Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Photographs and Prints Division, NYPL Digital Collections, Image ID: 1953588
For a fraction of New York’s black community, the late 1840s and 1850s were years of phenomenal success. Self-consciously identifying as an aristocracy, determined to find an economic niche for themselves despite the city’s rigorous competitiveness, and eager to prove to the world that they too could achieve, this new generation of the black elite thrived.
This quote from Carla L. Peterson's book, Black Gotham: A Family History of African Americans in Nineteenth-Century New York City, describes the dawn of the Black upper class during the mid-to-late 19th century. The recent popularity of HBO’s The Gilded Age has sparked a growing interest in the story of the Black elite. In the series, the character Peggy Scott is an aspiring writer and the daughter of a successful Black pharmacist who lives in a thriving Black community in Brooklyn. Peggy’s story gives us a glimpse into this lesser known history of America’s Black aristocracy.
The era known as the Gilded Age is dated between the 1870s and the 1890s. This brief period in U.S. history saw the end of Reconstruction, the expansion westward, and the massive accumulation of wealth by a small group of the population due to industrialization and the growth of the railroads. Only a few years after Emancipation, the Gilded Age also ushered in the new Black elite, also known as “the colored aristocracy,” “black 400,” ‘upper tens,” and “best society,” as noted by Willard B. Gatewood in his book, Aristocrats of Color: The Black Elite, 1880-1920. In spite of the popularity of books such as Our Kind of People: Inside America’s Black Upper Class, Black high society in the 19th century is still an understudied piece of American history.
This omission is in large part due to the stereotypes of Black people during the time of Reconstruction. As Gatewood aptly describes, “Since most whites in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries viewed blacks as a homogenous mass of degraded people, they were rarely inclined to think in terms of stratified black society. Rather, the tendency was to classify blacks as "good Negroes" and "bad Negroes" or to designate, for one reason or another, certain black individuals and families as exceptions. But even exceptional blacks were considered inferior to whites.” The discussion of a Black upper-class can be incredibly complex, considering the inclusion of race and the fact that many of these families, even with considerable wealth, were formerly enslaved or only a generation removed from slavery.
To be part of the Black elite meant not only wealth, but also education, influence, and political connections. Members of this small community attended schools such as Oberlin, Fisk, Harvard, and Yale. They were doctors, educators, entrepreneurs, and belonged to exclusive social organizations such as “The Social Circle”. This is a fascinating topic within the history of Black people in America, and if you are interested in learning more there are plenty of resources at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture for you to explore. Here is a short list available in the Jean Blackwell Hutson Research and Reference Division:
The Private World of High Society (1960) by Lucy Kavaler: Through interviews with members of the Black aristocracy, Kavaler discovers “what goes on beneath the surface” of this exclusive class. Kavaler covers topics such as the Social Register, social debuts, and the exodus to the suburbs. Perhaps one of the most interesting parts of this book is The Guidebook section, which includes a directory of “the right schools” and “The Nation’s Debutante Balls”.
Gerri Major’s Black Society (1976) by Gerri Major with Doris E. Saunders: In the introduction written by Major, she describes the world she was brought up in, “The aristocracy of which I write is based on birth. It is a club whose passwords are “Who are your people?” This book is a mix of history (heavily illustrated with art and photographs) and biographies of the “first families.” Major provides an extensive overview of the Black aristocracy in America from the 18th century to the 1970s.
Certain People: America’s Black Elite (1977) by Stephen Birmingham: Birmingham, mostly through first-hand interviews and historical research, covers “the Old Guard” and its relationship with the “nouveau riche” of Black Society.
Aristocrats of Color: The Black Elite, 1880-1920 (1990) by Willard B. Gatewood: This incredibly comprehensive book of the Black elite, covers the upper-class communities in different regions of the United States, including the “Upper Tens” in the Northeast and the “Elites in the Midwest and West.” Gatewood provides an in depth look at life of the upper class, covering club life, churches, and educational institutions.
Black Gotham: A Family History of African Americans in Nineteenth-Century New York City (2011) by Carla L. Peterson: “Part detective tale, part social and cultural narrative, Black Gotham is Carla Peterson's riveting account of her quest to reconstruct the lives of her nineteenth-century ancestors. As she shares their stories and those of their friends, neighbors, and business associates, she illuminates the greater history of African-American elites in New York City.”
The Original Black Elite: Daniel Murray and the Story of a Forgotten Era (2017) by Elizabeth Dowling Taylor: “This cultural biography tells the enthralling story of the high-achieving black elites who thrived in the nation’s capital during Reconstruction. Daniel Murray (1851-1925), an assistant librarian at the Library of Congress, was a prominent member of this glorious class.”
Bonus: If you were intrigued by Peggy Scott’s aspirations to become a published writer you will enjoy the Schomburg Center’s African American Women Writers of the 19th Century research guide, which includes biographies and full texts of written works.