Carla L. Peterson

Carla L. Peterson is Professor Emerita of English at the University of Maryland. She teaches and writes about African American women writers and speakers in the nineteenth century, African-American novelists post-Reconstruction, and gender and culture in historical literature. She is the author most recently of Black Gotham: Family History of African Americans in Nineteenth-Century New York City (2011), as well as Reconstructing the Nation: Frances Harper, Charlotte Forten, and the Radical Politics of Periodical Publications (1998), "Doers of the Word": African-American Women Speakers and Writers in the North (1830–1880) (1995), and The Determined Reader: Gender and Culture in the Novel from Napoleon to Victoria (1986). She received her PhD from Yale University.

Black Modernity in Antebellum New York: A Cultural History

“Old things with Colored Americans are being done away, and all things are becoming new. The people who long sat in darkness, now have the heavenly light.” So wrote the editors of New York’s early black newspaper, the Colored American, on September 9, 1837. This heavenly light, they suggested, emanated from black Americans’ increasing self-reliance and rejection of white patronage, enabled by newly-rooted convictions in the “dignity of human nature” and the primacy of “character [and] merit.” As a result, black Americans are “now actuated by the nobler feelings of the soul.” Nowhere was this actuation more apparent, they argued, than in the institution-building and ongoing “support of our moral, literary, and domestic establishments” from New York’s black community.

Yet, the editors had titled their article, “Return of Dr. Smith,” and their primary goal was to celebrate the return of James McCune Smith “to his native home, to his doting mother, and to his loving and beloved friends.” Born in New York in 1813 to a slave mother and white father, Smith gained his freedom on Emancipation Day, July 4, 1827. As a youngster, he attended the African Free School on Mulberry Street alongside many classmates who would later become equally eminent: teacher and literary critic, Charles Reason; his brother Patrick Reason, an engraver; newspaper editor, Philip Bell; restaurateur, George Downing; Episcopal theologian, Alexander Crummell; African emigrationist, Henry Highland Garnet; and others. After graduation, Smith hoped to become a doctor; rejected by U.S. schools because of his race, he attended the University of Glasgow medical school in Scotland. He then worked in different hospitals throughout Europe, and after a five year absence was returning to his native city. Choosing their terms advisedly, the editors labeled Smith a native New Yorker, a gentleman, a scholar of literary studies as well medical science, and a patriot. To them, he was an exemplar of African American newness, or what I term antebellum black modernity. To date, this mid-19th century cultural formation has received little critical attention, and is the focus of my current book project.

Indeed, the Colored American editors’ vocabulary echoes seminal concepts of modernity formulated a century earlier by European philosophers and cultural critics. Smith’s milieu is the city; he is a man well versed in the human sciences; he is a patriot, imbued with ideals of liberal democracy. Taken together, these attributes lay the foundation of the modern gentleman, a man of refined culture, whose intellectual knowledge is polished by moral virtue and good taste.

How did such claims of African American newness emerge in antebellum New York (and other northeastern cities) at a time when the majority of African-descended peoples in the U.S. labored under slavery in the South and debilitating racial discrimination—both legal and customary—in the so-called free North? Investigating its emergence is crucial to a full appreciation of New York’s black history: it helps explain the cultural forces that propelled 19th-century black intellectuals and political activists forward; it anticipates the turn-of-the-century presence of figures like James Weldon Johnson and W.E.B. Du Bois in the city; it uncovers the groundwork that provided the fertile soil for the flourishing of the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s.

In 1840, New York City was a vibrant and bustling metropolis of approximately 313,000 inhabitants of which some 16,400 were black. The majority were poor, undereducated, and unskilled; yet, a small elite class did exist that included James McCune Smith and Charles Reason among others. Its members were well read and well informed; some, although not all, having had the advantages of higher education. They found employment in occupations that ranged from skilled labor and trade to the liberal professions and entrepreneurship, and achieved a degree of socioeconomic stability. They filled the leadership ranks of black social and political activism. And, with a modicum of disposable income, they enjoyed many of the material commodities and leisure activities available to urban dwellers. They enabled the emergence of a self-conscious antebellum black modernity.

