Craig Steven Wilder
A Covenant with Color: Race and Social Power in Brooklyn
(Columbia University Press, 2000)
The legacy of slavery is written onto the streets of Brooklyn. Lefferts, Boerum, Meserole, Skillman, Pierrepont—these and many more street names commemorate influential local families who held slaves. From the 1830s onward, Brooklyn was also home to fervent abolitionism, as witnessed by the presence of the Tappans, the Beechers, and several fellow travelers. Yet with an economy rooted in the trade of Southern goods, it is not surprising which perspective on human captivity carried the day.
According to the historian Craig Steven Wilder, the core idea sustaining Brooklyn’s attachment to slavery was firmly in place prior to the Village of Brooklyn’s chartering as a city—of only 16,000 residents—in 1834; and it continues to shape the present, when over a third of the borough’s 2.5 million residents share African ancestry. That idea is the “covenant with color” referred to in the book’s title, whereby white, black, and other races live under the reality of white domination. Dr. Wilder, who grew up in Bed Stuy, did his graduate work at Columbia, and is now a professor of Afro-American Studies at Williams College, indeed provides a powerful overview of the persistence of racial supremacy in Brooklyn.
Whether Dutch or English, Colonial rule in New York was dependant on the presence of un-free labor. As it formed productive relations and established an individual’s place in the social hierarchy, “bondage shaped the lives and thoughts of masters, yeomen, merchants, statesmen, servants, and free laborers,” Wilder writes. As the author explains, the reliance on people of African descent to serve as those held in slavery initially sprang not from innate prejudice or hate, but “vulgar greed.” After the Dutch West India Company began its triangular trade with Brazil and Angola in 1648, local farmers quickly took advantage of the growing number of defenseless African slaves.
After the English conquest, the numbers of imported slaves increased rapidly, and with the growth came an entire legal and cultural apparatus separating free from un-free, European from African, Christian from heathen, black from white. In King’s County, by the end of the 17th century, more than forty percent of local, mostly Dutch freeholders owned slaves; usually the number of slaves per household was small, but each was a valuable piece of property, often willed from one generation to the next. A decade after the American Revolution, New York remained the fifth largest slaveholding state, and in its proportionately largest slaveholding county—namely King’s—the sparks of “liberty” never caught fire.
It was not local, but instead Southern, slave labor that primarily fueled greater Brooklyn’s commercial rise during the first half of the 19th century. Wilder furnishes several insightful examples of enterprising men on the make who sought to capture parts of the trans-Atlantic trade in Southern raw materials flowing through the Port of New York. A failure in business elsewhere, Henry Waring moved to Brooklyn in 1813, at age 36; soon he scored big contracts to transport Southern goods, and eventually became one of the first trustees of the Brooklyn Savings Bank. What began as the trade and warehousing of Southern staple crops naturally returned to their production, especially so in the case of sugar. By the end of the Civil War, Williamsburg’s Havemeyer and Elder had become the largest refinery in the world.
Given that its fortunes came from the South, and that its growing Irish immigrant working class was tied to the Democrats, then the party of slavery, Brooklyn proved most unreceptive to its numerically small, but vocal abolitionists. Although its population fell to less than five percent black during the 1840s, King’s County voters overwhelmingly rejected the elimination of property qualifications for African Americans during that decade. In such a climate, Walt Whitman’s “schizophrenic” stance toward slavery became typical, Wilder believes; first an advocate of slavery, then a mild opponent to it, Whitman never believed in black equality. Across Brooklyn, the idea of racial superiority, Wilder says, would thus “survive the end of slavery because it continued to describe the power that the majority exercised over black men and women.”
Still, no matter how deeply ingrained, no oppressive system ever fails to produce resistance. Rather than champion the work of familiar white abolitionists like the Tappans, Beechers, and Wendell Phillips, Wilder emphasizes anti-slavery activism within Brooklyn’s small black community. The physician Dr. James McCune Smith, Reverend Charles B. Ray, and the editor Robert Hamilton were just a few of the leaders at the forefront of the struggle. Organizations like the Colored Political Association of Brooklyn and the Williamsburg Suffrage Club steered grassroots campaigns for full black equality. Williamsburg’s vibrant African American community also nourished anti-slavery efforts elsewhere, sending one of its own, John Copeland, to join John Brown’s ill-fated raid on Harper’s Ferry.
The end of slavery brought high hopes, but grim realities for black Brooklynites. “As black people in the South were reduced to peonage, black people in the North were condemned to caste,” Wilder writes. Never more than three percent of Brooklyn’s population as the city, then borough boomed between 1880-1930, African Americans still faced segregation in public services and especially from private businesses. During the 1920s, as the borough’s black population became more concentrated in the Bedford Stuyvesant Districts, segregation increased in the surrounding schools, churches, hotels and restaurants.
On the job front, the numbers told a similarly bleak story. By 1930, there were less than one hundred African Americans in New York City’s entire police and fire departments, and only a handful of those were from Brooklyn. Discrimination in private unions was even more destructive. Only 1/20 of the city’s black workers belonged to unions by 1930, as compared to 1/5 of all white laborers. Leaders of the era’s Negro press like Ira De A. Reid and T. Thomas Fortune encouraged their readership to patronize only businesses that hired blacks. Meanwhile, uplift organizations like the Lincoln Settlement and the Brooklyn Urban League waged various job placement campaigns. Yet even when they managed to get a foot in the door, black workers confronted what would become enduring barriers against promotion.
Such entrenched patterns of segregation were magnified, not corrected, by the New Deal. In two forceful chapters, Wilder maps out the impact of the rampant bias of government job and particularly housing policy from the 1930s through the 1950s. “Spatially less segregated than white ethnics” when FDR took office, by 1945 “Central Brooklyn was the primary locale for nonwhite residency in the borough.” By the time Harry Truman left office, “a vast black ghetto stretched across Brooklyn and was becoming the largest of its kind." In copious detail, Wilder shows how Federal Housing Administration loan policy sanctioned the discriminatory practices of Brooklyn banks, severely restricting the ability of blacks (unlike whites) either to move to the suburbs or to receive home loans within their own neighborhoods.
After bringing his story through the present, with a focus on job market bias, inequalities in city services, and recent conflicts over police brutality, Wilder offers a bracing conclusion: “one need only to travel to the expansive ghettoes of Brooklyn, observe its racially-tiered labor force, or mark the results of its separate and unequal educational system to comprehend the inappropriateness of the term [racial] ‘progress.’” In roughly 250 pages, Wilder has thus provided a necessary explanation of the deep historical roots of racial inequality in Brooklyn, a subject demanding attention during more than just one month each year.