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Hofstra Papers in Anthropology
Summer Dig in Lloyd Manor

Hofstra Papers in Anthropology

Article #3, Volume 5, 2010

Life on “The Green:”

An analysis of the development of African American community in 19th century Jamaica, Queens

by Jamie Atkinson


The history of slavery in southeastern United States lives through countless diaries, letters and novels as well as in journals and books of academic and human interest. All of these sources outline the conditions, lifestyles and the general culture of a community of people struggling to find their voice in America. However, the history of slavery within the northeastern states, which differs markedly from the story of the south, still remains largely unanalyzed.

Jamaica, New York lacks historically recorded and organized information about its slavery population and about cultural changes as the community evolved from a rural, primarily Caucasian farming community into a culturally and racially diverse, high traffic metropolitan city. This research provides individuals seeking a better picture of slavery in the New York City and Long Island regions are empty handed in regards to one of the oldest surviving African American communities in the five boroughs. Existing literature speaks in blanket terms, as a generalized evolution of community and lacks the intimate details that built and inspired change. Without a closer look at this change of local ideology, we are stranded without a true understanding of how community develops and adapts to vast changes in cultural norms.

This research focuses on the Village of Jamaica, Queens County, New York. Relatively speaking, the demographics of this neighborhood changed rapidly over a century and a half. It began as an agriculturally-based community of predominately Caucasian landowners that functioned in conjunction with an institution of slavery and slave trade. Juxtaposed to bustling Manhattan, 19th century Jamaica was primarily composed of the summer plantations of the influential persons of the time. It was the home of New York politician and slavery opponent Rufus King’s plantation, which still stands as a principle landmark in Jamaica and as a reminder of their village’s past.

Through informants at King Manor Museum, I was told of rumors about a small, freed person’s community just south of the Long Island Rail Road tracks that flourished in the mid 19th century. In my research, I focus on the parameters of time that this community itself entails, as was determined through research. This indicates the inception of the independent freed persons community, referred to as both “The Green,” and the “Douglaston Community,” sometime around 1830, it’s eruption between 1830 and 1840, and the development in the following 50 years.

The Village of Jamaica, and subsequently the New York City Archives via Queens Public Library provide well-recorded historical documents that would not likely be saved in other regions of the Northeast. Using these documents, maps and other various research methods, I reconstructed the storyline of The Green from humble beginnings as farmland to the industrial park is has developed into. This storyline can be used as a model for the development of minority communities during a turbulent time of abolition and civil war. 

This research will also influence the historical picture of Jamaica. It reveals a period of disruption and confusion in what is generally regarded as a peaceful village throughout the 19th century. It shows a community riddled with multiple perspectives on the freedom of “colored” persons, from acceptance, to civil regard and as far as intolerance for their community. It depicts the struggles of a sometimes-radical taskforce of educated freed persons and their attempts to advance their segregated culture not only in Jamaica, but also all around New York City and the nation.

Overview of Data Collection

The project initially began as a general investigation into the lifestyles of freed persons before the outbreak of the Civil War. I chose Jamaica because of its accessibility, history of African American occupation and because there are several historical and archaeological foundations that are based there. Christopher Matthews, an archaeologist teaching at Hofstra University who specializes in African Diaspora, public archaeology and Long Island archaeology, also influenced my site decision.

I reviewed census records to try to find trends that could indicate an African American community being formed in Jamaica. I imported the contents of the handwritten documents, accessed through the online historical records database ancestory.com, into a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet. Because there were over 500 pages of records, the process took well over 3 months to review. In order to expedite the process, I reached out to resources at King Manor Museum and the Queens Public Library, who indicated that some smaller articles and newspapers mention development of an African community south of the main hub of Jamaica. Research into this community resulted in a document produced by Central Queens Historical Society. This document drew a timeline of  the history of Jamaica and Queens County that included the name a freed person, Wilson Rantous, who purchased a plot of land on “The Green” for $120, a sizable amount of money for someone of color to be able to spend (Gottlieb 2006). The significance of such a large purchase by an African American suggested that he was a person of interest. With this name, I researched him further in a very thorough, but without scholarly reference, presentation of African Americans in Jamaica’s history written by Inner Explorations, a Christian organization that focuses on mysticism and Eastern religions. I accessed a file of his personal documents at the Queens Public Library’s Long Island Division, who saved them likely due to his influence on Queens and New York history. These papers, both personal and business related, indicated his activity and influence in the area was important and revolutionary. Also at the archives, I reviewed maps from the area dating back to 1842, many of which were labeled with the names of the property owners. The Sanborn Company, which documents all areas of Jamaica for reference use by insurance companies, mapped the area multiple times, with the structures diagrammed including information about building materials.

The project evolved into an attempt to recover the identity of this community and study how its development influences Jamaican history and attitudes toward abolition. I looked at court dockets, newspapers both African and European-American and personal records to piece together the perspective of the community and observe how they interacted.

I walked the area to inspect how the community has developed. The Long Island Rail Road expanded into part of the property. The entire community developed into an industrial area, largely occupied by auto shops and factory loading docks. There are a handful of lots that have not been developed into industrial complexes, including one lot with potential to be examined for archaeological record.

