Posts Tagged ‘New York City’

Celebrating Emancipation

Frederick Douglass and the story of New York City’s 1865 “Emancipation Jubilee.”

Jacobin   August 1, 2015
An 1865 illustration in Harper's magazine celebrating Emancipation.

An 1865 illustration in Harper’s magazine celebrating Emancipation.

The ongoing campaign to eradicate Confederate symbols marks an important moment in American public memory, perhaps allowing the scars of slavery and segregation to start healing. Yet while the actions of Bree Newsome and company have been truly inspiring, the collective feeling when the flags began to come down seemed mainly to be a sigh of relief.

One hundred fifty years earlier, in the first summer after the actual downfall of the Confederacy, African Americans across the land were more upbeat. Emancipation did not immediately bring full equality, but the war’s end was still cause for optimism. The shackles had come off in the South, while in the North, blacks no longer had to fear being sent back to slavery. It was time for celebration.

In New York, their previous efforts to do so had sparked controversy. Just a few weeks after Gen. Robert E. Lee’s surrender in April 1865, the New York Common Council had denied blacks the right to formally participate in President Lincoln’s funeral procession. At a Cooper Union event in early June, an indignant Frederick Douglass called the council’s action “the most disgraceful and scandalous proceeding ever exhibited by people calling themselves civilized.”

But on August 1, both Douglass and Manhattan’s African-American community were in a far better mood as they traveled across the East River for an “Emancipation Jubilee” in Brooklyn. And though he only spoke for a few minutes at the gathering, Douglass again memorably captured the spirit of the moment.

The jubilee was timed to coincide with West Indian Emancipation Day, which marked the end of slavery in the British Empire in 1834. Initially celebrated in abolitionist centers like Philadelphia, Boston, and Upstate New York, by the 1850s Emancipation Day events could be found across the frontier, from Indiana to California.

Douglass had regularly attended such events near his home in RochesterBut while he had close ties to many Brooklyn abolitionists, Douglass hadn’t yet journeyed down for one of the local jubilees, which had been held regularly since the early 1850s. Everyone knew that the first one after the Civil War would be grand, though.

At just over 5,000 (or 1.5% of the city total), Brooklyn’s black population was still relatively small in 1865. Yet over the preceding two decades, black communities in Williamsburg and Weeksville had served as abolitionist strongholds. During and after the Draft Riots of July 1863, many blacks from Manhattan had also taken refuge on the other side of the East River.

The August 1 festivities took place in what is now Bedford-Stuyvesant, at two sites that have since been demolished — the vast Hanft’s Myrtle Avenue Park and the nearby, smaller Lefferts Park.

Despite their racist caricatures of “exultant darkies” or “dancing darkies,” lengthy accounts in the Democratic Brooklyn Daily Eagleand the Republican New York Times conveyed the mood of the attendees. “Twenty thousand men, women and children of sable hue yesterday mingled their joys and experiences in the suburban parks of the city of churches,” the Times wrote. At stands outside Myrtle Avenue Park, the Eagle reported, “quaint-looking damsels in gorgeously striped dresses with brilliant turbans on their heads” dispensed peaches and pigs’ feet, with sides of corn, cabbage, apple dumplings, and chicken potpie.

Writing in Horace Greeley’s New York TribuneSydney Howard Gay— a leading white abolitionist and longtime friend of Douglass — maintained a more genteel tone. “Colored people” turned out in great numbers in their “Sunday best,” Gay noted. He described a range of activities on display, from formal dancing to less high-brow amusements like a Jefferson Davis knock-down game, with three tosses costing a nickel.

In addition to live bands, carnival attractions, and sporting events (including a game played by the Weldenken Colored Baseball Club of Williamsburg), there were also talks given by an array of distinguished African-American speakers. At Myrtle, Professor William Howard Day (who had challenged segregation in Michigan in the late 1850s) explained the history of West Indian emancipation; while at Lefferts, two leading local abolitionist ministers, James Pennington and James Gloucester, urged receptive listeners to continue the fight for full equality.


When Douglass addressed the Myrtle gathering, the great orator was surprisingly brief. But what he said was also surprising, as illustrated by the divergent reports found in the various daily newspapers.

By most accounts, Douglass cheerfully told the enthusiastic crowd, “No man here wants to know whether liberty is a good thing or slavery a bad thing; we all know it already; we don’t want any instruction.” After all, he said, the main message of abolitionists had always been that “‘every man is his own master; every man belongs to himself.”