The seeds of this cultural movement lay in the education offered black youth in African/colored schools in New York (and other northeastern cities), as well as adults in literary societies that were foundational to community institutional life. This education was by and large modeled on 18th-century British traditions of learning. Under the rubric of “polite learning,” it centered on a concept of literary studies that encompassed both science and literature as we think of it today, and promoted the universality of all values. In the sciences, subjects included physics, chemistry, physiology, mineralogy, astronomy, and mathematics; the humanities covered fields as diverse as history, theology, geography, philosophy, literature, and the creative arts.

If polite learning and the acquisition of good taste were the expected educational inheritance of the 18th-century British gentleman, these attributes resonated far more deeply among antebellum African Americans. Taking Enlightenment concepts of universality at face value, young men like James McCune Smith, Charles Reason, and their friends assumed that the acquisition of knowledge was open to all. Once absorbed, such knowledge offered them a philosophical framework for thinking about, being in, and apprehending the world that transcended race and class.

Against pervasive white supremacist stereotypes that insisted on the immutable premodernity of black Americans—fixed by nature in an intellectually, morally, and socially inferior status, and hence incapable of civilization—they proclaimed their modernity as gentlemen, scholars, and patriots.

Charles Reason’s career as an educator of black youth is instructive. After graduation, he taught in New York’s colored school system before becoming principal of Philadelphia’s Institute for Colored Youth from 1852 to 1856. He was undoubtedly instrumental in building the Institute’s library to an impressive 1,600 volumes, among them works by Scottish Enlightenment thinkers and 18th-century British poets. Among Scottish philosophers’ most important contribution was the study of human interiority and what they deemed to be essential, universal human values: sensibility, or the feelings produced by the individual’s moral sense, that is innate and hence universal, but always open to further cultivation; sympathy, or the extension of sensibility outward to imagine, and hence sympathize with, the feelings of others; sociability, the deployment of sensibility that brings individuals together in bonds of friendship; liberty, as the necessary precondition under which these moral values flourish. As principles that organized the human world, these ideals existed in harmony with post-Newtonian concepts of the natural universe as a divinely ordered system regulated by scientific law.

Not only was Reason a schoolteacher, he was also an active participant in the Philomathean and Phoenixonian literary societies. He and his fellow members worked to ensure that their community’s schools and literary societies would embrace these philosophical ideals and serve as platforms from which black New Yorkers could pursue and adapt them to their own historical time and place.

In the literary field, teachers, students, and literary society members were particularly attracted to works by 18th-century British poets—James Thomson, William Cowper, Hannah More, and others—that transformed philosophical discourse into poetic expression. These poems imaginatively portray an ordered universe in which poetic personae respond sympathetically to the natural world overseen by God according to scientific law, as well as to a human world organized around universal principles of liberty that have all too often violated by human oppression, notably the enslavement of fellow human beings. Reason himself wrote poems inspired by this tradition that envision a world regulated by human sympathy. Echoing James Thomson’s “Liberty,” Reason’s “Freedom” praises those nations that throughout the course of history have abided by the principles of liberty, whereas “The Spirit Voice” specifically calls for the freedom of black New Yorkers through the restitution of black male suffrage in the state.

