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.

26. Maritcha Lyons, circa 1900

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Maritcha Lyons, circa 1900 photo source: New York Public Library.

"The Lyons were New Yorkers of African, Indian and English descent. Maritcha's father, Albro Lyons (1814-1896), an anti-slavery worker, owned a sailors boarding house and outfitting store, until the 1863 riot destroyed his business and drove him from the city. Relocating in Rhode Island, he became a manufacturer of ice cream. His wife, Mary Lyons, the niece of James Hewlett, the actor, helped him run an underground railroad station during their New York years. Returning to the city after the Civil War, Maritcha Lyons became assistant principal of a public school in Brooklyn. Her unpublished biography, Memoirs of Yesterdays -- All of Which I Saw and Part of Which I Was is a rich source of information about New York's black community in the 19th century." -- Speak out in Thunder Tones, Letters and Other Writings by Black Northerners 1787-1865

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.


New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly, left to right. Photo courtesy of Flickr/Azipaybarah