My background research consists primarily of the history of Jamaica, but also of the history of slavery in New York. I reviewed articles involving the struggle for abolition and fair education in Jamaica, which was well-documented throughout the 20th century but leaves a vague 70-year space between the abolition of slavery and the first successful attempts at integration of school systems.

Previous research into Queens County slavery

The institution of slavery on Long Island developed differently from the rest of the colonies because of their historical background, methods of purchasing/trading chattel, the work slaves were purchased to do and the physical restrictions of the geography of Long Island. However, despite these variations, the way the abolitionist development took root and evolved is an accurate representation of how rights were achieved in other areas outside of Jamaica.

Dutch colonialists purchased Long Island from Native Americans in 1656. Settlers, originating in Hempstead, petitioned the government pleading for more land to reduce the overcrowding of the population.  Institutionalization of slavery was recent to them, however it did not resonate typical characteristics found in other areas of the colonies (Peyer 1977). Without any sort of licensing system, the first decades of the slave trade were high volume and turbulent. By as late as the 1740’s, Long Island still contained more enslaved Africans than the rest of the colonial regions. Dutch, who enslaved Native Americans as well, carefully initiated a system of distribution of chattel on the island and assigned ships to ports based on what the government believed would benefit the colonists (Moss 1993). Slowly, as the idea of recognizing the rights of the enslaved began to spread, the American Revolution took hold and shook the area’s legislative stance on the matter. Slavery in the area evolved as a unique institution primarily due to the geographic and historic contingencies of Long Island (Moss 1993).  Long Island’s institution, in one way, depicts a small-scale version of how slavery worked across the colonial United States by being integrally connected to the economic and political climate of the city, state and country. The slaves were not unique to the area by many standards; however it was New York’s metropolitan area that cultivated their dynamic nature. The Island’s institution is quite representative of the way urban slavery institutions took shape.

Slaves arrived via trans-Atlantic vessels. The two primary methods used to buy and sell chattel was to be sold directly from ship’s captains or routed through Manhattan and auctioned on street corners of what is now downtown’s financial district. Long Islander’s maintained a sense of “historical anonymity” in that the trade of slaves consisted mainly between family, friends, neighbors and business partners (Moss 1993).  The trade of slaves outside of the area involved not only the cost of transportation, but also the cost of living expenses. This reduction in interaction with outside areas created a vacuum within the slave community, unable to hear news of outside struggles nor were they able to escape Long Island legally without being freed. Slaves were merely shuffled around the Island, rather than sold across long distances. Without any vibrant and thriving African community to assimilate into, runaway slaves were quickly reacquired by their owners (Peyer 1977).

Another unique facet of the institution was the commonplace of an enslaved African purchasing himself or another to freedom. Slaves on the Island did not have an escape route that slaves in the other colonies often utilized. They were trapped on Long Island within their owner’s watch, enforced not only by the statues that limited physical mobility and economic dependence but also by the physical barriers of the Island’s shores and the carefully watched beaches (Moss 1993). The only way to escape the Island was a treacherous swim, commercial transportation, or being smuggled off by boat. However, because of the nature of the this vaccum, the connections necessary outside of Long Island to escape were either insufficient or nonexistent (Peyer 1977).

Long Island also lacked the agricultural diversity of other institutions, with harsh winters preventing year-long crop rotations, which caused an influx in the domestic use of chattel and use in slaveholder’s other endeavors and commerce. Functioning through this non-plantation system of slavery, Islanders cultivated an institution that was self-dependent (Moss 1993). Slaves were multi-talented; a necessity bore from spending half the year in the fields and the remaining time doing various odd jobs.

This system of slavery continued to develop through the middle of the 18th century, when abolitionist schools of thought began developing throughout the nation. Initially, legislation regarding slavery was a rigid enforcement of the institution. “Black Codes,” considered by some scholars as the most severe criminal laws in the northern colonies, legitimized the brutal treatment of slaves by owners. Common convictions such as forgery, burglary and treason, which were often slaps on the wrists of the white population, were punishable by death for not only enslaved, but even freed Africans (Arraj 1971).

However, as the population grew and conditions for enslaved peoples worsened, the idea of freedom took hold.  Upper-class individuals, often carrying political and social affluence, began to see the lack of economic value of slaves on Long Island. With reasons dwindling and tensions rising politically, it became even easier for these leaders to become abolitionists (Peyer 1977). These ideas resonated even louder in the farming community of Jamaica, where delegate to the Continental Congress, Constitutional Convention and future New York senator Rufus King resided at his plantation mansion.

From 1656-1776, Jamaica had 35 citizens who owned 59 slaves, as according to wills and town records. While the number may seem small, it was the largest slave community on Long Island.  As early as 1800, there were already over 15 freed Africans living within the town limits (Peyer 1977). The number of enslaved individuals buying their freedom was rising, however Africans still found themselves adrift in a white community without refuge from discrimination. After over 20 years of legislative battle, the Gradual Emancipation Act passed in 1799, ordering the release of all chattels by 1827 (Arraj 1971). The Act, which did not enforce an immediate change in laws or statutes, only enforced a racial segregation in the majority of the state. In fact, over the next two decades, the African population of the Island grew almost 25% as slave traders tried to make as much profit as possibly on their dying profession (Moss 1993). However, in Jamaica, the institution of slavery began fading away already.  In the first federal census, predating the Act by almost a decade, Jamaica had 1,398 whites, 221 slaves and 65 freed blacks. And despite a lack of thorough information, many freed persons being without last names and independent housing, their recognition as individuals was a clear representation of the political stance of New York (Arraj 1971). 

