We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal….
Even before the ink used to write the Declaration of Independence dried on the paper, it was clear that these stirring words reflected both the promise and the paradox of America: that while the unalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness might form the very foundation of our nation, many Americans would also be systematically denied their equality and their rights. The promise has often been realized: the abolition of slavery, the extension of the vote to women, the elimination of restrictions against Asian immigration. But the paradox remained: the imposition of racial segregation, whether de jure in the South or de facto in the North; the exclusion of women from jobs, colleges, professions, and other life opportunities; imprisonment of Japanese-Americans during World War II. Indeed, a significant narrative thread of American history is the ongoing struggle, by all Americans, for their freedom and their rights. This thought comes to mind during this Black History Month in connection with a document from Brooklyn Historical Society’s collections that I would like to share with you.
The document below is a draft of a certificate of incorporation for St. Peter’s Church, an African-American congregation founded in Brooklyn in 1832.
St. Peter’s Church certificate of incorporation, pg. 1, BHS Collections ArMs 1974.150
From the document we know St. Peter’s was a Protestant Episcopal church, meeting in the Apprentice’s Library at the corner of Henry and “Cranbury” streets, and the names of the principals forming it. Yet, we know little else about St. Peter’s. Certainly there are longer-lasting, more well-known and more important churches in the history of Brooklyn’s African-Americans. But all that is beside my interest in this document.
What impresses me here is the certificate of incorporation’s simple, everyday legal form. Equal rights was, and continues to be, contested ground. Throughout American history, African-Americans have fought that contest in many ways, on many fronts. One such front was direct confrontation with the law itself. Some of these confrontations were spectacular and led to spectacular results: amendment of the Constitution to abolish slavery, reversal of laws permitting segregated public schools and public accommodations, eliminating poll taxes and other legal barriers used to prevent African-Americans from voting.
But the contest for equal rights under the law could be, and was, advanced in less spectacular and confrontational ways as well. African-Americans could exercise the rights and privileges available to both them and European-Americans, thereby expanding the range of actual equality. In this case, in accordance with the New York law providing for the incorporation of religious societies, the African-American congregation of St. Peter’s exercised its equality with European-American congregations in following the same process any congregation in New York would follow. Certainly the creation of a church, school, charitable society, or other corporate body would have its particular institutional purpose for the advancement of African-Americans as citizens. Through St. Peter’s certificate we can perceive that the process of incorporation itself was an expression of the congregation’s equality. Through the legal commonplace of a certificate of incorporation, this African-American congregation claimed the rights of citizenship regardless of race and asserted their equal rights under the law. It helps to recall that Berean Baptist, First Unitarian, Plymouth Congregational, Siloam Presbyterian, and other of Brooklyn’s historic churches—black and white—would all have at their institutional roots a document very much like that of St. Peter’s. The fact that St. Peter’s did not thrive, or even survive, does not take away from the role its congregants played in staking their claim to rights as citizens of America and New York.
I do not mean to romanticize the social situation of St. Peter’s congregation. After all, the author of the certificate was compelled to identify the congregation as “composed of colord pe[r]sons” (and as a separate, though related matter, by law only the men of the congregation met to conduct the business of incorporation). The year is 1832, just five years after slavery was finally abolished in New York in 1827. Brooklyn was just across the bay from New Jersey, still at the time a slave state with about 2500 enslaved African-Americans. Anti-abolitionist riots would erupt in Manhattan the very next year and again in 1834. Nonetheless, in these fraught times, Brooklyn’s African-Americans sought fields of action to advance their rights. In the context of the law, at times this would require confrontation, particularly in efforts to challenge, skirt, or overturn unjust laws. At other times, as with St. Peter’s certificate of incorporation, it was enough for African-Americans to grasp the opportunities at hand to exercise equality, expand the terrain of their equal rights, and to give life to their freedom.
(Thanks to Photographic Collection Assistant Emily Reynolds for creating images of the certificate.)