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Black Gotham: A Family History of African Americans in Nineteenth-Century New York City Paperback – February 7, 2012

4.5 out of 5 stars 8 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Booklist

Tracking down bits of information about a �white Haitian� in her family�s history, Peterson stumbled onto a trove of historical information on black life in nineteenth-century New York. Peterson relates the history of her family and, through them, the broader context of life for African Americans then, defying assumptions about the history of slavery and freemen in New York. Theirs was a vibrant life before Harlem became synonymous with black New Yorkers, a life of achievement in business, politics, and the professions. Peterson focuses on her great-grandfather, pharmacist Philip White, and great-great-grandfather, Peter Guignon, a friend of prominent black leaders, including Alexander Crummell, Henry Highland Garnet, and George Allen. Each was part of a highly educated and activist elite that survived the Draft Riots of 1863 and the destruction of the Colored Orphan Asylum, among other incidents of racial strife. More than a family memoir, this is a chronicle of historic research to unveil a New York history of African Americans that challenges assumptions that a black elite did not exist before the twentieth century. --Vanessa Bush --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.


“Carla Peterson travels the well known streets of Lower Manhattan and Brooklyn to uncover the rich and hidden history of New York's black elite in the nineteenth century. That the book arose from her research into her own family history reminds us that in all of our families lies the story of this country.”—Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Harvard University
(Henry Louis Gates, Jr.)

“Dr. Peterson took a hard, uphill journey to give greater life to the ‘scraps’ she had about her family in nineteenth-century New York City and returned with a vital gift for all of us. It is a gift that not only offers a portrait of her family in that city but a larger, fairly unknown view of a pre-Harlem integrated society where many blacks were prosperous, enlightened, and thriving. Her book is a precious addition to the paucity of information we have about what blacks have done to make New York City and, indeed, America itself.”—Edward P. Jones, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Known World
(Edward P. Jones)

Won Honorable Mention in the 2011 New York Book Festival Biography/Autobiography Category, sponsored by the New York Book Festival
(Biography/Autobiography Honorable Mention New York Book Festival)

"Carla Peterson's Black Gotham presents the best, most detailed portrait of New York City’s nineteenth-century black elite.  Using her own search for her family roots as a thread to pull the reader through the narrative, Peterson provides insight into the work lives, political roles, and personal lives of this small but highly influential group of black New Yorkers."—Leslie M. Harris, Emory University
(Leslie M. Harris)

“Carla Peterson's Black Gotham is at once a tender labor of love and a tour de force of historical scholarship; both a romantic journey into her family's past and a clear-eyed restoration of an essential, long-lost element in a people's history. A story of New York, it resounds with implications for all of America. Peterson deserves our rapt attention and our gratitude.”—Arnold Rampersad, Stanford University
(Arnold Rampersad)

Black Gotham is a wonderful and rare portrait of New York City, told through the lens of a truly remarkable African-American family. Peterson's historical detective work is fascinating."—Debby Applegate, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Most Famous Man in America: The Biography of Henry Ward Beecher
(Debby Applegate)

"What makes her seminal opus so significant is how she painstakingly reconstructs her forefathers' past in light of the overall African-American struggle for emancipation and equality in the 1800s. . . . Calra Peterson's overdue tribute to her intrepid ancestors [is] an invaluable addition to the annals of African-American literature."—Kam Williams, Arizona Informant
(Kam Williams Arizona Informant)

"Black Gotham challenges many of the so-called truths about African-American history."—The Prince George's Post
(The Prince George's Post)

Won an Honorable Mention for the 2011 American Publishers Awards for Professional and Scholarly Excellence (PROSE) in the U.S. History category, as given by the Association of American Publishers
(PROSE Award in U.S. History Honorable Mention Association of American Publishers 2012-02-02)

Winner of the 2011 New York City Book Awards sponsored by the New York Society Library. The winning book must evoke the spirit of New York City, with the city playing an essential, invigorating role beyond that of the setting.
(New York City Book Award New York Society Library 2012-03-13)

