A Black History of Jamaica, New York


Why a black history of Jamaica ? The best reason is simply because there is one. The black residents of Jamaica are not late-comers who have been here only for twenty or thirty years; they have lived here for over three-hundred years. What is more important is the fact that the problems of the black community today are ones they, have faced in slightly different forms for generations. Perhaps this long-range perspective might help a bit to motivate us to finally do something decisive about them.

History is about real flesh and blood people, and even though only tiny fragments have come down to us about the early black residents of Jamaica, we can see enough of them to appreciate them. It is to these people and their descendants that this short history is dedicated.


Jamaica was founded in 1656 by a small group of settlers from Hempstead. They felt crowded there, and so they purchased the neighboring land from the Indians and petitioned the Dutch governor of New York for the right to form another town.

Slavery was already a wide-spread institution in New York and on Long Island. However, there were also free black men in New York even before this time. For example, in 1644 eleven black men were given their freedom and granted land near what is present-day Greenwich Village. Another free black man, Franciscus the Negro, was one of the founders of the town of Bushwick in Brooklyn in 1660.

The first black men and women who lived in Jamaica, however, were most probably slaves. The number of slaves in the earliest days has not come down to us, but we know, for example, that in the neighboring town of Flushing in 1675 there were nineteen slaves listed. In Queens County, in 1698, there were 3,366 whites and 199 blacks. By 1737, one-seventh of Queens County was black, mostly slaves.

Slavery under the Dutch soon turned into slavery under the English, who took control of New York. The English were much harsher masters than the Dutch, and they enacted many racist laws while they gradually abolished the rights that black men had formerly possessed. Slave owners in the city tended to have a few skilled slaves apiece, who engaged in everything from baking to goldsmithing and candle-making. Slave owners in the country areas like Long Island also had few slaves to each master, since large-scale plantations were not suitable to the North. The slaves on the farms often worked side by side with their masters In the field, and this sometimes made their lot better than their brothers in the South. There was some contact between the city and the country slaves, for the country slaves used to come to Manhattan on shopping trips and holidays. Here they engaged in dancing contests, and formed secret social clubs, like the Geneva Club or the Long Bridge boys

But slavery was never a pleasant affair, and there were constant attempts by the slaves to run away, and even sometimes to rebel. In 1712, there was the infamous Maiden Lane incident. A band of slaves fresh from Africa stored weapons in the woods, and one night they secretly met and set fire to a nearby building. As the whites responded to the alarm they ambushed them, killing five and wounding six. The militia was called out, and the slaves were soon hunted down, brutally, tortured and killed.

This incident filled the slave owners with a deep-rooted fear, which was never to leave them as long as slavery lasted. Soon now repressive legislation was in action. Blacks were forbidden to own houses, and slave owners who wanted to free slaves had to post a bond before they did so. A slave could be given forty lashes for appearing on the street after dark without a lighted lantern or candle.

At Jamaica in this period we got tiny glimpses of slave life from notices and advertisements that appear in the local papers, For example, in 1672, Andres, a Negro slave of Capt. William Lawrence, was punished at Jamaica by being whipped with thirty-nine stripes, and branded on the forehead with a hot iron for having stolen some linen. In 1749, John Betts offered a three pounds reward for the return of his slave, Isaac a mulatto. Isaac was described as being 24 years old with "a very good head of hair and a felt hat". 1760 saw Richard Botts of Jamaica offering five dollars for his runaway slave Gastalio, who had "several cuts in his body, his two front teeth filed, and holes in both ears".

The turmoil of the Revolutionary War days found the slaves fleeing either from the British or the Americans to the freedom of the opposing side's lines. We read of the problems of Ray and Fitzsimons, merchants of Jamaica offering $10.00 reward for the return of their slave Hercules, "apt to stutter on surprise, had on velvet plush breaches and a wench young and lusty with 3 scars on each cheek". Close by, Luamino a runaway slave to the British, trespassed on the property of one Micah Williams. When Williams kicked him out, Luamino had him arrested by the British and eventually brought to Jamaica for shipment to New York and punishment. Williams then apologized, rather than defy Luamino's new-found protectors.

