The Bargeman’s Daughter: Seneca Village Arises

30 December 2020

Thomas Belton

A day after the Nativist riot at Saint Patrick’s Church in downtown Manhattan, Annie Hogan awoke with an awful headache to the sounds of singing in a cabin she’d never seen before. A young girl was making flapjacks on a cast-frame stove and humming an old Methodist hymn, the words coming to Annie as she lay there:
‘Rock of Ages, cleft for me,
Let me hide myself in thee’
Unknowingly, she began to hum along in sympathy to the child’s tune, and the girl turned and looked at her quizzically as Annie finished the hymn aloud and smiled:
‘Could my tears forever flow,
All for sin could not atone,
Thou must save, and thou alone.’
The girl, perhaps 17 years old, with chestnut-colored skin and wiry reddish-brown hair that she’d braided into long strands down her face, smiled back at her, too. Annie thought her smile the most gentle and precious thing she’d ever seen.
“Hello,” the girl said, coming over to wipe Annie’s fevered brow with a cool cloth that she pulled from an enamel water basin by the sideboard. “I guess you feelin’ better now that you singing the good Lord’s words.”
Annie smiled back weakly and tried to speak, but found her voice had left and her throat burning with the effort to speak, causing her to wince in pain. The girl dipped the cloth she held in a bucket by the bed and placed the tip of it against her cracked lips, allowing a few drops to slide through and salve Annie’s parched mouth and throat. Swallowing painfully, Annie nodded at the child and said, “Where am I?”
“Can yo’ get up?” the colored girl asked Annie. “I’ll show you where you are.”
“I don’t think so,” Annie replied as she tried to get up but fell back again, the week of unconsciousness having robbed her limbs of their suppleness.
“Wait,” the girl said, “I’ll get someone to help,” and left to bring back two young men.
“This is Aaron and Ezekiel Rood,” she said.
Annie looked up amazed as they seemed like two peas in a pod; born identical twins, they both were black as midnight but had piebald caramel-colored patches on their faces. It made them look like a pair of Indian Paint ponies. People in slave hollow down the Plantation they were born to, and claimed it musta been the palm print of God on their surprised faces as he pushed them ‘outta their poor Mama, who died with exhaustion after the weight of carrying and birthing such cantankerous devils. Their foster mama, Eleanor, who subsequently raised them said otherwise: “Them marks is from the twins a-pummeling each other in they Mama’s belly since fighting seemed the only thing they’s in common.”
The two of them had run away from a South Carolina cotton plantation a few months before, legging it out together when darkness descended on the first new moon. That’s after they’d heard their master say he was to sell one of them off to settle a debt owed a neighboring farmer, known to whip his slaves into the soil while pulling in his crop or else sell them to some other foolish farmer just a whisker before they dropped. The Roods were lucky not to be picked up by the patrols as they headed north, since their running arguments continued all the way across the Mason-Dixon Line, their agitated voices startling game from the bushes and echoing off the surrounding trees like mockingbirds screeching over a disputed perch or fallen bit of food.
It was their two faces, tricolored and mottled like calico cats, that Annie wondered at as she was carried outside, one on each end of the pallet.
“Ain’t no bidness yours how I got the foot end,” Aaron said over Annie to his brother, his angry face softened by his mottled expression.
“Sh’o is typical tho’,” Ezekiel replied. “You run off and gets the small end of the stick, as usual.”
Annie, hearing Ezekiel’s reply, bent her head backwards to get a better look, only to be astonished by this mirror image of the unusual boy to her front who was backing out of the cabin door, holding her bed in his two speckled hands.
And after they set her down the young girl said, “This here’s Seneca Village,” as the two boys walked off down the country road, still bickering and with never a glance backwards.
Annie could see a broad valley below their perch atop a large granite outcropping along the side of a small valley and the fertile plain of a small stream running down the middle. Below them a substantial hamlet of 30 to 40 houses dotted the green valley, each one surrounded by a carefully laid out garden plot and the village surrounded by long cultivated fields, some with sheep and cows grazing nearby in small corrals. Geese and dogs played a spiraling dance on a Village Green in the center of these houses, where children—some white but mostly colored—played games of hoops and jump rope, or simply ran about exuberantly from place to place just for the excitement.
