It’s Black History Month when we celebrate African-American contributions to our country, but many born and raised Greenpointers who pride themselves on knowing local history would be shocked to learn that African-Americans have played a role in history here for more than three centuries.
Sadly, the first African-Americans were slaves. We do not know the name of the first African American who came to Greenpoint, but we do know how he came here. Dirck Volckertszen, the first European settler, in our area bought one of the first slaves sold at the slave market on Wall Street in 1645, but Volckertszen was not alone as a Greenpoint slave owner. All the original five families who farmed the land here had slaves. In the book “Historic Greenpoint” written by William Felter in 1918, the author assures us, “The Dutch enjoyed a reputation of treating their slaves with consideration.” However, we are not able to ask these enslaved men and women about the accuracy of Felter’s claim. Felter also makes the claim that even after New York State’s Slave Emancipation Act, which took effect in 1827 that the former slaves of Greenpoint continued to regard themselves as members of the household, but again perhaps these first African-American Greenpointers simply were not ready to face the difficult transition to independence.
There is at least one incident that occurred supporting Felter’s claims that enslaved Africans respected their owners. One night during the British occupation of New York a British raiding part sailed down Newtown Creek with the aim of robbing the Bennett family of their gold, which they stored in the house. The British moored their boat in the creek, but one of the Bennett slaves aware of what was happening and loyal to his master, cut the moorings so that when the British returned their boat had floated away and the British thieves had to escape on foot. They were soon captured by Bennett, his white neighbors and their armed slaves who forced the British to return the stolen gold and kept the British officer’s sword as a memento.
Adrian Meserole, born locally in 1822, must have heard the stories his parents told about local slavery. He remembered that slaves who worked for Manhattan merchants removed much of the lumber that once covered Greenpoint. He also recalled that feeding enslaved African-Americans was expensive and the slaves were fed oysters, which were once ubiquitous locally. It was only from the slaves that their white owners realized how delicious these oysters were and began to eat them as well.
One of the first real estate speculators to profit on flipping lots in Greenpoint was an African-American, but Felter never mentioned his name. This nameless black man bought the lots for fifty dollars (wow, those were the days to buy local real estate) and sold them for ten times the price.
When shipbuilding became Greenpoint’s first large industry some of the shipwrights were African-Americans, but a Greenpointer recalled that his parents’ attempt to lodge black workers in a local rooming house called “The Yankee Cheesebox” almost led to a race riot and though African-Americans worked here racism prevented them from settling here. The same Greenpointer remembered that rioters almost destroyed the home of Smith Crockers, a Greenpointer who protected Fugitive slaves escaped from the south. A general strike by local shipwrights at the end of the Civil War was broken in part by African-American shipwrights, which added to the anger and racism that many African-Americans experienced, even though the war had ended slavery. At the end of the Civil War Greenpoint remained a place where blacks still felt too unwelcome to settle.