 Motions were made in the community, both by and independent of the local government, to create an environment for the freed blacks. Each passing census record showed the numbers shifting to reflect the impending emancipation. Struggling to find a unifying factor between Africans, churches began serving as the sole source of community, often being the only form of social communication for a population that was largely uniform in occupation and highly uneducated. Articles in an 1819 issue of the Long Island Farmer indicate a growing concern of the community not on the social or political condition of the African community, but that the potential risk that they may be raising their children without regard to the Bible (Arraj 1971). According to the article, it is then that the local governments appointed community leaders begin laying a foundation for strictly colored churches, not only in Jamaica but in Flushing as well.Without the ability to read and write, newspapers were improbable sources of information for the community, giving the influence of parishioners and priests a high priority ( Rose and Webb 1985). Recognizing the importance of the church, over the course of the later 19th century, the black community began to found their own independent churches. However, scholarly works make little to no mention of this or any other development of the community (Greene 1992).

 Local historians make mention of several names of black abolitionists foreign to the common discussion of Queens History. Wilson Rantous, born in Jamaica in 1807 to farm laborers, is one of the few to cultivate lasting change in Jamaica. Educated and financially more stable than his counterparts, Rantous owned several plots of land on what is now referred to as “The Green” (MacMaster 1962). While very little is written on Rantous, records of his estate and correspondence were salvaged. Working with Thomas Hamilton, an African American journalist who founded and contributed to several African newspapers such as The Colored American and The Anglo-African Magazine, Rantous had a heavy hand in the development of the Green and its influence.
It is here however, that the African community’s written history fades away. Without the enforcement of bold lined legislation in history, the evolution of the community becomes increasingly vague despite a relatively large amount of primary data. General accounts of Jamaican history make no mention of the institution of slavery ever existing, only that it is abolished or the impact it had on their community (Mans). When slavery is brought forward, it is regarded as not only a miniscule presence in their past, but that the relationship between races and social classes was relatively peaceful. History strands the African community at an important juncture and resumes their history only when the Civil Rights movement begins.

Movement of Africans and development of socio-spatial organization

I investigated the suggestion that there was a freed African community forming in Jamaica initially through census records. I expected to see a gradual increase in freed persons and that these freed persons would be gradually moving closer together spatially. This flux in organization and population would suggest the unification of the freed persons into a community, rather than continuing to be spread out from one another.

 From the 1790 census records, 77.3% of the 287 persons of non-European descent were enslaved.  Most freed Africans were listed without a last name, suggesting that they were still primarily taken care of by their white head of house. While they count as an independent person and household in the overall tally of households, they are listed slightly indented into the body, suggesting that they are still of the household ahead of them. Of the 65 freed Africans, only one household of five individuals, headed by Townsend Santon, was listed independent of a white head of house.

In the 1800 census, the African population, both freed and enslaved, saw a large spike. The method of recording census data differed greatly from the previous census, so it is unrealistic to predict specific changes in the living situations of freed Africans. There were five independent African households on the 1800 census, three of which were recorded in a row, possibly suggesting that they took residence near each other.  Of the 63 slaveholding households, 29 also contained a freed colored person. This reflects the trend suggested by Moss that slaves often purchased themselves, however freed persons in white households could also be the result of indentured serventhood.

The percentage of Africans continued to rise through 1810, when over 50% of the persons were freed, with 153 of 293 freed persons accounted for. Because of the way the census is structured, the data regarding how many of these colored persons were of independent households is unclear. However, it is clear that the population of freed Africans, while there is no evidence of spatial organization, was growing rapidly. In addition, while few records have been kept regarding the racial tensions in the area at this time between this population and those of European descent, it is clear from an ordinance passed that there was a significant split between the two. The law, passed on August 28th, 1815, opens as follows:

“Whereas the practice of assembling together of persons of colour in the streets or highways, lanes, alleys and on stoops contiguous to the streets in the village of Jamaica, at night has been introduced and carried to an extent which unless restrained Is calculated to produce disorder and licentiousness. I be it ordained by the Trustees of the Village of Jamaica that from and after the 4th day of September next it shall not be lawful for persons of colour to assemble after sunset on ant of the streets or highways….to drink, play, sing, wrestle or any other purpose whatever and that all and every person present at such assembly in aforesaid shall forfeit and pay the sum of five dollars for every offense…Be it further ordained…it shall not be lawful for any tavernkeeper or person licensed to retail strong or spirituous liquors after sunset in the village of Jamaica to sell to any person of colour under the penalty of 20 dollars for each offense.”

The enactment of laws of this nature indicate that assemblages were common, often rowdy, and that the community either saw it as a threat to their safety or a threat to their authority to govern the colored persons of Jamaica in a social context.