“No one’s sure why they named it Seneca Village,” the girl continued as she sat down on a bench nearby, picked up a bag of knitting and began to hook and pearl a red and green shawl.
“Some say the whites gave it that name, ‘cause many of us were stolen from ‘Senegal’ on the west coast of Africa, a curse name to most whites, like ‘nigger’ for those stolen by raiders along the River Niger. Others think it’s because we play at being Indians here in our Village like the Seneca Indian Nation and are made up of so many different tribes from all over Africa and only mixed together by the abomination of slavery. That’s my uncle’s church, right there in the center,” the girl said with pride, “The African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, Branch Militant.”
“African church?” Annie asked a bit surprised. She’d known a number of coloreds growing up in the city, but many of them were former slaves and not used to speaking without leave. And, of course, she’d seen a number of well-to-do coloreds walking about in finer clothes in lower Manhattan, some even in carriages but most she’d dealt with sold goods off of wagons in the streets or in shops. She never really thought about where they might come from or go to sleep at night.
“Uncle says the first deacons named it African instead of colored, or Negro, so as we can show pride in our African ancestry. Uncle says we left the main Methodist Episcopal Church a number of years ago on account of they refused to let the colored brethren sit with them in the general congregation. There’s a school too in the basement: Colored School #3 and I’m the teacher.”
“You’re a teacher?” Annie asked amazed and a bit uncomprehending at the slight girl’s seeming maturity. She was still a bit woozy from the blow she’d received from the mortal fight at the church with the Nativists, who hated the Irish immigrants right off the boat as much as they hated the negros; this thought made her think about her husband Tim, as a gasp left her at the sudden painful memory of his passing.
The girl didn’t seem to notice her distress though, and continued speaking lightly and with youthful enthusiasm. “Yes’m, my name’s Catherine Thompson. My uncle is the Reverend Levin Smith and the Pastor of the Zion Church. I wasn’t born here but I teach here.”
“Where were you born, Catherine?” Annie asked, recovering her composure.
“Sharpsburg, Maryland, just by Antietam Creek,” she said.
“Oh, I’ve heard Maryland is quite beautiful,” Annie said. “Do you miss it?”
“I don’t ‘member on it much. A beautiful white house that looked like heaven’s home when I think on it. A row of tall trees on the gravel drive up to the main house that seemed to whisper, the wind set their leaves to shakin’. And Mama, I think on her face, bright black and shiny hoverin’ over me a-singing and a-cooing.”
But then Catherine stopped speaking for a moment as a look of uncertainty crossed her face; she added, “At least I think that’s my Ma’s face I ‘member.”
Annie noticed the intensity of her expression as she said this as if Catherine was trying to pull a big fish from a gloom-shadowed lake deep within her.
“But Uncle Levin says Ma was sold off to a plantation the other side of the county ‘fore I was 2,” Catherine added, coming back to the surface of her memory’s journey. “So, it’d be hard to say if that was my Mama or no. But I like to think it’s her, way down deep inside, that smilin’ face I ‘member, Yes! That was my own true Mama.”
Annie looked away down the valley, not knowing where to look; she was so embarrassed for the girl as she told her so unabashedly of her mother being sold off as if no more’n a piece of beef on the hoof or a mule to pull a plow in another farmer’s field. And as Annie felt this twinge of quiet guilt and pity arise in her, she also felt disdain for her own morose feelings.
Why should I be so despairing, she thought. At least I can move freely about, and if I had a child who’d never be ripped from my fingers by some pernicious slave overseer for profit.
“I’m sorry, Catherine,” Annie said. “It must be awful. Slavery! Children treated like prize pigs for market.”
Catherine smiled back, surprising Annie with her aplomb as she said, “I thank the Good Lord for whats I got. I’s free now and my children, I ever have some, be free too. Reverend Smith teaches us not to look back but forwards.”
“How did you escape?”
“Followed the old runaway trail with Mrs. Harriet Tubman.
“Harriet Tubman?”
“Yes, she’s a free colored abolitionist from upstate New York. She escaped from Maryland when she was a girl like me, come North and got educated. Convinced herself to go South again whenever she can and see her people free, just like Moses leading his flock to the Promised Land.