In the scientific arena, educators and literary society members were particularly drawn to the fields of geology, chemistry, and anatomy that gave evidence of the divinely ordered harmony of the physical world. Schools obtained cabinets of curiosity displaying minerals. Studying them enabled teachers to expound on contemporary theories of “reconciliation” by means of which geological formations could be interpreted through both scientific and theological evidence. An 1838 address before the Philomathean literary society emphasized the importance of chemistry, as the speaker argued that chemical knowledge is critical to all aspects of life, whether the domestic household or the manufacture. Like the geologists, he too concluded that “Chemistry is also calculated to lead the mind through nature, up to nature’s GOD” (CA, 20 Jan., 1838). For his part, James McCune Smith lectured before the same society on the “fallacy of phrenology.” A popular pseudoscience based on the proposition that the shape of a person’s cranium was an indication of character, phrenology was routinely employed to prove the inferiority of African peoples. According to a Colored American article, Smith explicitly debunked the false anatomical assumptions on which phrenology was based; yet, implicit in his accusation was phrenology’s refusal to acknowledge both the innate moral sense of individuals and the human body as a harmonious system (30 Sept., 1837).

If polish and good taste were the hallmark of the modern gentleman’s acquisition of intellectual knowledge, the same held true for his external appearance—his comportment and dress. Some 140 years earlier, British essayists Richard Steele and Joseph Addison founded the Tatler (1709–11) and Spectator (1711–12), with the express purpose of defining good taste for London’s emergent and newly prosperous middle classes. Between 1851 and 1856, several New York correspondents adapted the British writers’ essays—both their style and content—in columns contributed to Frederick Douglass’ Paper. In their writings, Addison and Steele encouraged the accumulation of wealth, commodity consumption of material goods (especially in the realm of fashion), and enjoyment of leisure activity, but formulated guidelines to regulate these activities by reinforcing the virtues of moderation and decorum. Their admonitions resonated with mid-19th century black New Yorkers.

In focusing on the dominant systems of enslavement and racial discrimination, scholars have largely ignored the material investments of antebellum urban blacks, deferring such “modern” interests to late-19th and turn-of-the century New York culture, and figures like Johnson and DuBois, and later Harlem Renaissance artists. Yet, mid-century witnessed the socioeconomic rise—always accompanied by insecurity—of the city’s black elite, and their growing awareness that commodity consumption and the tastes it formed were as much the marker of modernity as was polite learning. Three New York correspondents in particular, who wrote under pen names, debated these issues in the pages of Frederick Douglass’ Paper: James McCune Smith/aka Communipaw; Philip Bell/aka Cosmopolite; and William J. Wilson/aka Ethiop, a Brooklyn school teacher.

As they debated one another, each correspondent staked out a particular position. The one most closely aligned with the thinking of Addison and Steele, Ethiop emphasized the social status of New York’s black elite (“I call them an aristocracy”), their urbanity (New York is “the acknowledged metropolis of America”), and their capacity for entrepreneurship (22 April, 1852; 25 Dec., 1851). Like his British predecessors, he promoted both production and consumption, encouraging black businessmen to make money and then enjoy spending it. Like them, fashion for Ethiop became the signifier of commodity consumption and good taste.

The task of devising guidelines for regulating fashion was left to Communipaw who challenged his friend’s promotion of wealth, embrace of conspicuous consumption, and fascination with the extravagance of fashion. Instead, undoubtedly influenced by his student years in Glasgow, Communipaw emphasized Scottish Enlightenment notions of inner moral sense, and made his case in a series of character sketches titled “Heads of the Colored People.” Refusing to fetishize commodity consumption, “Heads” portray common laboring black men and women who, through dedication, perseverance, and character, offer readers examples of simplicity, modesty, and self-regulation that lead to contentment and, on occasion, the rewards with wealth.

For his part, Cosmopolite, whose very name harkens back to 18th-century British constructions of the “citizen of the world,” reported on the black elite’s enjoyment of New York’s many cultural events. In his columns, he insisted that participation in the city’s cosmopolitan culture would erase racial prejudice, promote social equality among New York’s elite classes, and ultimately signal black Americans’ entrance into modernity. As consumers, he and his friends aligned themselves with the taste of the town. In particular, they celebrated the emergence of opera as a popular art form at mid-century, reserving special praise for the African American singer, Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield, known as the Black Swan (16 March, 1855). In so doing, they anticipated the time when consumption would lead to production and, in Ethiop’s words, African Americans would “begin to tell our own story, write our own lecture, paint our own picture, chisel our own bust” (11 March 1853).