In 1741 the fear of whites of a black uprising manufactured a supposed slave plot to burn the city. The police in Manhattan were questioning some men and women in connection with a burglary. Among them was a woman named Mary Burton, who was a poor white servant in a tavern. Once Mary became the center of attention, it was not long before she started telling the authorities what they were much too ready to believe, namely, that Negroes were plotting to set the whole city afire, While she was testifying, a series of mysterious fires broke out, which were immediately blamed upon the slaves. Panic filled the city, and the witch hunt was on. The plot supposedly involved Long Island slaves who had formed a military company under the pretence of play, and were now ready to join the attack on the whites. In Jamaica three slaves named Will, Robin and Jack were arrested when they were overheard discussing the plot. Their conversation was as follows: Will said to Robin, "What think you of Corlears Hook or the plot?" "Damn it", replied Robin., "I'll have nothing to do with it or say to it. If the slaves will put their fingers in the fire, they must feel the pain; let them go on and prosper."

This, of course, was not very incriminating, and luckily all three were acquitted. But in the city, 18 blacks were hanged, 14 burned alive, and more than 70 deported to Africa. Mary Burton continued to point a finger, but this time at high placed whites, and she was quietly eased out of the picture.

Once the so-called plot was crushed, there was a general day of Thanksgiving decreed by the Governor, and we find Rev.Thomas Poyer of Grace Church in Jamaica delivering a sermon on the subject. Rev. Poter had also reported that there were "countless Negroes in the area", and this, no doubt, had helped to make the whites so fearful in the first place.

One of the repercussions of the plot was that the white owners feared more than ever any attempt to educate their slaves. Elias Neau was the director for the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel, which supported Anglican missionaries who worked among the Indians and the slaves. In the days of panic in 1741, Neau had to hide in fear of his life because two of his black students were implicated in the plot, and even though they were later cleared, this did not lessen the prejudice against his work.

The Society for the Propagation of the Gospel also sponsored missionaries for work in the Jamaica area. The first missionary was sent in 1702, but he died soon after he arrived. The first man to remain any length of time was the Rev. Thomas Colgan, who resided at Grace Church. In one month period he reports baptizing five Negroes, and then ten more a little later. In 1751 three persons were baptized followed by 18 more in 1752. This represents some of the earliest recorded ministry among the blacks, and the first attempts at education.

Some of the earliest Methodist preaching occurred in the Jamaica area in 1767. Capt. Thomas Webb, a retired British Army officer, who had lost an eye fighting the French at the siege of Louisburg, turned to preaching, and stirred his audiences with his one eye and his sword placed along side of his Bible. His wife had relatives in Jamaica, and his ardent preaching soon formed a Methodist Society In the area, consisting of 24 persons, half of whom were Negro.

By the 1760's slavery had become a political issue, and antislavery sentiment Increased during and after the Revolutionary War. It was hard to talk about independence and to completely forget about the slaves. But patriotism and humanitarianism were not the only forces at work. Slavery in the North was becoming more and more uneconomical, and it became easier for the rich to become Abolitionists when the slaves no longer brought them as much profit. With the movement towards emancipation In New York came the increased ability of the slave to bargain for his freedom. In order to have a docile slave who would work well, and not attempt to escape, his owner would promise freedom after so many years of work.

In 1785, emancipation almost became a reality In New York, but it was blocked because the majority of legislators "feared Negro suffrage more than they desired emancipation.'' Finally, in 1799, the Emancipation Act was passed, calling for the freedom of all the slaves by 1827.

The first federal census in 1790 gives us some exact figures about the black population in Jamaica. There were 1,398 whites, 65 free blacks and 221 slaves,, which would make Jamaica about l2 per cent black. This is by no means to say that in earlier times there could not have been even a higher percentage, since by 1790 slavery was on the way out. Most of the free black men in Jamaica had only one name at this point, like Peter and Israel and Elias. Some, however, had already taken a second name, and we find listed Jack Boss and Townsend Santon. The figures for the 1800 census remain about the same as those of 1790, but 1810 shows a decided increase in the number of free blacks (153) with the number of slaves decreasing to 140. By 1830, the process of emancipation had been completed, and the figures show 299 free black persons.