The 1820 census lacked organization by  township, so we are unable to determine the statistics of freed persons. If Jamaica followed the overall trend of Queens County, the percentage of African Islanders that were enslaved would continue to dwindle as the general African American population grew. It is indicated by records of Grace Church that the black community had not become independent enough from the European majority to mandate the creation of their own recreational establishments, such as Churches. Records of Grace Church indicate that, in 1822, they were still allocating pews, which were sold to white citizens, to black members of the congregation “free of contribution.” The church allocated four middle pews in the back of the gallery for this specific use.

In 1830, the census became significantly more organized and increased in length due not only to booming population growth, but also due to the abolition of slavery statewide.  However, despite its legality, the census still leaves space for slaves owned. At this point in time, Jamaica Township was the third largest town in Queens County and despite a burgeoning African American population, there still appears to be no spatial organization as reflected by the census. It does appear that certain areas of the community are more prone to white households that contain freed persons; however, the freed persons continue to be listed as individuals of the household. There are several small clusters of African households, ranging from three to five households per group, that are listed together, however they do not represent a substantial spatial area of growth.

It is not until the 1840 census that government records show a clear residential organization of black citizens. Several groups of eight to twelve households formed, perhaps representing streets or blocks within the community. By 1850, these groups had linked together to form larger communities of almost 60 persons. Almost none of these residents, however, held any real estate, meaning they rented their dwellings and often shared them amongst multiple households. Black households independent of large groups typically revolved around one to three black farmers who owned their properties. Adjacent to them would be black households led by someone listed as a laborer. It is probable that these living arrangements suited a farmer-laborer agreement between colored households. Not only did this increase employment within the African community, this would also lessen the racial tension of a white person, regardless of their immigration date, acting as a laborer to a black individual. Several instances of this reversal I cultural norms could have caused high stress on the community, even if those involved were ambivalent.

The 1850 census reveals clear social class neighborhoods. The majority of the blocks of black residents are isolated from white households that hold higher valued real estate and personal properties. These African communities are typically bookended by groups of immigrants from England and Ireland, who are similar to freed Africans in that they are primarily laborers, function in multiple-family households and rented their dwellings. Despite a diverse population, a black community is clearly outlined, containing well over 20 households and 100 individuals.

Geographical view of the Green

Knowledge of the geographical and cartographic contingencies of The Green and Jamaica is necessary to understand the ways in which the evolution of community can be seen physically on maps. There are several sets of maps that support the existence of The Green. On historical maps dating in the 19th and early 20th century, The Green is located on Willow St., Douglass St., and South St., between Canal St. and Larch Ave. On modern maps, the best streets that outline the area are Douglass St. and what is now Liberty Avenue, formerly South St., between 168th street and 175th street. Only one street has been constructed through the properties, and that is 170th street, which is a continuation of a pre-existing street, however the name runs off the map. These maps show that the properties evolved from larger sets of land that likely operated as farms, to smaller lots sold as individuals in bulk. At some point in time between 1840 and 1870, the properties were redefined into narrow lots, likely to lower the price of property in the area. Narrower lots would also be more consistent with the purpose of the area, which had shifted from farming to residential and small business.

A January 9th, 1858 article published in The New York Times states that “when the law of 1822 [sic: 1822] abolished [S]lavery in the State of New York, much cheap land was found on the island, as this was offered at a very small rate, the colored people took benefit of the sale to  purchase homesteads for themselves.” Initially, the property and names listed on the maps do not indicated ownership by black families. A majority of the maps examined reveal data about the properties, such as structures built on the lots and property owners. Maps as early as 1842 place specific black individuals to properties on Douglass St and South St between 170th and 175th streets. It appears that over time, the actual property owners shift from white persons renting out their properties to black persons purchasing.

While these lots have since been redefined, an aerial perspective of the modern Green reveals that the terrain and structures built still reflect the narrow lot layout. Only one property, 16829 Liberty Ave., remains undeveloped.  On this property appears to be the east wall of a structure. On the Liberty Ave property, according to an 1872 Beers map (Appendix D) cross referenced with an aerial view of the modern landscape (Appendix F),it appears that this same lot was the location of a shared wall between two buildings.

Citizens of the Green’s influence on the community and the nation

The same article that articulated the availability of property and the development of colored community expresses concerns not that the African population’s children were uneducated, but that they could possibly lacked education in the teachings of the Bible. Because public schools in the area did not allow attendance of colored persons and no school was provided for them, the article criticizes the public for forcing individuals to step in to remedy the matter.

One of these individuals is Wilson Rantous. Rantous purchased property on The Green in 1827 for $120. He eventually owned six properties on The Green and two properties elsewhere in the town of Jamaica, three on the south side of Douglass St, three lots on the north side of South St and two properties on the west side of Carroll St. According to 1842 village maps (Appendix A), Rantous (listed as “W. Ranters,” one of many variations of Rantous’ name) constructed a building on the southern side of his combined properties, right along South St.

