The Lost Museum Archive

Race and Race Relations in P.T. Barnum's New York City

by James W. Cook

This 800 word essay provides historical context for the social, political, and economic circumstances of African Americans in New York City in the decades preceding the Civil War. Links to primary documents and images relating to the same topic appear at the end of the essay. The essay also describes Barnum’s own history of presenting non-white "human curiosities" at the American Museum and elsewhere.

Three major developments structured the racial landscape in which P.T. Barnum took charge of the American Museum. First and most fundamental was the process of gradual emancipation that took place in New York between 1799 and 1827, slowly transforming the City into a nominally free social space. By 1810, a majority of black New Yorkers were no longer the property of whites. But this new freedom came without basic civil rights such as universal suffrage or trial by jury for fugitive slaves. The second major development was the emergence of post-emancipatory forms of bigotry and segregation, a process that coincided with the arrival of large numbers of poor white immigrants (primarily from Ireland and Germany) during the 1830s and 40s. The labor markets and living conditions experienced by immigrants and former slaves were similar: both groups found themselves relegated to the bottom rungs of the burgeoning capitalist economy and forced into urban neighborhoods deemed undesirable by the middle and upper classes. In some cases, this socio-economic proximity produced a common working-class culture of shared saloons, dance halls, street life, and even interracial marriages. But it also led to new forms of segregation in many professions and public institutions (e.g. on New York's omnibuses, which served as the primary cross-town transportation system), as well as mob attacks on black bodies and homes.

This rising tide of bigotry added new urgency to the third major development in the period's race relations: the emergence of independent black churches, benevolent societies, newspapers, schools, and vigilance committees. Less structured by white condescension and control, these institutions nurtured the city's first African-American elite, a small but influential class of merchants, editors, clergymen, writers, actors, and activists. They also provided crucial social networks with which to support and solidify the black population as a whole. Although born out of racial exclusion, New York City's earliest free institutions quickly produced a rich and diverse black culture, ranging from debating societies and restaurants to literary periodicals and Masonic lodges.

Against this backdrop, Barnum both absorbed and helped to articulate many of the dominant racial attitudes of his era. As a young showman touring the South during the late 1830s, he had briefly owned slaves-a sin for which he later publicly apologized. More typically, he catered to the conventional prejudices and fascinations of his Northern audiences, producing a wide variety of "living curiosity" exhibitions that accentuated all varieties of difference between viewer and performer. These exhibitions did not focus exclusively on any one race, ethnicity, nationality, or physical attribute. Rather, the guiding principle was to create a spectrum of freakishness outside the boundaries of white middle-class normalcy through characters such as the "Aztec Children," whom Barnum claimed to have discovered at an ancient Mexican temple; or Chang and Eng, the famous "Siamese Twins." Ironically, it was only as performers that many of these people had access to the American Museum. While Barnum sought out consumers of all classes, religions, regions, and political affiliations, his Museum was (like most antebellum American cultural institutions) generally off limits to non-whites.

Yet the segregation rules in New York popular culture were neither entirely fixed nor consistently enforced, and in Barnum's case, they changed over time. During Barnum's tenure at the American Museum, the racial boundaries of admission seem to have been understood but not explicitly stated: non-whites, that is, were generally admitted only in special cases, and even then they were usually forced to attend at special times or sit in special sections set aside for "colored persons." In fact, the only reason we know this is because Barnum began to advertise an explicitly new policy in 1849: "Notice to Persons of Color-In order to afford respectable colored persons an opportunity to witness the extraordinary attractions at present exhibited at the Museum, the Manager has determined to admit this class of people on Thursday morning next, March 1, from 8 A.M. till 1 P.M."

It's unclear whether this was a one-time event or part of a major shift in Barnum's approach to racial distinction. While his subsequent newspaper ads made no mention of racial rules, visitors to the Museum during the 1860s noted seeing African-American patrons among the crowds. More certain is the fact that Barnum embodied many of the racial paradoxes at the heart of 19th-century America. Although he became increasingly committed to anti-slavery in the years leading up to the Civil War-and even proposed a universal manhood suffrage amendment to the Connecticut Constitution in 1865-these new political commitments did not lead him to embrace full racial equality, or even to question the racial stereotypes regularly produced as part of his own entertainment empire. At the time of Barnum's death in 1891, his circuses still presented people of color almost exclusively as "living curiosities."

Also see these primary documents:

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

Free Blacks in the North and South, The Liberator, January 22, 1831

Kidnapping in the City of New York, The Liberator, August 6, 1836

Waiters Protective Union Meeting, New York Herald, April 16, 1853

Colonization Editorial, New York Herald, April 12, 1853

A Black Joke, Yankee Notions, 1854 (Image)

The Irrepressible Conflict, Vanity Fair, 1862 (Image)

An Unpleasant Incident, 1852-53

The Five Points in 1859 (Image)