But what Douglass said next remains open to dispute. According to the Times (and the Eagle), he stated: “Every man has the right to do as he pleases, to come and go, to make love, get married, and do all sorts of things that are pleasant and profitable. [Applause.] We are here to enjoy ourselves — to sing, dance and make merry. I am not going to take up your time; go on; enjoy yourselves. [Prolonged cheering.]” The Tribune account by Douglass’s friend Sydney Gay, however, says nothing about love or marriage, and skips right to “[w]e are here…to sing, dance, and make merry.”

Perhaps the most convincing reportage can be found in the New York Herald. James Gordon Bennett’s paper — which had the largest circulation in the US — may have been a house organ of the War Democrats (who supported the Union but opposed Lincoln). But during the Civil War, the Herald bolstered its journalistic reputation by sending numerous correspondents into the field.

Near the end of its lengthy August 2, 1865 recap of the preceding day’s Jubilee events, the Herald presented Douglass’s statements as follows:

The only thing abolitionists ever taught the American people was that every man is himself. That is all. Every man belongs to himself — can belong to nobody else. We are not here for instruction. We are here to enjoy ourselves, to play ball, to dance, to make merry, to make love (laughter and applause), and to do everything that is pleasant. I am not going to take up your time. Go on, and enjoy yourselves.

The moral instruction to “get married” is conspicuously absent here. Yet of the various reports, the Herald’s is the one that most reads like an impromptu direct address. Such carefree comments by Douglass ultimately seem most befitting for an ecstatic day-long jubilee, one filled with joy in every sense of the word.

Beyond simply playful encouragement, Douglass in his brief remarks urged African Americans in Brooklyn and elsewhere to start envisioning their own future, and to fully enjoy their freedom. Any hopes for a bright future would be short-lived, of course. But in the summer after the war, blacks everywhere could echo Douglass’s insistence that at last, “every man belongs to himself.”

Theodore Hamm is chair of journalism and new media studies at St Joseph’s College in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn.

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This Is How Racist America Was During the Civil War

HNN August 1, 2014

During the Civil War, many New York City newspapers were closely aligned with the anti-war, pro-Southern wing of the Democratic Party. Republicans called them «Copperheads» after the venomous snakes that originate in the area that had become the Confederacy. Their hatred of Abraham Lincoln was probably only surpassed by their virulent racism and hatred of Black Americans. Their pages were filled with racially offensive language that would be blipped out on the Daily Show with Jon Stewart and most newspapers today are hesitant about printing. I use the word «nigger» in this op ed. I do not use it lightly and I will only use it when quoting directly from newspaper articles from the era. I do not believe it is possible to convey the depth of racism in Northern society during the Civil War era without using this inflammatory and defamatory term.

In 1864 the Daily News was accused of receiving payments from Confederate agents to promote anti-war rallies in New York City and it inflamed racial tension by claiming that racial mixing or miscegenation was the «doctrine and dogma» of the Republican Party. The editorial page of the Weekly Day-Book, which from October 1861 to October 1863 was known as The Caucasian, carried the banner «White Men Must Rule America.»

In the months leading up to the July 1863 Draft Riots, John Mullaly, editor of the Roman Catholic Church’s newspaper, Metropolitan Record, called for armed resistance. At a Union Square rally May 19, 1863, Mullaly declared «the war to be wicked, cruel and unnecessary, and carried on solely to benefit the negroes, and advised resistance to conscription if ever the attempt should be made to enforce the law.» Following the July Draft riots, Mullaly was indicted for «inciting resistance to the draft.»

In its August 23, 1863 issue, the Herald, which had the largest circulation in the country, predicted that the Republican Party would eventually nominate and unite behind Abraham Lincoln when it realized he was the person «predestined and foreordained by Providence to carry on the war, free the niggers, and give all of the faithful a share of the spoils.» On October 7, 1863, the Herald described the Ohio gubernatorial election as a battle to decide «whether the copperheads or the niggerheads are more obnoxious to the great conservative body of the people.»

The 1864 Presidential election provided the Copperhead press an opportunity to express open, casual, and nasty racism. A key figure was journalist David Goodman Croly, who at one time or another worked for the New York Evening Post, the Herald, and the World. Croly helped to anonymously produce one of the more avowedly racist attacks on Republicans and African Americans produced during the Civil War, a 72-page pamphlet titled «Miscegenation: The Theory of the Blending of the Races, Applied to the White Man and the Negro.» The pamphlet charged that the Civil War was a war of «amalgamation» with the goal of «blending of the white and black,» starting with the intermixing of Negroes and Irish.