Yet, black New Yorkers recognized that none of these activities—whether intellectual, material, or cultural—would be possible without that most prized universal value: liberty. The pages of Frederick Douglass’ Paper reverberate with articles that address political issues of most concern to the black community nationwide. James McCune Smith was one of its most prominent spokesmen, undoubtedly due to his extensive study of political philosophy begun at the Mulberry Street African Free School and burnished during his Glasgow years.

Smith’s prominence was on full display at the annual State and National Conventions of Colored Men. For all the delegates, the ultimate goal was the achievement of citizenship, the hallmark of political modernity. To this end, Smith and his colleagues debated specific strategies in their fight for the abolition of slavery, voting rights, establishment of a black press, improved educational opportunities, access to jobs in manual labor, and more. But, joined by men like Frederick Douglass, Smith also understood the importance of laying out the philosophical principles that undergirded such demands. Rearticulating the universal Enlightenment ideals of liberty, equality, and brotherhood, Smith and his colleagues insisted that they be extended to all black Americans. “Man,” they argued, following Scottish philosophers, was a universal concept as was his thirst for liberty. Hence, the phrases “all men are created equal” and “inalienable rights,” found in the Declaration of Independence and Constitution, are inclusive and apply to all those born on American soil.

Moving beyond the substance of American Republicanism finally, Smith sought to adapt the forms of representative democracy to his community’s needs. He was the founding force behind the National Council of Colored People, whose goal was to promote “a Union of the colored people of the free States.” In its structure and operations, the Council replicated the U.S. federal government. Mimicking a federal system based on state and national structures, it operated by means of both proportional and fixed representation as well as direct and indirect elections. The goal, members declared, was to “maintain our citizenship and manhood in every relation civil, religious and social throughout the land” (18 May 1855).

Mid-19th century black New Yorkers had an acute sense of the significance of what it meant to be modern. And they understood the steps that needed to be taken to achieve it in areas as diverse literary study, commodity consumption, leisure activity, and political participation. Shining a spotlight on this early cultural formation enables a greater appreciation of the complex history of black life in the city, not only at mid-century but beyond into the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.


Charles W. Andrews. History of the New-York African Free Schools. New York: Mahlon Day, 1830.

Colored American, New York, N.Y.

Frederick Douglass’ Paper, Rochester, N.Y.

Objects and Regulations of the Institute for Colored Youth, with a List of the Officers and Students, and the Annual Report of the Board of Managers, for the year 1860. Philadelphia: Merrihew and Thompson, 1860.

Peterson, Carla L. Black Gotham: A Family History of African Americans in Nineteenth-Century New York City. New Haven: Yale UP, 2011.

______________. “Antebellum Literary Societies, Polite Learning, and Traditions of Modernity.” In African American Literature: In Transition, 1750–2015. vol. 3. Edited Benjamin Fagan. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Forthcoming.

­­______________. “Reconstructing James McCune Smith’s 'Alexandrine Library': The New York State/County and National Conventions (1845-1855).” In Colored Conventions in the Nineteenth-Century and the Digital Age. Edited P. Gabrielle Foreman, Jim Casey, and Sarah L. Patterson. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press. Forthcoming.

______________. “Urbanity and Taste: The Making of African American Modernity in Antebellum New York City.” ALH. Forthcoming.

Reason, Charles L. “Freedom” and “A Spirit Voice.” In Early Negro American Writers. Ed. Benjamin Griffith Brawley. Freeport, N.Y.: Books for Library Press, 1935.

Rusert, Britt. Fugitive Science: Empiricism and Freedom in Early African American Culture. New York: New York UP, 2017.

Smith, James McCune. “Heads of the Colored People.” In The Works of James McCune Smith. Ed. John Stauffer. New York: Oxford UP, 2006.