And how did I come to be here? Annie suddenly thought.
And as if Catherine had read her mind or predicted the correct moment for such divinations, she said, “Here he comes now. Your friend done brought you here.”
Annie looked down the road and saw three men approaching, two Negro and one white. The white man towered over the other two with the unmistakable Irish shock of bright reddish-orange hair that stood out like a brush fire between the two men of midnight-coal complexion. She recollected that he was the one who’d fought alongside her husband Tim at the Cathedral riot, but no more of that fatal encounter could she register, especially after she’d been struck by that great brute of a man who’d killed her husband. The man to Henry’s right wore a frocked coat and the turn-around collar of the Episcopal clergy, had a full black beard and round head covered by bushy black hair that made him look a little like one of the Abyssinian Kings she’d remembered from the Nativity drawings in her Catechism. The other colored man was the shortest of the three with lighter, yellow skin and a partially bald head that was encircled by a crown of gray hair that made him look like a tonsured monk or a haloed saint.
Annie tried to rise but faltered as the minister reached for her and steadied her back onto the pallet, “Best you stay down awhile, Missus,” he said.
“My name is Reverend Levin Smith and this is Charles Treadwell, a deacon in our church. I see you’ve met my niece.”
“Yes, I have,” Annie said, smiling at the girl.
“Hello, my name is Henry in case you’ve forgotten,” the tall Irishman said, sitting down beside her on the ground.
“Ah, how could I forget you,” she said, “who was there when I lost my Tim.”
“Aye,” Henry replied sadly. “I’m sorry I could not save him. Nor could I forget you saving my own bacon. So much happened last week and in such a short time, it’s a wonder we can remember anything at all. That man that you stabbed to get away, his name is John Severance Williams and he’s a colonel in the City Militia. He survived your pointed attempt at skewering; Heaven’s regret!” Henry added, making the sign of the cross and spitting on the ground in disgust. “And I’ve heard he’s sent armed men into the ‘Five Points’ and ‘Greenwich Village’ to seek us out. So, I thought it best we disappear for a while and the reverend here has graciously agreed to take us in.”
“How far from the city are we?” Annie asked.
“The city ends at 39th Street,” Deacon Treadwell said. “We are a good five miles above that and about half way to an old Dutch town called Haarlem.”
“And we are not the only fugitives here,” Henry added. “As you can see if you look down the valley, there are other white folk wandering about, all on the run for one thing or another. It’s safe enough here since the City Militia nor the Nativists will nay come this far north to seek us, nor would they expect to find us amongst Reverend Smith’s flock.”
“And this place, Seneca Village,” Anne said, looking down the valley at the free blacks and poor whites mingling with goodwill and a friendliness she’d never seen in the midst of the city, “How did it come to be?”
“The land was purchased by prescient free blacks a number of years ago,” Reverend Smith said. “In 1825 two young free Negroes named Andrew Williams and Epiphany Davis bought lots here for the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church to be used for a colored people’s cemetery. Those men laid the foundation for New York City’s first community of property-owning coloreds.”
“Andrew Williams was a ‘boot black’ who shined shoes for a living,” Mr. Treadwell added, and continued in a smooth flowing recital, as if this story had been delivered so many times that it’d taken on a sacramental status for the two black gentlemen. “Other freemen moved in, too: fruit vendors, cobblers, some tailors. By 1855, Williams became a cart man, a big step because cart men were licensed by the mayor’s office and responsible for hauling goods around the city, something most whites did not like, seeing a colored man moving freely about the city.”
“The Zion Church was an important part of Andrew Williams’ life,” Reverend Smith added, sitting down next to his niece as he moved her knitting basket. “And as a trustee he helped found the African Mutual Relief Society, a dues-paying organization that offered financial help to the survivors of those who’d passed on, paid for funerals, helped families when the man of the house was out of work. Williams was also active in the suffrage movement, fighting to give colored men the right to vote.”
Treadwell, not to be outdone with historical facts, seemed to puff up like a blowfish about to pop, and much to Annie’s and Henry’s amusement his cheeks bulged out, impatiently waiting for the right moment to jump into the reverend’s oration.