The approach of emancipation did not mean that the slaves were suddenly looked upon as people instead of objects. Often they were sold with the property they worked on: "For sale: Oct. 12, 1782. The pleasant and healthy situated farm of Joseph French, one quarter mile east of Jamaica...Also to be sold, the horses and the cows, hogs, wagons, cart and all the farming utensils and household furniture, a negro man, girl and woman who is an excellent cook".

There were certainly still plenty of incentives to run away, and the local papers carried advertisements for the return of runaway Jamaican slaves: "Jan. 2, 1786 ran away from Johannes Polhemus living at Jamaica a negro man Brock - supposed to be lurking somewhere in New York until he can get passage to Nova Scotia."

"Oct. 16, 1798 $4 reward and charges - ran away without hat or shoes from Edward Duffel, Jamaica South, a dark mulatto boy George, aged 12. He was brought from South Carolina last year."


Emancipation not only did not bring freedom, it in some ways even worsened the condition of the black man. The skills he had learned while he was a slave were taken over by white workers, and he was rigorously excluded. As more and more Negroes gained the right to vote in the early 1800s they supported the Federalist Party, which had voted for the emancipation. When the opposing Republican Party regained control, they proceeded to lower the property qualifications for the white voters and raise them for the black ones. This effectively limited the black vote to a very small minority until the passage of the Fifteenth Amendment in 1870.

In the years preceding 1827 there was a movement among some of the slave owners to sell their slaves South before the day of emancipation arrived. This vicious practice was followed in the years after 1827 by an even more brutal one. Gangs of thugs called Blackbirders roamed through the black ghettoes, kidnapping people and selling them Into slavery, It is easy to imagine the fear this Inspired in the black communities. Unfortunately it seems that Jamaica, too, had its own kind of Blackbirders who tried to pass off their actions as a sort of civic virtue. In March of 1848 at the town meeting of Jamaica a certain C. S. Watrous, a town trustee and prominent citizen, said that by his own expense he had placed a "long, low, black-looking schooner" off Rockaway, and conveyed several disorderly blacks on board to be transported South and sold as a means of intimidating others and rendering the streets more quiet. "For this he made no charge, and presumed that the public would give him credit for his liberalities". Some liberality.

It is these years, however, between the Emancipation and the Civil War that see the emergence of a sense of true community among the black people of Jamaica. The days of legal slavery are over, but the battle against prejudice is still to be won. The black men are no longer scattered throughout the community but are moved into ghettoes. But here they start the fight for freedom together. The consciences of some of the established churches become more awakened to the needs of the black community, and they start colored schools. We read in the Long Island Farmer of 1822: "In and about Jamaica are great numbers of colored people growing up in ignorance of the Bible and everything that belongs to civilization, and who have nowhere to look for instruction but to Sabbath-schools. The teachers having obtained permissions have opened a school for them in the Presbyterian Church and have already gathered in about fifty. One or two persons have supplied the money, and now the influence of others is needed to constrain every colored person to attend the school which commences at 3 o'clock every Sabbath. The teachers attend at half past one to give catechetical and other religious instruction to all white children who wish to avail themselves of it."

The Presbyterian Church was followed in this area by the Episcopal Church, which opened a free school for colored children in January, 1837 under the direction of Samuel Berry. It was, however, the formation of the Allen A.M.E. Church that was destined to have the greatest influence on the black community for It provided the focal point not only for religious freedom but for social and political action. The church met in houses for several years, and then erected a building in 1844 on Washington and South Sts. (160th St. and South Road), and this site is still occupied by an A.M.E. church. The original Allen A.M.E. now has a new building on Merrick Blvd. and 111th Ave. The black section In town in the days before the Civil War was known as "the Green", and it covered the area around Douglas Ave. and McNeil St. This is the present-day area south of Jamaica Ave. to Douglas Ave. from 170th to 175th St. It was here that some of the earliest black land owners settled, and representative of these pioneer property owners was Wilson Rantus. Rantus was born in 1807, and purchased his first lots on Douglas Avg. in 1836 for $120. There he started to build a house, and gradually acquired surrounding lots. He soon emerged as one of the leaders of the community in the struggle for civil rights. Rantus, along with Samuel Berry, who we have just seen running the Episcopal free school, organized a civil rights convention hold in Jamaica on Nov. 25, 1841 for the purpose of "cooperating with the disenfranchised brethren throughout the state".

