a child on Lexington and 28th that was beat down by a group of white men that died the next week,” said Ware. “You have a person who was with his grandma who we know, based on the records, was killed during this particular mob violence.”
Ware stressed, solemnly, “It’s also a critical moment to understand that this is where things began to become more racial because on 45th and 47th [streets], not too far from where we are—going north—headed toward Third Avenue is where they were going towards the draft wheel. They had some of those classic signs, “No draft” and [were] beating pans together.”
📍The Draft Wheel, East 46th Street & Third Avenue
At the beginning of the Civil War, the draft wheel was a kind of death lottery. The names of men eligible for the draft were written on slips of paper, dropped into a hole on the side of the wheel and an official stepped up to give the wheel a spin. Then the official pulled out names to fill the ranks of the Union Army.
“The symbolism of the draft to the people at the time was that you are drafting me into a war to end slavery. You are forcing me to fight for the federal army to end this system that I don’t want to participate in,” Professor Harris illustrated. “The people who were against the draft said, ‘Do not bring me into this quote, unquote, nigger war. I do not want to fight that war. I do not want to fight a war on behalf of the freedom of Black people.’”
The mob, which by the time it got to Midtown, had swelled to hundreds, invaded the draft office, destroying the draft wheel and setting it on fire.
If you were a Black person that Monday, and you just went to work, before your shift is over, the Manhattan area is about to be a very scary place.
On July 18th, 1863, The Times reported, “A mob had invaded the draft office at 3rd Ave & 46th street, destroying books and papers, attacked officers with brickbats and stones, overpowered the police and burned the whole block.”
“And So It Began To Escalate…”
“Once the Orphan Asylum was attacked and they pushed back the fire department—cops, people trying to put out fires, none of them could control the mob,” Ware said.
“And so it began to escalate,” said Ware. “They got weapons, they were a different kind of formidable force on the island.”
The Times reported that in the afternoon, “A crowd of over one thousand men armed with guns, clubs, pistols, and knives collected [and] began to search all the houses in the vicinity for Negroes, swearing all sorts of vengeance against them.”
“If you were a Black person that Monday, and you just went to work, before your shift is over, the Manhattan area is about to be a very scary place,” said Ware. “People were being attacked on their way home, people were being attacked at their jobs, and so this was a very important pivot on that Monday where things suddenly become more violent.”
The Times also offered this chilling account:
It seems to be an understood thing throughout the city that Negroes should be attacked wherever found, whether they offered any provocation or not. As soon as one of these unfortunate people was spied, whether on a cart, a railroad car or in the street, he was immediately set upon by a crowd of men and boys and unless some man of pluck came to his rescue, or he was fortunate enough to escape into a building, he was inhumanely beaten and perhaps killed. There were probably not less than a dozen Negroes beaten to death in different parts of the city during the day.
David Barnes, a member of the all-white police force at the time, wrote a detailed account of what he witnessed in The Draft Riots in New York, July, 1863.
The riots commenced on Monday morning, July 13, and were not entirely suppressed until the following Friday…The riot which commenced on the first day of the draft was ostensibly in opposition to it, but early took the character of an outbreak for the purposes of pillage, and also of outrage of the colored population.
Barnes recalled that for the first three days, “business in the city was almost entirely suspended, the railroads and omnibuses ceased running, the stores on Broadway, the avenues, and throughout the greater portion of the city were closed, and prowling gangs of ruffians rendered it unsafe to walk the streets.”
The mob burned down 50 buildings in those three days, he wrote, among them were the Colored Orphan Asylum, two police stations, “and an entire block of dwellings on Broadway.”
On Wednesday, July 15th, 1863, an article titled “The Vengeance of the Mob Against the Negroes” ran in The Herald. An unnamed, older Black man was quoted as saying: “There are some thieves… who get a crowd together and they take our lives and steal our property.” When asked by a bystander, “But don’t you think it would be better to leave the town altogether?” The old man replied, “Where shall we go? If any large number of us get together anywhere, there is likely to be the same trouble. The truth is, we are safe nowhere, except by ourselves.”
It took the Union Army to put down the rebellion.
“It is the biggest insurrection in the history of our country and the target that entire week were Black people,” Ware said.
Neither official records nor media accounts are to be trusted on the numbers dead.
📍Mapping The Massacre
“We’re in Herald Square. If you go down a block, there’s an actual Game Stop there. And that is the address where James Costello used to live, who was basically killed in front of his wife and his children,” said Ware. “Also 27th [Street] and Seventh Avenue, which is now FIT [the Fashion Institute of Technology]. If you go over there, that’s where somebody else was taken out of his home and killed in front of his mother.”
Ware wants the city of New York to do more to tell these stories and mark these locations.
“Here we have a city like New York with our budget and our prestige that is not even marking the locations where people were killed when it’s very important African American history during the Civil War,” he said.
“Keep in mind that this is about 11 days after the Gettysburg battle, the bloodiest battle, and a civil war,” Ware said. “In Tulsa, they have a race commission or master commission looking into it. We ain’t got that here. They at least know where people were murdered. Here, you could walk by a place where somebody Black was murdered and not even know it.”