Through preserved documents, Rantous proves to have large influence on the development of the community. He spearheads the foundation of the “Colored Persons Loge [Lodge],” a group of individuals whose purpose for meeting remains unclear however, contained several households within the Green. While Rantous is listed as a farmer on the majority of his census records, it is clear he held an authority within the community past that of a citizen. Within his records are several meetings and logs of groups of which he was a part. He acted as a minister to a church, though it is unclear from these papers whether he acted as a contingent of a chapter of Grace Church, created by the white community for the freed persons, or perhaps as a member of the African Methodist Episcopalian (A.M.E.), both of which were founded for the intentions of the education of freed persons. These establishments served two primary purposes. The first was as a source of education for the youth of the black population. Without an organized education system available, almost all education was instructed through Sunday school classes at the churches. Despite paying taxes on education, no colored persons were allowed to attend the public schools in Jamaica. The second purpose was to give a foundation and home to the community, allocating a place for its members to meet not only for religious services, but for public matters as well.

Within his personal papers are letters to black journalist Thomas Hamilton. Frequently through the letters, Hamilton refers to the financial relationship between he and Rantous. Hamilton, who according to 1870 village maps (Appendix B) owned 6 lots directly across Douglass St. from Rantous, resided primarily in Manhattan and Brooklyn in order to run his newspapers. A large number of the letters (Appendix C) between them imply that Hamilton owed Rantous a larger sum of money; however, it does not appear that Rantous was pressuring Hamilton to repay him. Within the letters, Hamilton often promises amounts of money, only to come up short when he says he will pay. It is evident that there is a personal relationship between Rantous and Hamilton, as most letters from Hamilton opens with “Friend Rantous” and closes with regards to the Rantous family, specifically Jane Rantous, Wilson’s wife. Rantous assisted Hamilton in the collection of rent from Hamilton’s tenants and checking in on construction on the properties as well. It appears as though Rantous was Hamilton’s primary avenue through which his contact and work was conducted. Rantous undoubtedly kept notes on all his tenants’ payment schedules. From a notebook among his personal papers, we see that he was quite lenient on some tenants, often adjusting their amount due for the month or accepting late payments. 

The primary effort of Hamilton and Rantous appeared to be the establishment of a school for the colored children. From newspaper clippings from the period’s newspapers, such as an article in the Long Island Democrat, and records from the Newtown Registrar, the first colored school recognized by the Village of Jamaica was completed in October of 1886. However, it is clear that this is not the establishment that Rantous and Hamilton specifically built. Letters from Hamilton in 1858 outline struggles with getting the Board of Education to recognize the need for the school. An 187 Beers map (Appendix D) indicates that there was a colored school established on the property of J. Anthony, Rantous’ neighbor on the Douglass St. side of his property. However, it is unsure as to the cause, but the structure, while labeled, is said to have burned down shortly after the map is created as indicated by sources within the community and the presence of a blacked out structure labeled “Colored School” on the 1873 Sanborn map

Almost all of Hamilton’s letters come from the heading of the “Office of the Anglo African.” The Anglo African, a radical African American newspaper Hamilton wrote for when it was both a magazine and later as a weekly, often mirrored on a larger scale the efforts outlined between Rantous and Hamilton in their letters. While Rantous and Hamilton never explicitly outline the reasons for Hamilton’s perpetual debt, it is known that Hamilton is the sole publisher and editor of The Anglo African Magazine. Hamilton also supported a family as well (though it is not specified whether it is his own family), and writes in a December 1859 article about his appreciation for those supporting him emotionally and financially.

“Started without capital, the Magazine has been maintained through the year, owing at the present moment but a few hundred dollars—two facts almost unparalleled in American magazine literature and which are alone attributable to the untiring assidity, skill and business energy of the Publisher.  Entirely single-handed, with a family dependent on him for their support, Mr. Thomas Hamilton has kept the Magazine afloat through difficulties, discouragements, embarrassments, not unmingled with radiant gleams of sunshine, which, if written out would make up an interesting book in themselves; and to-day Mr. Hamilton stands up as vigorous as  ever, and determined to keep on, relying for support on his patrons, but still more on the overruling Providence of the Almighty."

The financial backing for a magazine with such high circulation and content in 1859 would have required more than simply a journalist’s earnings. The money Hamilton owed Rantous could have been lent to ease the cost of production. Rantous, who has substantial property not only in Jamaica, but also a farm in Flushing, would have had a significant amount of money earned between collecting rent on properties in the area and the profits from his farm. He owned enough property that by his death in 1861, his belongings and properties were bundled into an estate left to his wife Jane and Amos Denton, a white Jamaican resident who came from a family rooted in Jamaica for almost 100 years. Furthermore, The Anglo-African takes a hiatus in 1861 for four years, mentioning financial troubles in some of its final issues. Therefore, it is very likely that Rantous had the funds to help support the paper, however his death caused an isolation of the funds from his estate and hindered the production of the newspaper. It would also explain why Hamilton, who spoke colloquially enough in the text of the letters to imply a friendship between the two past abolitionist work, wrote all his letters under the heading of “The Office of the Anglo-African.”

The Anglo-African Magazine, and later The Anglo-African Weekly,publications were well read, both in the local New York state and across the country. Many of the articles written advised ways for freed persons to adjust to a life without slavery, many of which had proactively begun in Jamaica over a decade before. The publication served a course reader for Southern states in the wake of abolition and Africans still adjusting to the idea of being freed. Articles common to the publication included stories about the threats of a partially abolished country, news on the status of runaways who had been recaptured, advice for freed persons and commentary on slanderous and defamatory remarks.