Many newspapers, including the World, argued the pamphlet was the work of abolitionists and represented their actual program, rather than an attempt to undermine abolition. The New York Freeman’s Journal & Catholic Register, a «peace at any cost» Democratic Party newspaper closely aligned with Fernando Wood, claimed that the «beastly doctrine of the intermarriage of black men and white women» had been «encouraged by the President of the United States» and that «filthy black niggers» were mingling with «white people and even ladies everywhere, even at the President’s levees.»

The editors of the New York Times, were eventually sucked in by the fraud. In a March 19, 1864 editorial, they wrote, «We regret to learn from numerous sources that we are on the point of witnessing intermarriage on a grand scale between the whites and blacks of this Republic. It has, as most of our readers are aware, been long held by logicians of the Democratic school, that once you admit the right of a negro to the possession of his own person, and the receipt of his own wages, you are bound either to marry his sister, or give your daughter in marriage to his son. The formula into which this argument has always been thrown was this: If all blacks are fit to be free every white man is bound to marry a black: ‘Niggers’ are blacks: Therefore every white man is bound to marry a ‘nigger.’ »

A week later, on March 26, 1864, a Times editorial stated: «we have no hesitation in saying that if we had at the outset conceived it possible that hostility to Slavery would ever have led to wholesale intermarriage with negroes, or of all marriageable Republicans and their sisters, that party should never have received any countenance or support from this journal. We owe it to ourselves and posterity to say that the odious matrimonial arrangements, into which so many of those whose opinions on certain great questions of public policy we have hitherto shared, have taken us wholly by surprise.»

By March 30, 1864 the Times had realized it was a victim of a hoax. «Trusting entirely, as we stated at the time, to the assertions of the Copperhead press, we have made mention of sundry movements alleged to be in process for the more wide-spread diffusion of the new political gospel of Miscegenation . . .  [T]he Copperhead newspapers have been spreading false reports, which is scarcely conceivable.» However, not only did the paper not apologize for its racism, but it complained «[t]he Copperheads are responsible for this state of things. They have aroused the whole colored community, by their highly-colored pictures of the connubial fate that awaits them at Republican hands, to a state of intense excitement.»

Given the virulent racism of the anti-war Copperhead Democrats and the still open racism of both the pro-war Democrats and Unionist Republicans in New York City and the north, it is amazing that slavery in the United States ended at all. Emancipation was a tribute to the doggedness of abolitionists, Black and White, the need for Black manpower for the North to win the war, and major miscalculations by Southern secessionists who mistakenly exaggerated Northern opposition to slavery and support for Black rights.

Alan Singer is a historian and Professor of Secondary Education at Hofstra University, author of «New York and Slavery: Time to Teach the Truth» (2008), and editor of the «New York and Slavery: Complicity and Resistance» curriculum that received the 2005 National Council for the Social Studies program of excellence award.  This piece was written with research assistance from Joseph Palaia, graduate student, Hofstra University.

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How a Woman Born into Slavery Helped Build New York City’s First African American Research Library 

HNN  March 31, 2014

Image via University of North Carolina.

A short article sandwiched in between a controversy in the harness racing world and assorted advertisements reminds us of how important the knowledge of history is. Published in the New-York Daily Tribune on January 26, 1896, “Literature by Negroes” announced a new project by a local club: “Under the skylight of a business house in Murray St. is the nucleus of a unique library, which treats the rise and development of the American negro (sic).”  The Women’s Loyal Union (WLU), the article explained, sought a home for the books, pamphlets and periodicals collected in an effort to preserve and transmit African American literature, history and culture. Formed in December of 1892, the WLU supported “all constitutional, natural and civil rights of the people of African descent in this country.”   The group emerged shortly after the Lyric Hall testimonial that helped launch Ida B. Wells’ anti-lynching campaign. Journalist Victoria Earle Matthews (1861-1907), president of the WLU, was one of two organizers of the event that enabled Wells to share her story from a public platform and bring attention to racist mob violence in the New South.  Matthews served as the driving force behind the initiative featured in the article, too.

