The Lost Museum Archive

On the Conditions of the Free People of Color in the United States, Anti-Slavery Examiner 13 New York, 1839

In 1840 African Americans made up approximately five percent of New York City's population. Racial discrimination barred them from most crafts or professions and forced blacks to work as servants, waiters, seamen, dock workers, or at menial jobs that rarely paid enough to support a family. While they focused on ending slavery, the growing number of African-American and abolitionist newspapers also raised the issues of poverty, lack of opportunity, and economic injustice for blacks in the North as illustrated by this article in the Anti-Slavery Examiner.

In this country ignorance and poverty are almost inseparable companions; and it is surely not strange that those should be poor whom we compel to be ignorant. The liberal professions are virtually sealed against the blacks, if we except the church, and even in that admission is rendered difficult by the obstacles placed in their way in acquiring the requisite literary qualifications; and when once admitted, their administrations are confined to their own color. Many of our most wealthy and influential citizens have commenced life as ignorant and as pennyless as any negro who loiters in our streets. Had their complexion been dark, not withstanding their talents, industry, enterprize and probity, they would have continued ignorant and pennyless, because the paths to learning and to wealth, would have been closed against them. There is a conspiracy, embracing all the departments of society, to keep the black man ignorant and poor. As a general rule, admitting few if any exceptions, the schools of literature and of science reject him -- the counting house refuses to receive him as a bookkeeper, much more as a partner -- no store admits him as a clerk -- no shop as an apprentice. Here and there a black man may be found keeping a few trifles on a shelf for sale; and a few acquire, as if by stealth, the knowledge of some handicraft; but almost universally these people, both in town and country, are prevented by customs or society from maintaining themselves and their families by any other than menial occupations . . .

In 1836, a black man of irreproachable character, and who by his industry and frugality had accumulated several thousand dollars, made application in the City of New York for a carman's license, and was refused solely and avowedly on account of his complexion! We have already seen the effort of the Ohio legislature, to consign the negroes to starvation, by deterring others from employing them. Ignorance, idleness, and vice are at once the punishments we inflict upon these unfortunate people for their complexion; and the crimes with which we are constantly reproaching them.

Source: Foner, Philip S., and Lewis, Ronald L., The Black Worker: A Documentary History from Colonial Times to the Present, Volume 1 The Black Worker to 1869. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1978 p. 145-6.