He said, “Did you know Missus, that the Dutch West India Company introduced slavery to New York in 1625 but those early slaves had a few rights like being admitted to the Dutch Reformed Church and being married by its ministers, their children baptized and slave families kept intact. Slaves could testify in court, sign legal documents, and bring civil actions against whites. And when the Dutch fell to the British, the company freed all its slaves, thus establishing the earliest community of free coloreds in New York.”
“Ah, but then the English came,” Reverend Smith said with a sigh. “English slave laws were much harsher. A slave was property, pure and simple, and their enslavement ended only with death or manumission, that’s being set free. The children of slaves became slaves, and slaveholders could inflict any kind of horrific punishment. Freed blacks were denied most civil rights under English rule, and any crime committed by a black against a white was severely punished, while white crimes against blacks were largely ignored.”
“That sounds a bit like how the English treated the Irish Catholics back home before I left it for good,” Henry said indignantly.
“Ah, but they did not steal you and place you on a ship in the Middle Passage, Mr. Henry, nor chained you hand-to-hand and foot-to-foot, sleeping and eating in spaces no wider than a human body, rolling in your own filth, then haul you halfway ‘round the world to sudden and miserable bondage. Now they didn’t do that to you or your family, now did they, Mr. O’Rourke?”
Henry thought a bit about his own deadly passage on the coffin ship from Ireland fleeing the great Famine, the typhus running rampant below decks and bodies cast overboard every day, but admitted to himself at least it was a trip he’d taken freely regardless of the hardships and deprivations.
“You have me there, Reverend. But the local Nativists do call us Irish the ‘White Niggers,’ so in a way, I guess they see little difference between our peoples and we’re in a similar fix as ‘yerselves. But go on, I stopped ‘yer recitation.”
“Slavery was abolished in New York on July 4th, 1827, and a large percentage of the coloreds were set free, one third of them skilled artisans. Think of it, Mr. O’Rourke, how glorious that day when 10,000 African Americans were freed at the stroke of a pen.”
“Ah, but without compensation to their owners,” Mr. Treadwell jumped in again, excitedly. “It’s always about the money and we ‘ere no mor’n property to most of them. Many whites joined the American Colonization Society, proposing to send freed slaves back to West Africa. Some slaveholders sought to counter their financial losses by selling their slaves to traders who transported them to markets in the Deep South where they fetched high prices. And although freed by state statute,” Treadwell added, quickly and breathlessly, like a blown and winded horse sensing the barn’s cool hay and meaning to have the last word, “legal discrimination continues especially in voting laws. Although the state dropped all property requirements for white voters, black males still have to own $250 in property to cast a ballot.”
“And that’s where Seneca Village has made us more than just freemen in name alone but true participants in democracy” Reverend Smith added quickly, smiling triumphantly at his deacon for the last word.
“We own our houses here and so we can vote as well as petition for state resources. Catherine here just last month, working with Harriet Tubman, a member of our AME Zion Church upstate, drafted an appeal to the legislature for better schools for Negroes as part of the ‘New York Society for the Promotion of Education among Colored Children.’”
“So, it is like the Seneca Indian nation that you’ve come together,” Anne said, looking at Catherine. “Finding a bit of land for all the lost African tribes to call their own.”
“Ah, my niece has told you that story,” Reverend Smith said laughing. “It does sound like a Hawthorne ‘Leather Stocking’ tale, now doesn’t it? But shall I tell you the real reason we call it Seneca Village, Missus?”
“It’s the example set by our Zion Church founders, discovered in the stoic wisdom of that great Roman philosopher, Lucius Annaeus Seneca. It’s in his book entitled Morals that we find a slave’s hope. His stoic philosophy teaches us to avoid entrapment in emotions like fear or envy, or unrealistic desires, or impassioned attachments to things like money or goods. He teaches us that virtue alone is sufficient for happiness and in stoic calm we should view the world, and that only a ‘sage’ who knows all this can be free while all others are the slaves. From him we see that the morally vicious like the slave owners and the bigots are equally fooled and beneath our judgment. Therefore, we of Seneca Village have decided to set ourselves apart in this world, Missus, whether former slave or disenfranchised freemen, and live our lives as free as birds, despite those around us who think they have the upper hand in controlling our destinies.”