The New York Times March 13, 2014
Although the Civil War began as a conflict over secession, from the start most blacks saw it as an opportunity to free the enslaved with a Union victory – a theme reflected in the robust black press that prospered across the North.
In New York City, the war was closely chronicled by two newspapers, The Anglo-African and The Christian Recorder. Established in 1859 by the editor Robert Hamilton and his brother Thomas, The Anglo-African reported extensively on the Civil War and the emancipation efforts. But Anglo-African articles also covered the breadth of African-American life, with a focus on political issues relevant to black Americans, presented by black writer and activists like Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, the Rev. James W.C. Pennington and Martin Delany.
The Christian Recorder, founded in 1848, was a national weekly newspaper published by the African Methodist Episcopal Church, based in Philadelphia, but with correspondents across the country. The New York area was served by correspondents in Manhattan and Brooklyn, who, along with The Recorder’s editor, provided an unvarnished critique of the war and frequently of New York’s black community.
Black New Yorkers were uniquely positioned to participate in debates regarding the war and emancipation. In the 1860s New York City and New York State were centers of free black advocacy. The abolitionist Frederick Douglass lived in Rochester. Many of the “colored men’s conventions” that met periodically from 1830 until 1864 met in New York State. New York City was a center of philanthropy, abolitionist activism and publishing. The city’s 1860 black population of 12,000, from a total population of approximately 800,000, made it second in population to Philadelphia’s free black community.
Black newspapers weren’t just sources of information, but of activism. As the country hurtled toward war in February 1861, The Christian Recorder spread word of a meeting held to plan for a “day of humiliation, fasting and prayer that God would avert the judgments about to fall upon this guilty nation.” They were also a center for debate: As soon as the war began in April 1861, even though black troops had not yet been accepted by the Union Army, there was heated discussion in the black community about the duties of blacks in regard to the war. Some voices in the black press, like The Christian Recorder, questioned the logic of black soldiers’ risking their liberty (captured black soldiers could be enslaved) or their lives for a country whose Supreme Court had held that black people, whether enslaved or free, were not citizens.
The Anglo-African, though, actively promoted the use of black troops in an editorial titled “The Reserve Guard” that August:
Colored men whose fingers tingle to pull the trigger, or clutch the knife aimed at the slaveholders in arms, will not have to wait much longer. Whether the fools attack Washington and succeed or whether they attempt Maryland and fail, there is equal need for calling out the nation’s ‘Reserve Guard.’
The newspapers were more than just hortatory – they also provided historical and comparative analysis of the issues surrounding emancipation. On Jan. 4, 1862, The Christian Recorder reinforced calls for emancipation with a persuasive and prophetic editorial that asked, “What would be the effect of the emancipation of the slaves?” Using data from the British Caribbean, where slavery had been abolished in the 1830s, the editorial confronted two major arguments against emancipation: that the formerly enslaved would “overrun the entire North as the frogs did the Egyptians in the days of Moses,” and that if emancipated “they will refuse to work, and will engage in robbery and murder.” The editorial noted that neither points had been borne out in the Caribbean, that there were already many formerly enslaved people in the South who chose to remain in the South, and that many of these people were cultivating small farmsteads that were key to the independent lives they desired. The writer concluded that for the United States, it was in “our interest to emancipate the slaves of both the rebel and loyal citizens, for it will not only crush rebellion, but increase our prosperity, decrease crime in our midst, and prevent insurrections with their fearful horrors.”
Reading these papers offers a surprising view into the nuanced ways that blacks greeted early signs of emancipation. They greeted Lincoln’s Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation of September 1862, for example, with great anticipation but also some anxiety. Because the effective date for a permanent Emancipation Proclamation was three months away, on Jan. 1, 1863, the fear was that something might occur to change course during the intervening period. In response, in an October editorial, The Christian Recorder swept aside doubts and framed the Proclamation as an answer to prayers:
Now, let the North if they are in favor of the Union, not stop and tremble at the proclamation, but say, like all honest and good men will say, that it is the Lord’s doings, and who shall hinder it? Yes, God has looked down upon this great national sin, and is now frowning upon it, and declares His judgment upon it. He has heard the groans of His people, and has come down to deliver them.
The Emancipation Proclamation did become effective on Jan. 1, 1863, and the Jan. 10 issue of the The Anglo-African contained over a page of accounts of Emancipation celebrations in New York, St. Louis and Boston.
In addition to emancipating the enslaved in the states then in rebellion, the Proclamation also included a provision for recruiting black soldiers. While this order had national implications, the states that had remained in the Union had the final say on admitting black troops, since militias were organized by the states – a fact highlighted in the black press. Massachusetts and Rhode Island organized some of the first black regiments, and New York City’s black press played an important role in advocating for the recruitment of black troops.
That March Congress passed the Conscription Act, authorizing the first military draft. When the actual draft process began in New York City in July 1863, mobs of white workingmen, resentful of being asked to put their lives at risk for black people whom they had been told would flood Northern cities taking their jobs, destroyed the Manhattan Draft office and then roamed the city over four days in the largest assault on the black community in New York’s history. Union troops arrived on the fourth day of the rioting and put an end to the violence. In the aftermath, The Christian Recorder recounted defense efforts: “In Weeksville and Flatbush, the colored men who had manhood in them armed themselves, and threw out their pickets every day and night, determined to die defending their homes.”
But the paper also criticized other black New Yorkers: “To see strong, hearty, double-fisted men, fleeing like sheep before the whoop of a dozen half-grown Irish lads, leaving their wives behind to take care of themselves, was indeed humiliating.”
While black New Yorkers recovered from the riots, the black press redoubled its advocacy of black troop recruitment. In its final issue of 1863, The Anglo-African announced:
The War Department having at last done justice to colored men, and authorized the raising of a colored regiment in this State, to be known as the Twentieth Regiment United States Colored Troops, meetings have been called in several wards, as will be seen by reference to our advertising columns, for the purpose of discussing plans to promote enlistments and providing for the families of those who may enlist.
The recruiting was so successful that a second regiment, the 26th, was authorized. When the regiments left for battle in March of 1864, New York’s black press shifted its focus to advocacy for equal pay for black soldiers. At the same time The Anglo-African and the Christian Recorder chronicled battlefield efforts, and with a shift in wartime momentum toward the Union in 1864, began to focus on issues such as black voting, that would need to be attended to in peacetime. The Anglo-African continued publication until December 1865. The Christian Recorder continues to appear today, as a monthly publication.
Sources: The Anglo-African; The Christian Recorder; Sandy Dwayne Martin, “Black Churches and the Civil War: Theological and Ecclesiastical Significance of Black Methodist Involvement, 1861-1865”; Paul Finkelman, “Encyclopedia of African American History, 1619-1895, From the Colonial Period to the Age of Frederick Douglass”; Iver Bernstein, “The New York City Draft Riots: Their Significance for American Society and Politics in the Age of the Civil War”, Rhoda Golden Freeman, “The Free Negro in New York City in the Era Before the Civil War”; William Seraile, “New York’s Black Regiments During the Civil War.”
Kevin McGruder is an assistant professor of history at Antioch College. He is the author of “A Fair and Open Field: The Responses of Black New Yorkers to the New York City Draft Riots” and the co-author, with Velma Maia Thomas, of Emancipation Proclamation, Forever Free.