Race and History in Chelsea

The Lamartine Place Historic District was a stop on the Underground Railroad - and a microcosm for divided reactions to the Civil War

| 01 Jul 2020 | 04:23

After the killing of George Floyd at the hands of a white police officer, Americans began to grapple anew with racism and the legacy of slavery. One part of the historical reflection has focused on dismantling monuments dedicated to those who upheld the enslavement of Black people. Another part lies in the process of recognition, learning about the places where people contributed to or fought against slavery.

Residents of Chelsea need only look to their own neighborhood to find a place anchored in the history of 19th century New York.

The Lamartine Place Historic District, a group of twelve Greek-Revival style buildings on the north side of West 29th Street between Eighth and Ninth Avenues, remains the only documented Underground Railroad stop in Manhattan - and a target during the Civil War Draft Riots of 1863.

Among the neighborhood’s two most prominent white residents at the time: Abigail Hopper and James Sloan Gibbons. The couple, according to an official report on the district, designated their home as a meeting place for influential abolitionists and a marked stop for enslaved people on the run to Canada.

Letters and descriptions from the home paint a Northern-Antebellum tableau, one dotted with prominent historical figures. Publisher and social reformer William Lloyd Garrison stopped by. So did the Grimke sisters, white female advocates of abolition and women’s rights.

However, Black people escaping the horrors of slavery stood in the foreground, the recipients of safe shelter and aid.

The Gibbons were taking a risk, according to Robert Churchill, an associate professor of history at the University of Hartford and author of the recent book, “The Underground Railroad and the Geography of Violence in Antebellum America.”

New York City was an odd outpost, Churchill said in a phone interview with Chelsea News: “It’s not contiguous with the South, and yet the city has a long history of racial violence. A long history of anti-abolitionist violence.”

Mobs in the City

Part of the mutual hatred stemmed from the city’s commercial ties with the South. Violence erupted in March 1863, when Congress passed the “Act for Enrolling and Calling Out the National Forces,” the first national draft calling men to the Civil War.

White working class New Yorkers were outraged. What ostensibly started as a protest of the conscription-lottery system turned to a larger antipathy toward freed Blacks. As mobs moved around the city, they looted stores, set fires and attacked any Black person who happened to cross their path.

The Gibbons home was ransacked in the process. On the day of the riot, Abigail and her daughter were working at a hospital in Maryland. John was at home with two of their other children. Sensing the group of rioters was near, John and his daughters moved to a safe place.

Taken as a whole, Lamartine Place is an urban microcosm for the divided reactions to racist institutions. The Gibbons’ service on the Underground Railroad represents legitimate attempts to further the cause of Black freedom. The Draft Riots stand in for the often-inevitable backlash against social justice.

Today, Lamartine Place is marked by a small brown sign placed on the midsection of a street pole. It is easy to miss. The text is small and the spacing tight.

Simeon Bankoff, Executive Director of New York’s Historic Districts Council, cautions against disapproval over the plaque’s size. Rather, Bankoff suggests focusing on the fact that the area was designated as a historical site in 2009.

“As part of the official record, this [site] is now commemorated. This is now officially part of New York City’s History,” Bankoff said.

He wants people to think of signage as a starting point for further inquiry. “Anybody who looks this [district] up can go and find an official city document” and explore the site’s legacy.

“We are still recovering the stories of this violence,” Churchill said. “There are a lot of stories of anti-Black violence, anti-abolitionist violence, pro-slavery violence, that really we’re just ... beginning to grapple with.”

“The city has a long history of racial violence. A long history of anti-abolitionist violence.” Robert Churchill, author and associate professor of history at the University of Hartford