This week, we continue our series of deep dives into the histories of storied addresses.
In a sliver of space between an imposing new Tribeca high rise and the gleaming New York Law School is an invisible piece of black history.
A few weeks ago, I walked to the site of 236 Church Street, clutching my phone, which showed me in two dimensions what I could not see in three. I had the right address, but the building I expected to find was not there. I walked up and down the block, secretly hoping a wizened historian-genie would materialize to explain where the building had gone. Or more realistically, I hoped for a plaque.
For two years in the 1820s, this 25 x 75-foot plot, in Lower Manhattan, just south of where Church and Leonard streets intersect, was home to a revolutionary publication. Freedom’s Journal was the first black owned and operated newspaper in the United States. Every Friday, its two editors, Samuel Cornish and John Russwurm, filled several pages of newsprint with domestic and international news; with editorials decrying slavery; with essays on the importance of education; with haunting poetry; and with celebrations of black excellence. And, once I came to understand who owned the plot before Freedom Journal moved in, its story seemed to form a satisfying full circle.
In the 1600s, when Lower Manhattan was a swamp, William Huddleston, bought and sold dozens of Manhattan acres to turn a profit, including, in 1703, the piece of land where the building that housed the black newspaper at 236 Church street would eventually stand.
Real estate speculation, however, was only a side-hustle for the English-born Huddleston; he was also a lawyer and an educator who, in the first years of the 1700s, petitioned the British crown for permission and resources to establish a charity school in association with Trinity Church. He got his wish in 1709.
Several years and several owners later, Anthony Rutgers, a member of a prominent Dutch-American family known for brewing “excellent beer,” bought the plot. In fact, he bought nearly 50 acres of land in Lower Manhattan during the 1720s. By the end of the decade, to make something better out of the malaria-infested morass in his real estate portfolio, he petitioned the authorities to allow him to buy up more of the swampland and drain the entire tract. Permission was granted and Rutgers held up his end of the bargain.
In 1735, Anthony’s younger brother, Harman, served on the jury for the trial of the printer, John Peter Zenger, the most important case of the era. Zenger’s published criticism of the widely disliked governor of New York, William Cosby, provoked Cosby to have Zenger arrested and tried. Despite Cosby’s best efforts at manipulating the outcome, the jury acquitted Zenger and a free press was born.
A few years later, Anthony Rutgers himself served in a jury for an important trial, but one with a much more complex legacy. It involved a series of fires that broke out across the city in the spring of 1741. It was a time when New York’s roughly 10,000 white inhabitants had begun to view their 2,000 slaves with greater suspicion, thanks in part to a spate of recent slave rebellions in places like South Carolina. Authorities in New York quickly saw the fires as part of a grand, arsonist, black conspiracy. As an item in the Philadelphia Gazette put it in June 1741: “On Thursday last three Negroes were hang’d, and two burnt alive, as guilty of the Negro plot; they all of them died hardned [sic], professing innocency [sic].”
Historians have long disagreed over the extent to which the conspiracy was real (Jill Lepore’s New York Burning and T.J. Davis’s A Rumor of Revolt are both fascinating books about the plot). But at the time, the trials were pushed along by questionable testimony, fevered group-think likened by some scholars to the hysteria that fueled the Salem witch trials, and, of course, the input of our Anthony Rutgers. As a result, dozens of black people were killed—as well as several white alleged co-conspirators—and more still were imprisoned or exiled.
So, in the 1700s the most prominent men associated with this piece of land were a charitable schoolteacher, a champion of free speech, and someone who underscored the country’s racial fault lines; in the 1800s, the most prominent man connected to the property was all those things in one.
John Brown Russwurm was born in Jamaica in 1799 to a white father and a black mother. As a boy, he was sent to school in Quebec and eventually moved to New England with his father (it is unclear what happened to his mother). He went on to Boston to teach at a well-known black school, before deciding—and earning enough money to—enroll in college. He started at Bowdoin at 25, making him several years older than his classmates, who included Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Franklin Pierce.
He dreamed of leaving New England for somewhere else and Haiti, the hemisphere’s island of and for free blacks topped his list. In fact, at graduation in 1826—Russwurm was the second black college graduate in the United States—he devoted his speech to a discussion of Haiti, telling the crowd:
For who shall expostulate with men who have been hunted with bloodhounds—who have been threatened with an Auto-de-fé, whose relations and friends have been hung on gibbets before their eyes—have been sunk by hundreds in the sea—and tell them they ought to exercise kindness toward such mortal enemies? Remind me not of the moral duties, of meekness and generosity, show me the man who has exercised them under these trials, and you point to one who is more than human.
Nonetheless, for some reason, after graduation, Russwurm did not move to Haiti. He moved to New York City. In the 1820s, the city had more than 11,000 free blacks, many of whom lived in Lower Manhattan. Despite their status as freemen, white Americans frequently subjected them to direct and oblique attacks, including in mainstream newspapers. In a July 1817 issue of the Long Island Star, for example, the front page included a poem called “Othello”—elements from that play being frequently common cultural tools used at the time to demean blacks. This particular poem concludes,
And now every night, just at one, it is said,
Desdemona’s sweet ghost does appear;
And holding aloft her dead husband’s black head,
Cries, “ye who don’t have to be smother’d in bed,
Of wooly head heroes beware!”
