NEW YORK — The deadliest riots in U. S. history unfolded on the streets of New York City during the Civil War.
During the Draft Riots of 1863 “everything just exploded,” historian Harold Holzer explains. “It became really deadly.”
The victims of the violence were overwhelmingly Black New Yorkers.
Kamau Ware has documented this chapter in our city’s history through his work with the Black Gotham Experience and his new film with The Shed, FIGHTING DARK.
“Black people were being chased, beaten to death,” Ware told PIX11. “Black people were being yanked out of their homes, lynched, set on fire.”
In 1863 America was in the midst of the Civil War. While owning slaves was already against the law in New York, the city was still an international financial hub that profited from the slave trade.
“New York [was] really sympathetic to the South, even had a mayor that wanted to bring New York out of the union in solidarity with the South,” Ware said.
As Civil War battles raged on, and the need for soldiers grew, the first draft in Union history was established.
On Third Avenue and East 47th Street, the names of over 1,0000 city men were placed into a drum; if a person’s name was pulled, they would be sent to war.
Ware said a draft selection looked “like a death sentence.”
A movement against the draft quickly grew, stirred up by local politicians and conservative media.
“The largely Irish American part of the city, to be frank about, it was upset that they were going to be asked to do the fighting, and that the fighting now embraces not just restoring the union, but freeing enslaved people,” Holzer said in a recent interview with PIX11.
On July 11, just before the start of the draft, a mob destroyed the draft wheel. The violence spread across the city, and Ware said “the police that were there were overwhelmed.”
Angry rioters made their way to Fifth Avenue and 43rd Street where they burned down the Colored Orphan Asylum.
“They set fire to the building using the mattresses in the dorm rooms. You have 250 children, they’re all huddled around on the first floor with a mob outside yelling racial epithets about killing the little children,” Holzer said.
The headmaster and all 250 children escaped to safety, but other Black New Yorkers were not as fortunate.
William Jones was hung from a tree on the corner of Clarkson and Hudson Steets. He was one of 11 Black New Yorkers to be publicly lynched.
“They were genitally mutilated in public, strung up, they were burned,” Holzer said. “They were driven off the west side docks into the Hudson River.”
“Some bodies washed up ashore,” Ware said.
Holzer said the violence finally ended when “Lincoln ultimately sent federal troops, part of the reserve who hadn’t gone into action in Gettysburg. [He] sent them in by train and they restored order.”
When the riots were over, an unknown number of Black New Yorkers left racially diverse neighborhoods in Lower Manhattan for Brooklyn communities, including Weeksville, a free Black settlement.
“I think it’s important that we remember how volatile it was, remember how racist it was,” Holzer reflects. “We don’t we don’t benefit by ignoring the truth of history.”