In Episode 28 of Brooklyn Historical Society’s podcast Flatbush + Main, co-hosts Zaheer Ali and Julie Golia discuss the impact on Brooklyn of the 1863 New York City draft riots, the largest domestic uprising in American history after the Civil War itself, resulting in the death of hundreds of Black New Yorkers. Zaheer and Julie consider the complex–and sometimes violent–racial dynamics that made Brooklyn a place of both refuge and danger for its Black residents during this perilous moment.
Segment 1: Histories and Ideas
In this segment, Zaheer and Julie discuss the draft riots in the context of the class and ethnic tensions that existed between working-class immigrants and Black New Yorkers, tensions that were exacerbated as the focus of the Civil War shifted more explicitly toward the issue of slavery. They tell some of the harrowing details of the attacks on Black New Yorkers and institutions, and examine the stories of Black New Yorkers who escaped to Brooklyn. They also explore the parallels between the draft riots and tobacco factory riot that happened in Brooklyn a year before, that while less bloody, revealed some of the same racial dynamics that erupted into the draft riots.
For more on the draft riots, check out Iver Bernstein’s The New York City Draft Riots: Their Significance for American Society and Politics in the Age of the Civil War, and Barnet Schecter’s The Devil’s Own Work: The Civil War Draft Riots and the Fight to Reconstruct America.
Segment 2: Into the Archives
Zaheer and Julie conduct a close reading of “The New York Riots of 1863 – By G. L. V.,” an unpublished manuscript written by Gertrude Lefferts Vanderbilt in the 1890s, 30 years after the event. Born in 1824 into the prominent Dutch Lefferts family, she went on to marry Judge John Vanderbilt, a member of another prominent Dutch family, in 1846. She was an avid chronicler of Brooklyn history, and published A Social History of Flatbush in 1881. Her account of the riots reveals a sympathetic but deeply condescending view of Black New Yorkers as victims, and a nativistic contempt for the largely immigrant population responsible for the riots. You can view the original manuscript here as part of An American Family Grows in Brooklyn: The Lefferts Papers at Brooklyn Historical Society.
Segment 3: Voices of Brooklyn
Zaheer and Julie listen to excerpts from three oral histories which you can access on BHS’s Oral History Portal: Amy Ellenbogen and Richard Green from the Voices of Crown Heights oral histories, and Cheryl Byron from the West Indian Carnival Documentation Project records.