Old directories have always seemed to me like snapshots of the past. Open one up and you are privy to all the people that lived for that period of time. The indexing of citizens: orderly, logical, alphabetical. From the early to mid 1800's the directories listed African-Americans in Brooklyn with "c" or "col" after their names, and I began to wonder how best to use this information. What about constructing a different snapshot--a snapshot of the African-American community during the civil war?
The year 1863 begins with Abraham Lincoln granting freedom to all slaves in the Conferederate states. The draft riots rage for three summer days in Manhattan and the Civil War enters its second year. With that backdrop, I wondered what was life like for African-Americans in Brooklyn? Where did they live? What kind of work did they do? Slavery was officially abolished in New York in 1827, so thirty-six years later, what opportunities were available? How did the African-American population form a community, and where was it? Did it have any bearing on the communities of today? A lot of research has been done on the community of Weeksville in Bedford-Stuyvesant. Would the directory confirm or contradict that work? I used the Google mapping program and The Brooklyn City Directory for 1863-4. It was compiled by J. Lain, published by J. Lain and Company located at the Post Office Building, Montague Street near Court Street, Brooklyn and 113 Fulton Street, New York. The price at the time was $2.50.
Brooklyn Collection volunteer Rioghan Kirchner and I began to compile, organize and enter the names of people long gone, early residents of this borough, who would be amazed by the changes in the city and country, and by the way their names would be used 146 years later. After a while a picture began to develop of of the geographic and economic make-up of the community.
One challenge was locating streets that no longer existed. Green Lane was one such location. With residents at 23, 24, 50, 52, 55, and 57 it was a crowded street, but nowhere to be found on any contemporary map. I eventually located it in the E. Belcher Hyde atlas of 1904--a very narrow street running parallel to Gold, between Hudson and Sands.
By far the most prevalent occupation listed for men was laborer, at about 15%. That was followed by seamen, porters and whitewashers. Almost half of all women earned their living as laundresses. But there were other occupations represented as well. James Williams who lived at 191 Pacific Street earned his living in crockery. Patrick Culp in Williamsburg was a cabinetmaker, and Emily Hunter, living in what's now known as Greenwood Heights, was a dressmaker.
As more and more names were added, the map slowly began to take shape. It was exciting to see Weeksville emerge as a community, and interesting to note the sizeable African-American presence in Williamsburg. There was also another large community located in downtown Brooklyn, close to the water for easily access to the ferry to Manhattan, as well as to jobs in the shipping industry.
This work in progress is my way of remembering all those men and women who 146 years ago, walked the same streets as we do now--people largely unrecognized and unheralded but who made their contribution to this borough.
Click here to view the map.