Racist violence in the North: The ‘Draft Riots’ of 1863

As the United States commemorates the 150th anniversary of the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation by President Abraham Lincoln in 1863, a document which officially ended slavery in those states and regions that rebelled against the Union during the Civil War, one is also reminded of a not-so-noble 1863 event in New York City.

From the time of Lincoln’s election in 1860, pro-slavery Democrats in New York City warned Irish citizens and immigrants to be prepared for the freeing of Southern enslaved Black people who might relocate to the North and compete with them for jobs.

In 1863, the federal draft law became stricter for men between the ages of 20 and 45. All those in that age group were entered into a lottery to serve military duty. However, if they paid $300 to the government they could evade enlistment. White workers compared their value, $300 to buy their draft exemption, to the $1,000 being paid for a Black slave. Free Black men were exempted from the draft because they weren’t considered citizens.

Mainstream newspapers and sensationalist journalists attacked the federal government’s draft law in order to incite the white working class. They criticized the government’s intrusion into state and local affairs on behalf of the “n——r war.” Because of the bad wartime economy, whites seemingly felt their political power and privileges would be threatened and reduced, and Blacks would be gaining power.

On July 13, 1863, and lasting five days, white mobs rioted in New York City, attacking Black men, women and children. Rioters targeted anything that might symbolize any political, economic or social progress and power for Black people. This violence became known as “the Civil War Draft Riots.”

Black men were stomped, stoned, kicked and beaten to death. Some were burned to death, others lynched from lampposts and their genitals mutilated. Many who fled jumped into the river to escape. Black properties were destroyed. And fearing destruction of their property by rioters, landlords evicted Black tenants.

The rioters’ brutal violence included burning down the four-story Colored Orphan Asylum, located on Fifth Avenue at 43rd Street, which housed more than 200 Black children. The children were forced to move into the almshouse (poorhouse) on Blackwell’s Island, where the orphanage’s founders had hoped to prevent children from having to go. The orphanage later temporarily relocated to 51st Street in Manhattan.

Cornerstone of white supremacy

For a decade prior to the riots, there had been tension brewing between white longshoremen and Black dockworkers. Irish workers in particular refused to work with Black longshoremen, and during the riots they attacked all Black porters, cartmen and laborers they saw. White dockworkers also destroyed dance halls, boarding houses and tenements that served Black people. On the waterfront, brutal beatings and deaths were cheered, with the promise of more “vengeance on every n——r in New York.” The aim of white workers was to eradicate the presence of Black males in the city.

The all-white labor union, the Longshoreman’s Association, insisted that “the colored people must and shall be driven to other parts of the industry,” which gave white workers license to physically remove Blacks, not only from their worksites, but also from neighborhoods and recreation places. Convinced of their racial superiority, white workers violently asserted their power.

Hundreds of Black people were forced out of New York City. Some Black victims escaped by ferry to the borough of Brooklyn. Others fled to New Jersey and elsewhere. The Black orphanage attempted to rebuild at the same site, but was not permitted to. Four years later, it finally relocated to a newly built location on West 143rd Street in Harlem, which later became a predominantly Black neighborhood in the 20th century. In 1867, however, the area was sparsely populated and far from the city’s center. Within two years after the riots, fewer than 10,000 Black people resided in the city, the lowest number since 1820.

To date, Blacks and whites remain divided by race, class, social status, aspirations, employment and education opportunities, and income and wealth disparities. Neither New York City nor the country itself has united to overcome or solve problems of racism. The country has failed to fully accept the freedom of its Black population. White supremacy remains the cornerstone of economic exploitation and capitalism. The U.S., a country whose foundation was built on racism, continues to be a country that loves to hate.

Source: “In the Shadow of Slavery: African Americans in New York City, 1626-1863,” by Leslie M. Harris