by Imani Vieira
as part of a series honoring Black Histories in the LES
Image: Five Points streets intersection painted by George Catlin in 1827
Five Points was the site of the first Free Black Settlement, eventually evolving into a neighborhood with the highest concentration of Black New Yorkers by the 1830s. It is notorious for stories of early gang life in New York City and often recognized as one of the city’s first “slums.” To those who lived there — formerly enslaved and free Black New Yorkers, Irish and German immigrants — it was a neighborhood where they were able to survive and live as best as they could, despite being the most marginalized people in the city. Unfortunately, Black New Yorkers would eventually become displaced from Five Points in the 1860s due to years of racial tension and violent attacks, not only in the neighborhood but sparked all across the city.
In the 1820s, Five Points was home to abolitionist and mutual aid organizations. One of the most well known was the African Society of Mutual Aid Relief, known as “the crown jewel of all Black organizations.” Founded in 1808, the African Society moved to Five Points in 1820 at 42 Orange Street. Their mission was to secure financial support, equity, and freedom to Black New Yorkers. During the era of slavery, they openly flaunted their politcal agenda and power in establishing Black “citizenshp” in New York.
Other organizations located within Five Points were Chatham Chapel, where black and white abolitionists met. Churches in the area such as St. Philip’s African Episcopal Church and the African Bethlehem Church were part of the Underground Railroad, as were many of the homes in Five Points, and Black Abolitionists such as Henry Highland Garnett worked in the neighborhood as a part of the American Missionary Association.
White philanthropists, with the idea that education led to integration and offered an opportunity beyond slavery to Black New Yorkers, decided to house the African Free School No. 2 on Mulberry Street in 1820, right in the heart of Five Points. It became alternatively known as the Mulberry Street School and this effort led to a new generation of educated free Black people; the Nation’s first African American pharmacists, doctors, lawyers and leaders of the day, known as the “Black Elite.”
Although “The Black Elite” were able to establish themselves into New York Society during an era of slavery and the disenfranchisment of Black people not only in New York but around the world, Five Points remained a neighborhood of the most marginalized and the image of the neighborhhod as a crime-ridden slum was exasterbated by the rapid increase of an immigrant population settling in Lower Manhattan in search of work and opportunity. Five Points became a target for anti-abolitionists and as early as 1834, anti-aboltion protests resulted in violence against white and Black abolitionists. White mobs looted St. Philip’s Episcopal Church and the African Society for Mutual Relief, pushing 500 Black people to flee the community.
A decrease in Black residents with the increased Irish immigration in the 1820s and 30s led to racial tensions within the community itself as Irish and Black people were forced to compete for low wage jobs and opportunities — but the ‘by default’ integrated living also influenced the art that was created and inspired by the neighborhood. Master Juba, born William Henry Lane in Rhode Island, came to Five Points as a teen and began competing in Irish saloons. He experimented and mixed steps of the Irish jig and African American vernacular dance. He then traveled all over the world, overshadowing white minstrel performers of the day, something that was completely unheard of before him.
Famous writer Charles Dickens even frequented the mixed dance halls of the neighborhood and enjoyed the dancing he witnessed, but he began to spread an idea of a connection between high rates of crime and the racial dynamics of the community, and his depiction of the neighborhood gave rise to a media frenzy. Narratives of high rates of crime and violence due to ‘racial mixing’ and the integrated living between Black, German and Irish immigrants were pushed by hearsay and the media. Five Points became widely known not only as a slum, famous for its poverty, but as a place of prostitution, gambling, and mixed race dance halls — and to many residents of New York City outside of the Five Points area, middle class Black New Yorkers included, it was a place of scandal and embarrassment.
Of course, high rates of crime had little to do with racial mixing and more to do with a lack of resources due to the government ignoring the most marginalized of people. The propaganda of crime and violence stemming from integrated living was a false conclusion rooted in racism. Using Black people as the scapegoat of poverty was racist.
In the 1850s, continued rapid increase in population due to immigration led to serious competition among the residents of Five Points as they fought to rise above their social status and integrate themselves into New York society through various means.
The racial tension that went along with both this competition and the rise of the Civil War in the United States came to a boil in New York City during the Draft Riots of 1863. Black New Yorkers were openly attacked, assaulted, and killed by White people, mostly by poor Irish, who were angry at being drafted into the war and mistakenly believed that their Black neighbors were the reason for the war and thus at fault for the draft. The Draft Riots remain the most brutal attacks on Black New Yorkers until this day — and they are only recently being acknowledged for what they were; Race Riots. It is important that we recognize the need for this change of language to honor the experience of Black New Yorkers and the violence they endured.
Although many Black New Yorkers remained in Five Points, and were even protected by their white neighbors (a testament to the community relationships that were forged across racial lines), many others fled New York entirely after these attacks, forever changing their relationship to the place they once called home. Black leaders of the time called for and implored Black New Yorkers to stay in the city, but the damage was done. The Black population of Five Points decreased and the Black population of the city dropped by 20%. Marchita Lyons, of the Lyons Family who grew very successful in the neighborhood, later wrote of the attacks in her memoir and the night they fled:
Under the cover of darkness the police conveyed our parents to the Williamsburg ferry; there, steamboats were kept in readiness to either transport fugitives or to outwit rioters by pulling out into midstream. To such humiliations, to such outrages, were law abiding citizens exposed and that in a city where they were domiciled taxpayers. Is it any wonder that for them New York was never after to be considered home.
The displacement of Black New Yorkers in Five Points is not a singular story: Tulsa, Rosewood, Elaine, Atlanta — the list of Black neighborhoods and communities being massacred and pushed out of their neighborhood because of the “threat” they posed to white residents in the same area is shamefully long. And though many Black New Yorkers were able to thrive in other areas of the city and build strong communities which continue to fight displacement to this day, the first free Black Settlement was ultimately lost due to racially-motivated attacks. While walking the streets of what used to be Five Points, it is important to imagine the neighborhood that once existed and the Black residents who were able to create a center of life for themselves at a time when they were not even considered “full” citizens.
Mapping the African American Past – Five Points
Black Past – Five Points District, New York City, New York
People’s LES – 1863 The Civil War Draft Riots, written by Dakota Scott
Library of Congress – Tap Dance in America, a short history
Britannica – Master Juba
Carla Peterson – Black Gotham