Reports in the Weekly Anglo-African indicated that persons were going to great lengths to detain African Islanders or transport them to where slavery was still present. Despite slavery having successfully been abolished over 20 years before, the looming danger of slavery still remained in the hearts of many African Americans in Jamaica. It was not uncommon for agents, sent to northern states to hunt down runaways, to take members of the African community and smuggle them back in replacement of a slave they deemed lost. Many jobs were not safe for Africans to work, such as sailors. In an 1859 article, Anglo-African shares the story of a colored sailor accused in Georgia of attempting to lure a slave onto the ship to escape the state. While he had a white captain and his crewmates testifying that he was documented to be on the ship at the time, he was accused and convicted of attempting to lure a slave onto a ship to facilitate escape. He was sentenced to pay $500 and court costs within 10 days or he would be sold into slavery. His accuser, a known swindler in the community, likely was working to increase the amount of slaves in the area and to broaden the slave market. Anglo-African also commonly made reports of what ships were believed to be still participating in the slave trade.

Hamilton and his correspondents were very optimistic about their impact on their readers and continued to pass along their wisdom in hopes to see reform. Another article published in June of 1860 encouraged readers to purchase farmland. The paper urged readers to look into moving to New Jersey, as property values were lower and much more suitable to start up operations of colored persons. The same issue urged all African American citizens be sure to participate in the census, despite “great blunders, and utter indifference as to any shadow of correctness on the part of the census-taker.” This indicates that past census officials took little regard to the accuracy of reports involving African Americans, likely skewing the numbers within census against African Islander favor.

The articles published not only discussed local problems, but also addressed racial tensions nationwide. While all the articles written in the publication were in favor of the African cause, many of the articles became very tongue-in-cheek and sometimes erred on the side of subdued radicalism. Early issues of the Anglo-African indicated differences between the perspectives of slavery, saying that “a southern man likes to make a slave, [but] a northern man likes to make a good servent.” It continued to resonate that “the south are wide awake to the value of the colored people” and that slavery was becoming less of a hatred of skin color and more of a love of money. Another article segregates African Americans into two groups, those who believe social elevation is dependent on obtaining “refined education,” and those who believe labor was the only effective means of promotion. In one article, Hamilton suggested that the primary challenge that reflected the major difference between the races was how they responded to life’s difficulties, with one race viewing problems as opportunities to triumph and excel and the other as inevitable failure. An 1861 issue indicates a plan to change the name of the paper to a more appropriate title, however it never specifies the title that it will continue to run under.
After a period of silence between 1861 and 1865, the Anglo-African resurfaced as a weekly and resumed exactly where they had left off. They boasted an international circulation with issues being exported as far as Haiti. They were not shy to accuse other publications of blatant racism, and were heralded by progressive white publications, such as the Pittsburgh Dispatch. However, the paper shifted its focus from advice to social commentary. It is clear that the newspaper was getting a rise out of many members of the community; a letter from the editor cited an incident where a displeased reader stormed his office. He suggested that those opposed to his writing act in the appropriate manner and write their concerns, rather than resorting to physical harassment. The opposition to the publications standpoint is likely because the articles in the new editions of The Anglo-African indicated a more theoretical approach to why abolitionists were struggling. The publication still urged patrons to be wary of their actions, specifically a September 1865 article that advised caution when purchasing from businesses that supported discrimination. He suggested that it was only logical to continue “withholding our patronage from those who are entitled to it from the fact that they cherish a different feeling towards us.” Hamilton and his correspondents, most of whom who lived in New York City, owned properties and held active roles in other communities near such as Jamaica and Flushing. They were likely speaking to and influenced by their peers, who struggled with these racial relations on a daily basis.

Race relations and struggles on the Green

The major discrepancy in the portrayal of Jamaican history is that the relations between the races were relatively peaceful. Likely a result of bias in popular media, it is clear that there was turbulence within the communities that more often than not resulted in violence.

The strongest support of the violent struggles between the races is outlined in a petition found in Rantous’ personal papers. Dated June 8th, 1853 it reads:

“To the trustees of the village of Jamaica,
A number of color people having met to gather for the purpose of sending a petition to you moast onerable authority praying that we may be protected by the law of the sad villadge and county from being beating by a certain body of men, meeting in the house of Mr. M. P. Hollens, Washington street, north side of Fulton street not upholden a certain class of people who make it a point of standing in the streets and drinking and blatpheaming but praying that the law of aid town and county may be instructed [sic[ such persons not to be beaten by a body of men, not only them but those who have no abode in this villadge to perches our grovery and return to our dwellings nad have been beeten and insulted by this club or body of men therefore we appeal to you for protection and if you can not protect us we must protect ourselves for we can not be beaten.
Your obedien[t] servents.”

