The Making of Black Manhattan

People Involved

Professor Shane White

Project overview

This project is an ethnographic study of Black Manhattan from 1810 to 1860 that will demonstrate the significance of black culture in the life of New York, the most important American city in the nineteenth century. It will contribute to the exciting historiography of African Americans, and will be at the cutting edge of new scholarship about modern America. The project will also offer a model of the way the "everyday" can be recovered, illustrating the advantages it yields, in terms of deeper insights into black urban life.

Project Details

While there have been books and articles published on parts of the broad sweep of black New York history from slavery down until the emergence of Harlem in the twentieth century, we still have only a partial and distorted idea of the way the black metropolis worked. Ordinary black residents of the Five Points or the Tenderloin surface only occasionally. My aim with this project is to write an ethnographic study of the making of Black Manhattan in the first half century of freedom (from about 1810 down until 1860), to bring the thought and actions of ordinary African New Yorkers back to the center of the story, wherever possible to give voice again to the washerwomen and servants, the laborers and sailors, as well as the doctors and pharmacists, the street peddlers and confidence men and women. I want to write a cultural history of black New York that will not only include the churchgoers and activists who fought discrimination, but will also include blacks who sell candles made from black cat fat, the sounds of watermelon sellers bellowing out their cries, and the smell of the hot corn being sold on Broadway.

What makes the whole project possible is a set of records in the Municipal Archives of New York called the District Attorney’s Closed Case Records. Basically, these are, if not a complete, then a very full set of legal records for New York City. They are also the best source for social and cultural history that I have ever seen. If used imaginatively, they can uncover all manner of things that would not ordinarily be labeled “criminal.” I have been using these records since 1985, very soon after they became available, and have taken a leading role in their exploitation. In Stories of Freedom in Black New York, I used material from the District Attorney’s records for 1796-1834, as well as newspapers and other sources, to arrive at a new and more realistic interpretation of the way slavery ended in New York, paying particular attention to black theatrical life, details that everyone else assumed were unrecoverable. My intention, then, is go through these records down to 1860, as well as such other rich sources as the travelers accounts (there are several hundred listed in the bibliographies) and white newspapers such as the Journal of Commerce and New York Times (and one of the main points of my earlier NY work has been that the innumerable newspapers that have been much underutilized by historians contain large amounts of wonderful material about African American culture) as well as the often ephemeral black newspapers, memoirs and autobiographies, in order to uncover as much detail as possible about the complex and shifting patterns of black urban life.

Stories of black cats, of con men and women, and of fortune tellers, provide points of entry into a world that has now long gone. With skilled hands, and when other material is used as well, the historian can spin out what the anthropologist Clifford Geertz called "the webs of signification" from such seemingly minor incidents, uncover the gritty texture of everyday life and come closer to an understanding of what it meant to be an African New Yorker in the decades before the Civil War.


  • ARC Professorial Fellowship, 2006-2010

Brief Profiles

  • Professor Shane White
    An internationally recognized scholar of African American culture, Shane White’s work covers a variety of subjects from slave runaways and dancing through to black theatre, music and clothing. He has published four books, two jointly authored with Graham White, and numerous articles in leading international journals, including the Journal of American History, American Quarterly and Past and Present. His Stories of Freedom in Black New York (Harvard University Press, 2002) won the Organization of American Historians’ Rawley Prize for the best book dealing with the history of race relations in the United States. His most recent book, co-authored with Graham White, is The Sounds of Slavery: Discovering African American History through Songs, Sermons and Speech (Beacon Press, 2005). He was Chair of the History Department from 2002-2005.
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