During the early national and antebellum eras, black leaders in New York City confronted the tenuous nature of Northern emancipation. Despite the hope of freedom, black New Yorkers faced a series of sociopolitical issues including the persistence of Southern slavery, the threat of forced removal, racial violence, and the denial of American citizenship. Even efforts to create community space within the urban landscape, such as the African Burial Ground and Seneca Village, were eventually demolished to make way for the city's rapid development. In this illuminating history, Leslie M. Alexander chronicles the growth and development of black activism in New York from the formation of the first black organization, the African Society, in 1784 to the eve of the Civil War in 1861. In this critical period, black activists sought to formulate an effective response to their unequal freedom. Examining black newspapers, speeches, and organizational records, this study documents the creation of mutual relief, religious, and political associations, which black men and women infused with African cultural traditions and values.
As Alexander reveals, conflicts over early black political strategy foreshadowed critical ideological struggles that would bedevil the black leadership for generations to come. Initially, black leaders advocated racial uplift through a sense of communalism and connection to their African heritage. Yet by the antebellum era, black activists struggled to reconcile their African identity with a growing desire to gain American citizenship. Ultimately, this battle resulted in competing agendas; while some leaders argued that the black community should dedicate themselves to moral improvement and American citizenship, others began to consider emigrating to Africa or Haiti. In the end, the black leadership resolved to assert an American identity and to expand their mission for full equality and citizenship in the United States. This decision marked a crucial turning point in black political strategy, for it signaled a new phase in the quest for racial advancement and fostered the creation of a nascent Black Nationalism.