The letter is then signed by over 25 citizens of the Green. The petition brings up several important points. Not only are the racial tensions in Jamaica causing violence between their own populations, but it appears those who do not live in Jamaica are traveling into the town to prevent the community from developing by blocking their access to essentials, such as access to the grocery and safe passage within their community. Furthermore, they imply in the last line that the authorities are not addressing the matter, forcing them to resort to “protect[ing] themselves.” This is not the only report Rantous had a hand in. In the minutes from a town meeting on May 26th of an unspecified year, it is recognized that Rantous and William Johnson filed formal complaints about the occupants of a house owned by Mr. Servass in Douglass as being “riotous and disorderly.” The village, appearing to be proactive, formed a committee to investigate however records regarding their findings and actions have not been recovered.

The issues between the races were not solely on the backs of the white population. It appears there were significant legal problems between black citizens and the community, many of which revolved around violent crime such as battery and assault. A court docket revealed several crimes that persons of color were accused and/or convicted of. Most of the assaults recorded in court dockets were the result of a black man attacking a white man. In fact, none of the summaries listed in the court documents included crimes of a white man on black men, despite evidence that it was prevalent in the community. This could possibly be due to a lack of police presence on the Green or that authorities tended to turn a blind eye to discriminatory violence. Cases that involved a colored man being tried or convicted of a crime often carried the penalty of a fine, usually between three and twenty dollars, or an alternative 30 days in jail. This is a dramatic difference from similar crimes committed by white members of the community, that rarely carried jail time and often the person or persons involved were acquitted. It is probable that violent crime against white individuals by black individuals was self-defense, as the petition alluded to in its final lines. Some of the names in the court docket were repeated and the name George Anthoney stood out, due to its similarity to “J.Anthoney,” the owner of the property that the first colored school was constructed on in the mid 1860s.  Another case that stood out was allegations of four women stealing from a shop. Three white women, who admitted to stealing stockings and sewing paraphernalia, were acquitted of their crime while a black woman, accused of the same crime in the same court docket entry, was convicted. There was also minor evidence of violence within the African American community, primarily minor assault charges that usually were acquitted.

However, despite the disturbance between the racial communities, there appeared to be some form of tolerance, whether it be because of personal morals or economic necessity. It is clear that those of African descent did not all the property on The Green. There is evidence in the court dockets of white property owners in the area holding suit to collect unpaid rent. There are receipts in Rantous’ papers that he purchased often from Hendrickson’s Lumber Company, run by the Hendrickson family, another prominent family within the community. At Rantous’ death, his estate was left to his wife through the care of Amos Denton, likely because women of color could not be property holders. It is clear through the historical record that while the black community made significant advances in the pursuit of happiness and the peace to live within Jamaica, that they would not have succeeded without at least a small number of tolerant white members of the community willing to abstain from contributing to the racial tensions of the time.

Overall, several concepts stand out in my review of the primary data collected. Slaves developed into a freed person’s society through a gradual change in the structure and size of kin-based groups. These groups began as independent households sprinkled into the community. Over time they compounded into groups based on employment, such as farmer-laborer structure, and by geographic locality, such as small blocks and inns that rented to free persons at rates affordable enough for permanent housing. It is clear that while there is no sense of spatial organization, both the population and sense of community within the African islander population was flourishing. Around 1840, the groups amalgamated into small community that became structured around three streets across the tracks from the majority of the community. Without the ability to substantially farm on these properties, the community developed into a more urban setting but were unable to fully support themselves and subsequently influenced some choose to remain with their former owners rather than depart on their own.  Joined in their social class was a large influx of immigrants from England and Ireland, who were the largest population to interrupt the spatial organization of Africans in Jamaica.

Of those African islanders who chose to venture into society, many were challenged by the town’s social structure. It is clear from records, letters and newspapers that racial tensions were high and violence was prevalent, incited by both sides of the racial divide. And while doing business with white merchants was not a problem for black residents, it tended to be the safety of their transportation between destinations that threatened their safety.  This is indicated by the articles published in Anglo African Weekly and Anglo-African Magazine, personal records and petitions left in the Wilson Rantous papers and selections from court dockets preserved.  These documents also indicate heavy involvement and influence by Wilson Rantous and Thomas Hamilton, both educated African islanders that are attributed with founding the Green.

The geographical evidence drawn from historical and insurance maps from the time also indicate a conducive environment for the formation of a unique community within Jamaica. Narrow lots and streets that are closely set support the ability for those with artisan occupations to cultivate a community. These maps label property owners and create an affirmative spatial organization of the community. These maps also indicate alterations in boundaries and property lines over time.

Previous research supports the current historical perspective on the racial relations in Jamaica, New York. This perspective is that the two communities functioned relatively peacefully until segregation began to decompose is opposed by my data and findings. The idea that the relations were peaceful was suggested by the absence of information discussed. When racial tensions are discussed, they are dismissed as minor and common to the abolition of slavery. However, these beliefs do not take into account the important differences between the way that slavery on Long Island developed and the way the institution was structured in the rest of the nation. Peyer’s suggestion of the dangers involved in an illegal slave trade with the south and her concepts on the way slavery functioned on Long Island is strongly supported in my data.  My research supports the ideas that Moss discusses involving the exchange of slaves within Long Island and that slave were purchasing themselves.