Newspaper accounts from the time mark some of the incidents. “Last night, a Negro was caught in Oliver Street,” read one report. “An infuriated crowd began to beat him. He was forced to the end of the pier and forced into the East River. It is supposed that he drowned as his injuries must have disabled him so he could not swim. No one made an effort to save him.”
Another read: “An old Negro woman, nearly seventy years of age, was attacked in the sixth ward and badly beaten.” And another: “William Jones residing at 88 King Street, a wood-sawyer by occupation, was hung to a lamp-post and set on fire.”
Still, many murders went untold. “The poor Negroes, or what is left of them, are hourly leaving the city. They complain they are hardly allowed the privilege of escaping. Everywhere in the city they are driven about like sheep and numbers are killed, of whom no account will ever be learned.”
The Reasons Why
Several theories surmised the reasons for the anti-Black rage. New York had the second-highest population of African-Americans in the Northern cities. Also, anti-Black propaganda, heavily promoted by local politicians aligned with the Southern cause, reinforced racist views about Black people as intellectually and morally inferior, and a subspecies of the human race.
“The Draft Riot exposed the racism of white New Yorkers,” Professor Harris said. There was a “fear of some immigrant New Yorkers that Blacks would gain freedom and then come and compete with them for jobs,” and this would threaten the social status and economic position of white immigrants.
Harris added that the riots helped demonstrate that even those who believed slavery was wrong, still “did not believe that Black people deserved equality.” According to Harris, “many think that New York City was the most Southern of the Northern States” at the time, and there were pro-slavery advocates here as well, called Copperheads.
An account edited by A. Hunter Dupree and Leslie Fishel, Jr. reads:
The severity of the New York disorder can be accounted for in several ways. The Irish population of the city was large and fairly cohesive. Even Archbishop John Hughes felt that the blame for participation could be “justly laid on Irish Catholics.” Moreover, Copperhead influence in the city was as strong as the military and police protection was weak. On the first day, a marine detachment of fifty men fired blank cartridges at a mob to disperse it, only to be attacked and viciously beaten themselves, some fatally. As the accompanying document points out, the military were slow to organize and late to appear.
The worst mobs were said to be on First, Second & Seventh Avenues.
The press went on to report countless lynchings—a man drowned in the East River, a boy pushed through a window, a man hanged from a lamp-post at the corner of 25th Street & Seventh Avenue.
Dupree and Fishel reported, “They are very hostile to the Negroes, and scarcely one of them is to be seen. A person who called at our house this afternoon saw three of them hanging together.”
What Was Lost
“Police estimated that at least one thousand persons were killed or wounded,” the Times reported. “And the committee of county supervisors, appointed to audit property damage claims, had by the end of 1863 approved payments of over a million dollars.”
But Black people received very little, if any, of that money.
“Black people who lost land, who lost homes, who lost loved ones, they ain’t getting no insurance kickbacks,” Ware stated. “They weren’t taken care of. It’s its own reparations case, the Black people who were kicked out of town or murdered or lost home and property. That’s a whole other conversation about repair that New York needs to take care of at some point in time.”
“This was done not under the British, or under the Dutch. This is the United States,” he stressed. “During the time with the British and the Dutch, you never quite had this level of scale of massive Black violence and massacre go down for a week. That is a specific American uniqueness out of all the different European powers that ever colonized this land. We are a standout for that level of violence and we don’t even acknowledge it.”
Education & The Future
Ware encourages people to dig deeper into what history teaches us, and what it leaves out.
“It’s talked about as the Draft Riots, even in Martin Scorsese’s film Gangs of New York, but they use obfuscation to make it look like it was just white-on-white violence with a Black person getting lynched in the middle somehow. A weird hate sandwich,” he said.
“You’ve got to ask yourself, how did a popular movement of working class white men and white women turn into this outrage against Black people that turned into lynchings. How did that happen? And our question is unresolved.”
Black Gotham Experience recently worked with the city of New York to honor the legacy of those Black New Yorkers that perished during the riots. On July 13th this year, Black Vision Day was enacted and is now a holiday in Manhattan.
The goal of Black Vision Day is to acknowledge the date July 13th as it relates to Black New Yorkers—“I don’t know of too many holidays that a city has that’s about Black people,” Ware said. And July 13th comes with two significant historical events—on that date in 1643, Catalina and Domingo Anthony were the first Black people to become landowners, bestowed twenty acres of land by the Dutch East India Company in what is now Chinatown. On the same date 220 years later, the Draft Riots began, transforming into a massacre of Black people.
When asked if the city will do anything to mark some of the locations where Black people were killed during the Draft Riots, Zodet Negrón of the Landmarks Preservation Commission shared this interactive map, and said they have “designated a number of sites that are directly connected to the 1863 NYC Draft Riots, including places where Black families and residents were sheltered during the riots and where abolitionists and their residences were attacked.”
The city of New York did not respond to our request for comment on if they have plans to heighten awareness of Black Vision Day, or formally mark the locations of this massacre.
Black Gotham Experience will soon begin offering Fighting Dark as a walking tour (this past year it has been held virtually). More details here.