Won Honorable Mention in the 2012 New York Book Festival General Non-Fiction category, sponsored by the New York Book Festival
(General Nonfiction Honorable Mention New York Book Festival 2012-06-12)

Finalist for the 2012 Frederick Douglass Prize sponsored by the Gilder Lehrman Center.
(Frederick Douglass Prize Guilder Lehrman Center 2013-06-10)

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 446 pages
  • Publisher: Yale University Press (February 7, 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0300181744
  • ISBN-13: 978-0300181746
  • Product Dimensions: 5.7 x 1.1 x 8.9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (8 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #966,156 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
This is a marvelous book. Carla Peterson's fascinating story of elite black New Yorkers will come as a surprise to many readers. Before the civil rights struggle, before the Harlem Renaissance, before the abolition of slavery, what was like life for African-Americans in New York City? By seeking out her own roots, Carla Peterson has enriched us all. Her family story of the British-style Mulberry Street School for "African" children and its distinguished graduates - including doctors, preachers, educators, and members of a black Episcopal church, with political and literary societies - puts the accomplishments of well-known writers and speakers of the era like Frederick Douglass in perspective. It also gives us a stake as we experience later events like the Draft Riots anew, from the perspective of Peterson's own family members.

As Peterson explains, the elite black families of New York spoke of their beloved city as "Gotham" and they sought to ensure transmission of their communal memories, with commemorations, newspapers, and marches reinscribing historical events from their own perspective. But almost nothing was transmitted as memory within her own family, leaving her to rediscover it only in the archives. Why was this past forgotten? Was the 19th-century elite embarrassing to later generations because it embraced assimilation as a goal? Peterson fills us in on her neglected family history - and our own - with a passionate tour of the archives and a respectful view of the complexity of 19th-century elite African-American lives.
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Format: Hardcover
Carla Peterson a Professor of English at the University of Maryland, embarked on a fruitful quest which began in the manuscript room at the famed Schomburg Center for Research. And the upshot of her tireless efforts is Black Gotham: A Family History of African-Americans in 19th Century New York City.

Among the surprising data unearthed by the author in the course of her study was that she had descended from New York City's black upper class, a cosmopolitan community comprised not only of doctors, businessmen and other professionals but of writers, artists and musicians, too. This information flies in the face of the conventional wisdom which would suggest that the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s and 1930s represented the first flowering of black culture in the city.

Read the full review and more book reviews from AALBC.com on your Kindle Edition
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Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
As an historian, I was intrigued by the process used by the author to find the history of her family in New York City, especially through her great grandfather and her great, great grandfather. Her tale both reveals the documentary sparseness of this past but more generally the rich, textured history that it is possible still to find, both directly and through examination of the surrounding circumstances of the larger group. The author manages to convey the immediacy of the lives of the people she traces, the changing circumstances of their lives as lived on the streets of New York, and the hopes, aspirations, and achievements of several of the persons involved, including her own ancestors. One comes away with a new appreciation of the complexities of New York's history and the fascinating stories that mark its past. Finally, the author convinces the reader that these stories matter deeply and make the streets and institutions of New York have special meaning as we walk about and experience them today. {Dorothy O. Helly, Emerita Prof. of Hisory and Women's Studies, CUNY)
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Loved, loved, loved this book. It is so well researched in addition to providing a fresh and creative perspective. I had the opportunity to meet this author and have seen her speak about African-American elites on occasion, on C-SPAN and I just love her grace of spirit and writing. The pictures included in the book were beautifully done (vivid and clear). And although Mrs. Peterson is writing about her ancestors I never got the sense that she was boasting or bragging about these people simply because they are part of her lineage. She focuses on the facts and I commend her for getting them straight.

The book arrived in perfect condition with the exception of a missing jacket, which the seller did not mention. But that's okay because the 'goodness' was definitely within. This is a must read!
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