A Sad Chapter in Greenwich Village Race History

July 13 Marks the 160th Anniversary of the Lower Manhattan Draft Riots

By Arthur Z. Schwartz

Anti Civil War draft rioters, Lexington Avenue, New York, 1863, Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper. Courtesy NYPL.

We recently celebrated Juneteenth, a holiday enacted since the George Floyd murder in 2020. It is a holiday few understand and which has irony right here in our own community.

On “Freedom’s Eve,” the eve of January 1, 1863, the first Watch Night services took place. On that night, enslaved and free African Americans gathered in churches and private homes all across the country awaiting news that the Emancipation Proclamation had taken effect. At the stroke of midnight, prayers were answered as all enslaved people in Confederate States were declared legally free. Union soldiers, many of whom were Black, marched onto plantations and across cities in the south reading small copies of the Emancipation Proclamation spreading the news of freedom in Confederate States. Only through the Thirteenth Amendment did emancipation end slavery throughout the United States.

But not everyone in Confederate territory would immediately be free. Even though the Emancipation Proclamation was made effective in 1863, it could not be implemented in places still under Confederate control. As a result, in the westernmost Confederate state of Texas, enslaved people would not be free until much later. Freedom finally came on June 19, 1865, when some 2,000 Union troops arrived in Galveston Bay, Texas. The army announced that the more than 250,000 enslaved Black people in the state were free by executive decree. This day came to be known as “Juneteenth,” by the newly freed people in Texas.

After President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, the Civil War then intensified. The U.S. enacted its first military draft, which focused mainly on white working-class people. Folks didn’t want to put their lives on the line involuntarily and in July 1863, NYC erupted in five days of rioting. The wrath of the rioters was turned on Black New Yorkers. I did some historical research and read story after story that made my few hairs curl. Even here in Greenwich Village, there were shameful incidents which have an impact to this day.

At 6:00 p.m. on the hot evening of July 13, 1863, William Jones, an African-American cartman, left his Clarkson Street home to buy a loaf of bread. He probably didn’t know that a vicious mob had begun a five-day rampage. No CNN, no radio. And Jones was right in their path. The rioters were mostly working-class Irish immigrants. They were angry about a federal draft law that conscripted poor men while allowing their wealthier counterparts to buy their way out of the army. And they feared that newly freed Blacks, who had come to New York, would take their jobs. That morning, after destroying a draft office at Third Avenue and 47th Street, crowds of rioters dispersed around Manhattan. They burned the homes of draft supporters, destroyed train tracks, beat wealthy residents, torched and looted the Brooks Brothers store and attacked police and soldiers. But their rage was directed especially toward Black New Yorkers. They set fire to the Colored Orphan Asylum on Eighth Avenue and 44th Street, killed a Black coachman on West 27th Street and chased three Black men who happened to be walking down Varick Street. Those three got away. That’s when the mob targeted Jones. A book titled “The Draft Riots in New York, July, 1863: The Metropolitan Police, Their Services During Riot Week” recites: “A crowd of rioters on Clarkson Street…met an inoffensive colored man returning from a bakery with a loaf of bread under his arm. They instantly set upon and beat him, and after nearly killing him, hung him to a lamp-post. His body was left suspended for several hours. A fire was made underneath him, and he was literally roasted as he hung, the mob reveling in their demonic act.” Yes, right on Clarkson Street.

When the mob reached the Colored Orphans’ Asylum, filled with mostly women and children, it began looting the building before setting it on fire. The 200 children inside were led out of the back by their benefactors and taken to safety. The book reports incident after incident of thousands of Black New Yorkers, living as freemen in Lower Manhattan, being hung, burned, clubbed, drowned and brutalized, with their homes and businesses ransacked. No one knows how many were killed but the estimates run close to 1,000.

There were also many accounts in New York City newspapers of Black individuals killed during the riot. Although there were an estimated 663 deaths, only 120 were reported to the police. Of those 120, however, 106 were African Americans. An account of Ebrahim Franklin’s death was typical.  “Franklin was in church, praying. He was a disabled man who made his living working as a carriage driver. He lived with his elderly mother whom he supported. The mob reached him just as he was rising to his feet from his prayers and beat him to death. They then dragged him outside and hung him in the church yard in front of his mother. Finally, they mutilated his corpse.”

Most of the Black population of Lower Manhattan left, never to return.

Why tell this story? Because it remains relevant today. We still carry around the scars of slavery, and Black people still suffer the consequences of overt and subtle racism, that exist everywhere. No matter what the Supreme Court recently said (I wrote this before their affirmative action decision), the scars of slavery still haunt us. And, they haunt our community, Lower Manhattan, where the Black population driven out in 1863 has never returned.

In the last census, Community Board 2 was 90 percent white, four percent Asian and two percent Black. That is shameful. It is an issue WE need to address. We live in a wonderful community—except that Black and Hispanic folks just don’t seem to be welcome. This issue must be addressed.

Next month: The Village Race Riot of 1976 and the results of the 2020 Census.