The establishment of a collection of books and other materials may seem like a departure from a civil rights agenda but for Matthews, the two remained inextricably linked. Born into slavery in Fort Valley, Georgia, she moved to New York City with her mother and sister after the Civil War. Her entrance into the workforce as a domestic effectively ended her formal education. However, she became an avid autodidact. Social worker Frances R. Keyser characterized her as a “book-loving” individual who “never missed an opportunity to improve her mind”.  With journalist and historian J. E. Bruce, Matthews formed the Enquiry Club in the early 1880s. Bruce credited her with focusing their reading and discussions on history. He recalled; “under her presidency, [we] got very busy and soon…discover[ed] that after all we who call ourselves Negroes are really somebody, that our forebears had done some things for which they have not been given full credit.” Though the group disbanded after two years, Matthews continued to promote the significance of what she called Race Literature. For her, such literature by African American women and men offered not only a counter-narrative to a distorted view of the past and present but critical sources of pride, purpose and identity — fuel for the engine of social justice and a changed sense of self.  Bruce believed she “had planted the seeds” that flourished into the Black Studies movement.

The Daily Tribune reporter regarded Matthews as chiefly responsible for assembling “this novel collection.” Most likely, it was she who envisioned the possibility of a more permanent home such as “an alcove … in one of the public libraries of New York.”   Moreover, Matthews’ persuasive powers may also have convinced luminaries such as D. Alexander Crummell to pledge items from their private collections for a reference section, according to the article. Yet, public library space did not materialize during the late nineteenth century; not until 1925 did the forerunner to the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture open. The full realization of Matthews’ dream took decades to accomplish.

All or part of the materials mentioned in the article appear to have been placed at the White Rose Home, the settlement house Matthews co-founded. She drew upon this collection for the classes she offered in Race History. Keyser described her as she neared the end of her losing battle with tuberculosis, still determined to share what she knew. Such knowledge had empowered her and she wanted to provide young people with similar inspiration.  Awareness of “the work and worth of the men and women of their race” was transformative.  As Women’s History Month draws to a close, it is worthwhile to remember Victoria Earle Matthews and the belief that sustained her: history matters.

Elizabeth Hohl is a lecturer at Fairfield University. She holds a PhD in women’s studies and history.

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index2The Black Press During the Civil War

Kevin McGruder

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.

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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.

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An index to more than 10 million New York City birth, marriage and death records from 1866 to 1948 is available free online thanks to a collaboration between the city’s Department of Records and Ancestry.com.

While access to the index is free, the documents themselves must be purchased from the city.

“When researching the American side of your family history, the likelihood of an ancestor either living in New York City or immigrating through it is very high,” said Todd Godfrey, director of content acquisition at Ancestry.com.

“We are pleased to have teamed up with Ancestry.com in making this easily searchable index of New York City’s vital records available online for free,” said Eileen Flannelly, commissioner of the city’s Records Department. The indexes were created by volunteers from the Italian Genealogical Group and the German Genealogy Group, Ms. Flannelly said.

The index can be found here. (This is a different, better link than the one originally published here.)

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David Brooks
La Jornada   ❘  25 de noviembre de 2013

imagesLa soledad en Nueva York es tal vez más intensa que en cualquier otro lugar. En medio de un mar de olas incesantes de gente y vehículos, la ciudad que nunca duerme puede ser el peor lugar para el insomnio, el cual, combinado con la soledad, es síntoma de una ruptura de la siempre frágil solidaridad en tiempos como estos.

Pero a veces, tal vez dependiendo del día, o de la luz de la luna en combate con la iluminación de los rascacielos, si uno mantiene silencio, si uno se fija bien, de repente aparecen multitud de ángeles de la guarda que están en cada esquina y que vienen de los todos los tiempos de esta metrópolis.

Caminando por la zona de la oficina de La Jornada, por el Greenwich Village, el East Village, Soho, y más, uno se topa con ellos en cada cuadra.

Pasando por Greenwich Avenue, ahí va corriendo John Reed a una reunión con los editores de The Masses (donde publica los reportajes de sus aventuras con Pancho Villa que se convertirían en México Insurgente); en el metro hacia Coney Island ahí está Woody Guthrie con su guitarra que dice esta máquina mata fascistas.

En Washington Square se puede escuchar otra guitarra tocada por Jimi Hendrix, y del otro lado la de Bob Dylan. ¡Ah! en su departamento por Washington Square está Eleanor Roosevelt (y su amante lesbiana) sirviendo té a un grupo de mujeres que le plantean un tipo de brigada de acción rápida para organizar a trabajadores en las tiendas departamentamentales.

Por el East Village están unos poetas locos, entre ellos Allen Ginsberg. A unas cuadras está el Nuyorican Poets Café, cuna de la poesía hablada (spoken word) para que un par de décadas más tarde nutra hasta hoy día lo mejor del hip hop, nacido en el punto más pobre de este país, el South Bronx.


