Series historical adviser Daniel Czitrom reflects on the struggle of African Americans to advance the freedom movement, as the legacies of slavery and racism persevered.
New York’s African Americans drew strength from the opportunities to advance the freedom movement, even as the legacies of slavery and the reality of race hatred surrounded them. They would have read about the speeches made by former Mayor Fernando Wood (now a Congressman), who appealed to white supremacist beliefs in opposing passage of the Thirteenth Amendment to abolish slavery.“The Almighty has fixed the distinction of the races; the Almighty has made the black man inferior, and sir, by no legislation, by no partisan success, by no military power, can you wipe out this distinction.” By contrast, African Americans organized in support. On February 14, 1865 Rev. Henry Highland Garnet became the first African American to deliver a sermon in the House of Representatives, commemorating the recent passage of the Thirteenth Amendment and demanding of Congress a program of “Emancipation, Enfranchisement, Education”
The raising of the 20th Colored Infantry, presented with its colors on Union Square in March 1864, had been a source of enormous pride. In mass meetings, petitions, and local conventions, black New Yorkers (and some white Republican allies) supported suffrage rights, the Freedmen’s Bureau, and other government assistance for emancipated slaves. In the city, they pressed for the integration of public schools and the broader public sphere. In June 1864 Mrs. Ellen Anderson demonstrated one of the most spirited examples of the new black activism. Ordered by a conductor to leave the white car of the Eighth Avenue Railroad, Mrs. Anderson decided to resist and had to be dragged off by the police. The case drew wide attention and Mrs. Anderson, whose husband had just recently been killed in battle, sued the railroad company. “I said I had lost my husband in the war,” she later testified, insisting she “had a right to ride anywhere when I paid my fare.” With the help of some influential white attorneys she won her case. By July, all the streetcars in New York City were open to blacks.