Rantus' abolitional activities drew him into contact with Thomas Hamilton, who also had a dwelling on Douglas Ave. which he had financed through Rantus. Hamilton was a pioneer Negro journalist and abolitionist who published the weekly newspaper called "The Anglo-African" in New York in 1859, and worked with the American Abolition Society. Both men worked on trying to get a colored school for Jamaica from the Board of Education, but, unfortunately, without much success.

Rantus was also one of the founders of the Colored People's Lodge, which was started in February of 1858. The initial membership roles included seven men, with monthly dues of $.75 a piece. Wilson's brother, Troy, was also active in community affairs and owned a house on Washington St. near the Allen A.M.E. Church. We get a glimpse of the friction and racial tension that existed In Jamaica at that time from a petition for increased police protection that Troy helped sponsor:

"Jamaica. L.I. Wednesday, June 8, 1853. To the trustees of the village of Jamaica, a number of colored people having met together for the purpose of sending a petition to your most honorable authorities praying that we may be protected by the law of the said village and county from being beaten by a certain body or club of men meeting in the house of Mr. M.P. Hollens Washington St. north side of Fulton St. not upholden a certain class of people who makes it a point of standing in the streets a drinking and blaspheming but praying that the law of said town and county may be instricted upon such persons ... we appeal to you for protection and if you cannot protect us we must protect ourselves for we cannot be beaten."

In December of 1853 a committee was formed by the Board of Education to deal with the long-standing problem of the education of Negro children, which was only partially being solved by the existing church schools. As a result of this committee a school was opened at the Allen A.M.E. Church a year later with an attendance of 36 students under the direction of Rhoda Hicks. The school met in rented rooms near the church for several years until the black community started a fund-raising drive for the construction of a more permanent school house. The drive was given up when the Board of Education promised to look into the matter as soon as it had extricated itself from its own financial troubles. Unfortunately, it was to be more than thirty years before this promise was realized, and a colored school was built.

In the meantime the colored school at the Methodist Episcopal Church carried on as best it could. We have a contemporary description of the school dating from l860: "The colored school here is very well attended and in it are some scholars of 8 years of age who are reading, writing compositions, parsing and making fine progress in arithmetic. They propose to give an anti-slavery exhibition sometime next month."

In May of 1860 the school gave another exhibition of the budding talents of its students, who recited literary pieces like "Tell Shooting the Apple" for the edification of the audience. The program closed with a stirring address by John Peterman on the duties of parents and teachers. We are assured that the whole program was well-received by a mixed audience of black and white people. The church and the school were not the only activities of the black community at this time, for it also had the Henson Baseball Club, a black team which competed with the teams of neighboring towns. In January of 1861 the Henson Club beat the "Unknowns" of Weeksville In Brooklyn. The description of the following celebration gives us a good idea of the prevailing atmosphere of prejudice in Jamaica as well as the growing sense of freedom in the black community:

"It was the intention of the club to give a ball but the prejudice is so strong here at present against colored people that they were denied the use of the hall for that purpose, but after obtaining it (for a banquet) some 2 or 3 young Anglo-Africans bent on having some fun for their money commenced whistling the Tiger Polker and availing themselves of the music, some of the gentlemen took partners and danced till the music ceased for want of an extra pair of bellows to keep it going."

The baseball activities shared the social scene with musical entertainments, which were held at the church, One given by Robert Hamilton, the brother of Thomas Hamilton, was well-received, but again it was marred by an incident with racial overtones. A white man caused considerable comment when he sat through the whole performance with his hat on. The church was also the scene for a series of debates held 1859-60 by some of the local black businessmen and property owners. One of the debates was entitled "Which is needed for the elevation of the free colored people of the Northern States, unity or education?" In the end the participants voted unanimously in favor of unity, feeling that the unity of the black community was the foundation for any successful venture, even in the field of education.