In the latter half of the 1820s, Russwurm got together with Samuel Cornish, a black free-born minister, in the home of Boston Crummell, a prominent Africa-born abolitionist (and father to Alexander Crummell), and hatched the plan for Freedom’s Journal as the country’s first black owned and edited newspaper. The two men published the newspaper’s first issue on Friday, March 16, 1827 and in the opening prospectus they wrote:
Daily slandered, we think that there ought to be some channel of communication between us and the public: through which a single voice may be heard in defense of five hundred thousand free people of colour. For often has injustice been heaped upon us, when our only defense was an appeal to the almighty: but we believe that the time has now arrived, when the calumnies of our enemies should be refuted by forcible arguments.
The two publishers were initially optimistic, expressing in that first issue their belief in the inherent equality of all men, in the transformative power of knowledge, and thus in their own ability to tangibly change the course of race relations in the United States. Even as support for the notion of “back to Africa” gained traction, the two editors continued to oppose the idea in print. They chose instead to express optimism about the future of black people as Americans.
The first few issues of Freedom’s Journal were published out of an address on Varick Street—likely Cornish’s home—but moved to Church Street by Week Eight. The new address was listed as 152 Church Street—which, historical maps tell us, turns out to be roughly the same space that would become 236 Church.
Six months after starting the publication—at which point it was already struggling to stay financially afloat—Cornish left the city to become the newspaper’s agent, selling advertising and subscriptions, which left Russwurm in charge of its editorial content. For about a year, there was no discernible change. But in the Feb. 14, 1829 issue, Russwurm expressed a surprising change of heart:
As our former sentiments have always been in direct opposition to the plan of colonizing us on the coast of Africa: perhaps, so favorable an opportunity may not occur, for us to inform our readers, in an open and candid manner, that our views are materially altered.
Russwurm appeared to have abandoned the notion of obtaining true freedom in this country. This immediately drew criticism from many of his subscribers, who were largely anti-colonization, and believed that Russwurm was giving up on an idea—the idea of American racial equality—rather than actually settling on a new one. After that jarring editorial shift, Freedom’s Journal lasted only six more issues, ceasing publication in March 1829. By September of that year, Russwurm left for Liberia, where he lived out his days. (Both Mary Sagarin’s 1970 biography and Winston James’ 2010 book about Russwurm’s life were fantastic resources that helped build this section).
Despite the newspaper’s collapse, the block remained a center for free black thought. Just two doors up from where the journal’s offices were, was the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church (both establishments were on plots rented from wealthy white families; the journal was on land owned Benjamin and Mary Romaine; while the church was on land owned by John and Effey Colvill). It was built on the actual corner of Church and Leonard in 1799, making it the first church built for and by black Americans in New York City. Its directors had been supporters of Freedom’s Journal, and the journal in turn had discussed the church in its pages.
Summer 1834 brought a wave of attacks against black and abolitionist institutions. An angry mob broke the church’s windows. And there was more bad fortune a few years later, when a repairman working at a theater, on the opposite corner of the block, forgot to turn off the gas pipes properly and sparked a great fire. The theater, the church, and several small buildings in the center of the block all burned.
The next 167 years are more typical of city life, a story of small businesses, of wealth and loss, and of big, expensive real estate development.
William Storer, who worked as a commission merchant at 236 Church Street from the 1850s to the 1880s, had “the confidence of the trade.” So it was all the more surprising for his peers to learn that soon after he went blind in 1880, he was $30,000 in debt—about a quarter of a million dollars in today’s money. As he wrote to a friend and client at the time, “No one ever knew how much I am suffering over the prospect of your losing so much by me … I am utterly crushed and I wish I had died.” Storer made a run for it. He left New York with a plan to never return.
Nearly 100 years later, by the 1960s, New York Law School had bought up most of the block, including the plots of land where Freedom’s Journal once stood. In 2009, the school expanded its campus there with the construction of a modern, glassy behemoth, which was the “first institutional building project completed in downtown Manhattan after 9/11.” Two years earlier, the law school sold the northern portion of the block to Izak Senbahar, a luxury real estate developer. He worked with Herzog & de Meuron, the architects best known for their design of the Bird’s Nest Olympic stadium in Beijing, on a 60-story behemoth which topped out in December 2017. It looks like an abandoned game of Jenga; it juts far above its Tribeca surroundings and in a way, provides a constant reminder of that small plot’s—and indeed New York City’s—revolutionary history.
As for more literal reminders of Freedom’s Journal—it turns out that there is a plaque after all. In 1983, the Society of Professional Journalists installed one at the offices of the New York Amsterdam News in Harlem. Elinor Tatum, editor in chief of Amsterdam News, told me that the core tenet upon which Freedom’s Journal was founded is the same core tenet of her paper—that of the importance of communities speaking for themselves, in their own voices.
As for the plaque, Tatum said she wasn’t sure where it is now—she hasn’t seen it in her 20 years at the paper. So, my search continues.