Dominion of New York

Black History Month

February 1, 2012

Keepers of the Dream: Portraits of Free Black Northerners, 1787-1865

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Written by: Kelly Virella

ach day of Black History Month we’re sharing a new story of one of our forgotten ancestors, culled from the book Speak Out in Thunder Tones: Letters and Other Writings by Black Northerners, 1787-1865. All are pioneers, with firsts ranging from the first black newspaper, to the first black person admitted to practice law before the U.S. Supreme Court. Many knew each other and their lives and politics intersected in a variety of ways. Grab a copy of the book from your public library and follow along with us as we explore their backstories.

01. Peter Williams, Jr.

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Peter Williams, Jr. photo source: New York Public Library.

(1786-1840) “Son of a slave who bought his freedom, Peter Williams was a leader of New York’s black community in the first decades of the nineteenth century. A friend and supporter of Paul Cuffe’s, he became pastor of St. Philip’s Episcoal Church in 1820. He was an officer of the American Anti-Slavery Society when it was first organized, but the bishop of his diocese demanded that he resign in order to avoid controversy.” — Speak out in Thunder Tones, Letters and Other Writings by Black Northerners 1787-1865

Like so many free blacks of his era, Williams found his political speech rights very restricted. After he joined the Anti-Slavery Society, he and St. Philips’ became the target of a vicious mob attack. Wealthy whites branded the Anti-Slavery Society as radical because it was interracial and engaged in mass protests. Poor whites despised the Society because it facilitated the mingling of blacks and whites. When a conflict emerged between St. Philips’ choir and a white choir over the use of rehearsal space in July of 1834, the white choir began assaulting the black one. Their assault escalated and poured out into the streets, galvanizing a mob and riot. The rioters destroyed St. Philips’ and Williams’ home.

Williams was the first black person ordained as an Episcopalian priest. His church formed when black parishioners of New York City’s Trinity church (now known as Trinity Wall Street) broke away, protesting the segregation within Trinity. Trinity approved the split and supplied St. Philips with $3,000 to assist its establishment. But during the riot, the Episcopal church did not come to the aid of St. Philips’ nor Williams. In fact, after the riot, Episcopal Bishop Benjamin Onderdank advised Williams to resign from his abolitionist activities. Williams complied in part, resigning from the board of the Society, while maintaining his status as a member. It must have been a humiliating moment for him. In his public remarks about the matter, he apologized for joining the board and chalked his participation up to his desire to retard abolition if it began to occur too quickly.

A copy of the full speech is available here. He said in part: “I should have offered my resignation long before this, had I not thought that there might be occasions, when, by having the privilege of addressing the Board, I might exercise a restraining influence upon measures calculated to advance our people faster than they were prepared to be advanced, and the public feeling would bear.”

About the Author

Kelly Virella
Kelly Virella lives in an East Harlem walk-up with her husband, her bicycle and her books. She's worked as a journalist for 11 years and started this website during the summer of 2011. She fell in love with New York City during her first visit here as a 16-year-old and finally made good on her promise to move here in April 2010.


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