En la esquina de Washington Place y Greene está un edificio y, si uno pone atención, hay una placa que conmemora un acto que transformó al país. De los pisos 8, 9 y 10, unas 146 trabajadoras inmigrantes, en su mayoría judías, se tiraron a la muerte para escapar de las llamas que consumían el Triangle Shirtwaist Factory (los dueños habían cerrado con llave las salidas de emergencia), lo que era la maquiladora más grande de confección en 1911. De esa tragedia surgió un movimiento para cambiar las condiciones infrahumanas de las maquiladoras, en un nuevo esfuerzo por sindicalizar el sector.

En la calle McDougal había un restaurante, Polly’s, donde en los 1910 se congregaban anarquistas (la dueña era una de ellos), poetas, escritores y más. Arriba estaba el Club Liberal, donde mujeres hacían cosas prohibidas, como fumar, hablar de cómo conquistar el derecho al voto y platicar del amor libre. A poca distancia sobre la misma calle estaba el Provincetown Playhouse, donde se estrenó la primera obra de Eugene O’Neill, pero donde también participaban John Reed, Edna St. Vincent Millay y Max Eastman (editor de The Masses).

Por estas calles se escuchan aún las voces de dirigentes del gran movimiento anarcosindicalista IWW, como Elizabeth Gurley Flynn y Big Bill Haywood.

En la Calle 13 vivía Emma Goldman entre 1903 y 1913, una de las rebeldes más extraordinarias y valientes, arrestada por atreverse hablar de control de natalidad, de oposición a la Primera Guerra Mundial, y finalmente deportada a la Unión Soviética por ser una anarquista demasiado peligrosa para Estados Unidos.

Una cárcel para mujeres ocupaba un espacio en la esquina de Greenwich Avenue y la Sexta Avenida, famosa durante décadas debido a sus internas: desde la esposa del puertorriqueño nacionalista Torresola, después de que su marido murió en un intento de asesinato del presidente Truman, hasta Ethel Rosenberg, arrestada un par de veces, quien cantaba maravillosamente para animar a las prisioneras; Dorothy Day, la líder del movimiento católico radical Catholic Worker, así como manifestantes contra la guerra en Vietnam en los 60, y Angela Davis en 1970.

En Sheridan Square estaba el famoso Café Society, que en los 1920 era el lugar para encontrarse con todos los rebeldes, desde anarquistas, comunistas y socialistas, hasta poetas, artistas visuales y más, todo al ritmo de jazz.

Union Square, donde culminaban las grandes marchas radicales del Primero de Mayo, fue sede de la primera marcha laboral oficial del país en 1882. Fue ahí donde se concentró una multitud para denunciar la ejecución de Sacco y Vanzetti –donde habló el gran Carlo Tresca–, a pesar de las ametralladoras colocadas en las azoteas de los edificios alrededor de la plaza por las autoridades en 1927. Union Square ha sido punto de encuentro de nuevos movimientos y expresiones del siglo XXI, como el de los inmigrantes que resucitaron el Primero de Mayo en este país, o los de Ocupa Wall Street, entre otros.

En el East Village, donde se expresó el punk en Nueva York con su eje en el antro CBGB, con voces como la de Patti Smith a los Talking Heads y más, hay una historia mucho más profunda. Una de las iglesias, St. Marks in the Bowery, donde continúan obras de teatro de vanguardia y otros actos, también era sede de reuniones de las Panteras Negras y los Young Lords en los 60. Ahí también bailó Isadora Duncan.

Iglesia de St. Marks

Iglesia de St. Marks

En la calle de St Marks había un periódico ruso disidente donde trabajó un tiempo León Trotsky, en 1917. Unas cuadras más al este, y medio siglo después, Abbie Hoffman vivió al lado de Thompkins Square Park, y fue ahí donde se bautizó el nuevo movimiento que encabezó: los Yippies.

Éstos son sólo algunos de los ángeles de la guarda que se aparecen por esta parte de la ciudad; miles más esperan en casi todos los demás barrios de esta metrópolis. Lo que comparten no son sus posturas ideológicas, sino su repudio a lo convencional y al veneno del así es que suele infectar hasta los proyectos y movimientos que se dicen progresistas. Por ello, jamás se subordinaban a lo mediocre ni a las órdenes de los que ejercen de manera arbitraria el poder. Y sobre todo se unen para ofrecer y luchar por lo mejor para todos, porque todos merecen lo mejor.

Así, al caminar en estas calles angeladas, uno ya no se siente tan solo.

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