Free black persons in the antebellum North lived under what could be termed “Jim Crow” laws, with New York machine politician Martin Van Buren leading the way to disenfranchise free blacks by creating discriminatory property holding requirements for their race. Van Buren was the son of Abraham Van Buren of Kinderhook—tavern keeper, Revolutionary War veteran, and New York slaveholder.
Bernhard Thuersam, Circa1865
Martin Van Buren and Racialized New York Politics
“But some Southern blacks also realized the limits of freedom and equality in New York City. James P. Thomas, an enslaved black barber in Nashville, was more independent than most . . . [operating] his own business [and] returning a set portion of his earnings to his owner. When a white patron in Tennessee offered a generous payment if Thomas would accompany him and his family on a Northern sojourn in the 1840’s, Thomas agreed, hoping to save sufficient funds to secure freedom for himself and for several other family members.
In his post-Reconstruction autobiography, Thomas conveys a sharp sense of the awkward position in which black Southerners found themselves in free New York. He wrote of New York with a mixture of admiration for the vitality of city life and an unexpected sense of anger over the status and treatment of black Northerners. In particular, Thomas was enraged at being ousted from a theater, remembering, “I felt as though I would like to meet another man who would have the affrontry to advise me to run away to live in New York.”
The State’s 1821 constitutional convention — which enfranchised all New York’s adult white men while simultaneously maintaining the property requirements for African American men — racialized New York politics. The new political landscape, which would soon lead to the ascendancy and then dominance of the Democratic party in New York and nationally, rested upon the bedrock of racial exclusion.
Convention delegates, led by future president of the United States Martin Van Buren, justified the removal of property qualifications for most of New York’s property-less men by enacting a $250 property-holding requirement that applied exclusively to New York’s African American men. Van Buren, in particular, argued that “democracy” only made sense with racial exclusion. Thus the coming of mass democracy in New York . . . coincided with the designation of African Americans as a politically subordinate caste.”
(Slavery In New York, Ira Berlin & Leslie Harris, editors, The New Press, 2005, pp. 274-275)