The inspiration for your book is two of your ancestors. Who are they?
The first is my great-great-grandfather, Peter Guignon, who was a druggist. I didn’t even know his name when I began. It was only by mining the archives that I discovered his existence. His parents came from Haiti. All I could find out about his father’s family was that the Guignons were close to the Berard family, well known to the historical record as grand blanc slaveholders who fled Haiti at the time of the revolution.
The second is Philip White, Peter Guignon’s son-in-law. White’s father came from northern England and his mother was from Jamaica. Unlike Peter, who became a druggist through marriage, Philip got a diploma from the College of Pharmacy of the City of New York in 1844. He opened his own store in Lower Manhattan and became quite prosperous.
A family myth that proved to be false?
My father hardly ever said anything about his background and my aunt gave me one story that proved to be only partially true: that Philip Augustus White was born Philippe Auguste Blanc, a “white Haitian,” who fled to Paris at the time of the revolution, became a pharmacist, and then emigrated to New York, anglicizing his name to Philip Augustus White. It’s obvious that she was conflating Philip and Peter’s backgrounds.
You discovered the existence of a vibrant black community in Lower Manhattan in the nineteenth century. How would you describe the neighborhood?
I’m not sure I’d use the term vibrant. The material conditions were appalling—overcrowding, poor sanitation, filth, disease, etc. Charles Dickens described the Five Points as a place “reeking everywhere with dirt and filth” where “poverty, wretchedness, and vice are rife enough” and “all that is loathsome, drooping, and decayed is here.” And yet this neighborhood was home to many black New Yorkers. It’s a pity that we don’t have a description of it in their own words.
Many African Americans were business owners. What kinds of establishments did they run?
In her memoir, my great-grandaunt Maritcha Lyons wrote that family friends held jobs as varied as “carpenters, undertakers, printers, shoemakers, tinsmiths, crockery and china ware dealers.” There were preachers and restaurant owners. Most surprising to me was the number of doctors and pharmacists.
How were middle-class African Americans treated by white New Yorkers?
Racial discrimination and segregation were pretty much the norm. One would assume then that race relations would be highly regulated, but whimsy reigned. One day, a conductor would let you on his streetcar, the next day he wouldn’t. One day, you could be admitted to a public exhibit, the next day you would be denied entrance. Black New Yorkers called it “casting the horoscope.”
Your family and others decamped to Brooklyn. What prompted the move?
For many it was the July 1863 draft riots and the devastation it wreaked on the city’s black population. Others went in search of better professional opportunities. Peter Guignon moved there in the 1850s after his brother-in-law set up a medical practice and drugstore, and gave him a job in the store. Philip White moved out of Manhattan because his street was demolished as part of the Brooklyn Bridge construction project.
What kind of records did you use to piece together the story?
I combed through all the usual official records: death certificates, censuses, and city directories. But the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, which is part of the New York Public Library, turned out to be a real treasure trove. I found an extensive collection of family papers, the Harry Albor Williamson Papers, which contained genealogical records and a memoir. It took me a couple of years before I realized that I was part of this family!
Your most amazing discovery?
Philip White’s experience during the draft riots of 1863. Mobs of poor whites, who didn’t want to be drafted into the Union Army, attacked blacks at random, maiming and killing them, ransacking and destroying their homes, businesses, and churches. Amazingly, Philip’s home and drugstore survived intact. He had been a good neighbor to his poor Irish customers, giving away medicines for free when they couldn’t afford to pay for them, as well as clothes and food. It stands to reason that they didn’t want to see his store harmed and were prepared to defend it when the mob came. Imagine Irish fighting Irish over the welfare of a black man!
You say in the introduction that you want to write “a new and different version of African‐American history that challenges the ones we’re so used to reading.” What did you want to challenge?
It’s certainly true that the dominant experience of nineteenth-century black Americans was that of southern slavery. But I felt that it was equally important to pay attention to the history of northern free blacks who played a significant role in shaping American history through the antislavery movement and other forms of social activism. I also wanted to remind readers that, well before the Harlem Renaissance, New York was home to a class of educated blacks that produced social activists, intellectuals, writers, and artists.