Like many states in the nation, New York has a long history of racially and ethnically related civil disturbances, riots, rebellions and uprisings. These unsettling events have had lasting impacts on these communities long after disturbance had passed and relative peace was restored. The following is a descriptive but incomplete list of 18th and 19th century conflicts (principally of those in New York City) in which lives were lost, property was damaged or destroyed and law and order had to be established with the often violent, coercive use of force by police and/or state military units. Most importantly these events occurred in the context of a long-standing history of racial, ethnic and social class conflicts coupled with a triggering incident that set off a more sustained period of communal violence.
Typically these tragic, occurrences are scarcely mentioned, glossed over and even omitted from the official histories of the municipality where they happened. For reasons that are not hard to discern riots leave an indelible stain on the reputation of a community. Detroit, Newark, East Los Angeles, Watts, Los Angeles, and Harlem for instance, are inexorably linked to the urban riots of the late 20th century and regardless of the passage of time, these and similar communities still struggle to recover from the tragedy that took place many years ago. And, the more recent 21st century racial flare-ups in New York, Chicago, Cleveland Ferguson, Baltimore and elsewhere over the questionable police shootings of African Americans seem to suggest that the hard lessons of racial strife of the past have been forgotten. But if community histories remain silent, nothing good can come from these past troubles.
In most riot affected communities, residents and authorities perceive the rioting from an isolated, local perspective and treated almost like a family embarrassment that is not spoken of in polite circumstances. In many instances, this approach has led to denial and forgetting. Regardless, these violent times in local communities need to be put in the context of the broad sweep of national history and come out of the closet as it were, to serves as reminders of the work that still has to be done for America to live up to its promise of racial justice and equality before the law.
Additionally, New York was impacted by numerous incidents of labor related unrest and several other street level and colorfully named disturbances that will not be discussed here such as: The Whorehouse Riots of 1793, the New York Stonecutters Riot Against Prison Labor and Election Riot of 1834, the Abolition Riots of 1834-1836, the South Ferry Riot of 1846, the Williamsburg, Brooklyn City Riot and the Firemen’s Riots -1853, the Angel Gabriel Riot of 1854, the Irish and Know Nothing’s Riot of 1854, and the Riot After Bill Poole’s Funeral-of 1855.
All the disorders ultimately gave rise to the creation of armories throughout the state to house local units of the state’s National Guard. Approximately 120 armories were built in New York State from the late eighteenth century to the middle of the twentieth, and most date from the last quarter of the nineteenth century, when the National Guard was America’s primary domestic peacekeeper during the post Civil War era of labor and civic unrest. Armories serve as arms storage facilities, drill halls and social gathering places for the Guard and are civic monuments symbolizing New York s determination to preserve domestic law and order through military might.
One key to understanding the phenomena of mass urban violence in America is to realize that almost all these events are based on longstanding, unresolved racial and ethnic grievances. The history of American rioting is in many ways the history of a nation trying to come to terms with its unique demographic diversity and the on-going constitutional struggle to achieve the ideal of legal equality for all. In any case, instances of communal violence must not be forgotten, ignored or relegated to the status of local legends or seen as isolated incidents and as aberrations of the norm. They are important and related aspects of American life that are well within the context of our greater national history. Seen as “teachable moments,” these untoward conflicts can be the genesis of openings for improved race and police-community relations, as well as opportunities to reconstruct destroyed neighborhoods to make physiologically and economically hurt societies whole and prosperous again. History has practical uses.
This is a part of a series about 18th and 19th century racial and ethnic riots in the city of New York. The terms Negro and Black are used here in their historical context.
Photo: The Orange riot of 1871 as depicted in Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, courtesy wikimedia user Beyond My Ken.