This research, however, is merely a starting point for the investigation into The Green. Research can be continued into the relationship between education and religion on the Green. Alternative perspectives of events through newspapers should be analyzed to try to distinguish the amount of hyperbole and bias within the media and its immediate effect on the perception of the abolitionist movement in Jamaica. Information regarding the material culture of this community is still unexplored and could be addressed through probate records. In terms of actual excavation, while most of the property within The Green has been industrialized, there is one lot at 168-29 Liberty Avenue (formerly South St) that is undeveloped and appears to have the remains of a structural foundation on the premises (Appendix F). There is remaining unanalyzed data regarding the construction of an official Jamaican colored school and the issues that were faced by the community in obtaining acceptable education for their children. This research will shed further light on a modern, bustling neighborhood that has seen a vast demographic and economic change in the past 300 years and provide the community with a more complete insight into the development of their community.

Appendix A
Beers Map 1873

Appendix B
Aerial view of The Green as recorded by Google Maps

Appendix C
Jamaica, Queens 1842 Map
Surveyed and Drawn by Martin G. Johnson
Accessed at Queens Public Library

Appendix D
Jamaica, Queens, 1870 Map
Surveyed and laid out under the direction of the Board of Trustees—1868
By B.W. Conklin
Accessed at Queens Public Library

Appendix E
Census Records (conducted upon visitation):
State of New York, Queens County, Town of Jamaica: 1790, 1800, 1810, 1820, 1830, 1840, 1850, 1860


 Anglo-African Magazine
                  January, 1859

                  September, 1859

                  December, 1859
                                    August 12, 1865
                                    September 3, 1865
                                    September 3, 1865 (2)
                                    September 9, 1965
                                    October 7. 1865
                                    October 7, 1865 (2)

Weekly Anglo-African

August 27, 1859
September 3, 1859
September 24, 1859
October 7, 1859
October 15, 1859
December 31, 1859
March 3, 1860
March 24, 1860
April 7, 1860
April 14, 1860
June 2, 1860
June 9, 1860
June 9, 1860 (2)
June 23, 1860
July 7, 1860
July 14, 1860
November 24, 1860
January 26, 1861
March 23, 1861
May 4, 1861
August 31, 1861
September 7, 1861
November 16, 1861
November 23, 1861

Wilson and Jane Rantus Papers, 1834-1883. Control # R-1, Queens Public Library: Long Island Division.
                  Personal Record Book
                  Letters from Thomas Hamilton listed in chronological order with comment in brackets:

                                    September 15, 1854
                                    May 29, 1858 [from Office of                                                       the American                                                                         Abolition Society, 48                                                       Beekman Street, New                                                       York]
                                    January 14, 1960
                                    January 28, 1860
                                    March 24, 1860
                                    May 26, 1960
                                    June 2, 1960
                                    June 9, 1960
                                    December 15, 1860
                                    January 26, 1861
January 29, 1961 [from Office                                     of Anglo-American]
                                    February 2, 1961 [from Office                                                       of Anglo-American]
                                    March 9, 1961 [from Office of                                                       Anglo-American]
                                    One Undated Article

Petition to the Village of Jamaica
Manuscript [Possibly a sermon]
Personal Bills
Property and Education tax records dating between 1860 and 1880
Papers regarding the Colored Persons Loge
Receipt for purchases from Lumber Supplier
                  Will and death records

Newtown Register Index and Transcript of News Articles 1886-1890
Records of the Village of Jamaica; copied by Hariette Averill; WPA Project; Queens Borough Public Library, 1940.
Course Dockets, Queens Public Library, African-American Pre-1920 File.

Appendix F

169-29 Liberty Avenue (Formerly South St)
Aerial view compared with 1870 Board of Trustees Map

Works Cited

Arraj, James J. 1971 “A black history of Jamaica, Long Island.” Community Chatter, January 16, Vol. 16.

Greene, Veryl.  1992 “The Allen A.M.E. Church, Jamaica, NY, 1834-1900; The Role of the Black Church in a Developing 19th Century Community” in Afro- Americans in New York Life and History. Pp. 31-37. Buffalo: Afro-American Historical Association of the Niagara Frontier, Inc.

Gottlieb, Jeff. 2006 “History of Jamaica,” Central Queens Historical Society.

Hough, Franklin B. 1859 “New York State Census 1855.” Journal of the American Geographical and Statistical Society, Vol. 1, No. 7. Pp. 205-217. American  Geographical Society.

MacMaster, Richard K. 1962 “Wilson Rantus, Negro Leader.” Long Island Forum. July 1962.

Mans, William H.  “Desegregation in New  York: The Jamaica School War, 1895-1900.”

Moss, Richard Shannon . 1993 Slavery on Long Island: A study in local institutional and early African-American communal life. New York & London: Garland Publishing, Inc.

Peyer, Jean. (1977)  “Jamaica, New York, 1656-1776: Class structure and social mobility.” The Journal of Long Island History.

Queens Public Library 2008. African-American Leaders in Pre-Civil War Queens.

Rose, James and Margot Webb. 1985 “Early photographs and documents of African Americans in Queens County, New York.”
African-Americans in Queens County, New York, 1683-1983. Jamaica: Store Front Museum.

Hofstra Papers in Anthropology

Summer Dig in Lloyd Manor