One of the teachers of the colored school, John R. Lynch, later went on to distinguish himself in politics. He was chosen as the chairman of the Republican National Convention In Chicago in 1884, nominated by none other than Theodore Roosevelt, then as a delegate from the Manhattan district.

In summary, then, we see the emergence of a fairly unified and developed black community in Jamaica as the storm clouds of the Civil War gather on the horizon.

In the years before the Civil War some men had thought of averting the impending catastrophe by establishing the black men in foreign colonies. There was an abortive attempt to set up a black state on an island off the coast of Haiti, and the more famous and enduring colonization of Liberia.

In 1854 we find the First Presbyterian Church of Jamaica donating $107.11 to the American Colonization Society for the colonization of Liberia, and sending Samuel Hendrickson, who was connected with the church, to Liberia "as a missionary to the people of his own race''.

The outbreak of the Civil War led to a great deal of bloodshed not only where armies clashed, but also in New York City. In 1863 a draft law was passed to provide troops for the Union armies, and the first drawings for the draft touched off the worst riots in the history of New York. The Act allowed the rich to buy their way out, and the enraged poor rampaged through the streets. First they attacked the houses of the rich, and then with the logic of passion turned their anger on the Negroes, as if they were the cause of the war. The mob began to beat and hang every black they could find. We read in the police records of that time:

"3:15. From 24th precinct. Mobs are firing the building on Second Ave. near 28th St. Negroes fleeing from their houses for their lives.

4:00. The mob has captured some 5 or 6 negroes and are preparing to hang them; be quick with reinforcements."

The militia had to be called out in great numbers, and cannons were needed to put down the riot. The death total ran between 3,000 and 4,000.

The following year Jamaica had its own first draft lottery drawing, and again violence broke out. First an unruly mob threatened the local black people, and then they were on the "point of setting fire to the building where the uniforms and other clothing of the soldiers were stored but they were dissuaded from such reckless acts. They contented themselves with breaking into a store house, from which they took some supplies and made a huge bonfire of them". The damage was estimated at $2,400 and the draft drawing was postponed.

As it is still painfully evident today, the winning of the Civil War was not the same as the winning of freedom. In May of 1886 the citizens of Jamaica voted unanimously the sum of $4,000 for the purchase of land and the erection of Public School #2. Unfortunately, Public School #2 was a segregated school for colored children only. It was located in the old Negro area around Douglas Ave.

Happily, the idea of segregated school did not go long unchallenged. Samuel Cisco, a Negro property owner and taxpayer, refused to send his son Jacob to the colored school because it was a mile further away than the white school and the teaching there was inferior. Instead, he had his older daughter tutor his son at home. Cisco was arrested in March of 1896 for violation of the compulsory school act and he conducted his own defense. "I will never pay the fine, and I will go to jail first" he declared. He went on to say how he had sent his children to Public School #3 where they were refused admission because of their color. "I pay taxes", he concluded, "and have the right to send my children to the school in the district where they reside". Unfortunately Cisco lost the case, and he even had to pay a fine and court costs. Equal education was still a goal for the future.

Housing was another area where equality was difficult to attain, and though there were Negro home owners, as we have noted, there were also severe slum conditions. At the turn of the century we find a description of South Jamaica in "The Brooklyn Times":

"People visiting the place have long been surprised at the fact that walking only 2 or 3 blocks south of Jamaica's fine main street they would come to a section of poverty and filth. Tumble-down shanties in which whole families of Italians, Slavs and Negroes show that more crime occurs in this portion of the place than in any other."

This description fits contemporary conditions too closely for comfort, except for the fact that the white minority groups have had better success escaping the slums than the black. There is then a black history of Jamaica, and there is no doubt that more can be discovered about these early years. The period from 1900 to 1970 awaits exploration, and more important, the future and the redevelopment of South Jamaica is still to be accomplished.