Tag Archives: Carla Peterson

Check out: Carla Peterson on What the Women Were Doing

Workshop leader Carla Peterson, author of Black Gotham, has a terrific piece up on the New York Times Opinionator Blog: “What the Women Were Doing,” about activist African-American women during the Civil War.

She opens with her ancestor Maritcha Lyons’s recollection in her memoir of James McCune Smith’s “rallying centre” – those of us who attended Peterson’s lecture and “Black Gotham in/outside the Archive” at the end of March are lucky enough to remember her stories about both Lyons (pictured here in an image from the Photographs and Prints Division at the Schomburg) and Smith. Lyons’s memoir is one of Peteron’s most exciting archival finds detailed in Black Gotham.

Check out this fascinating read!


“Black Gotham in/outside the Archive”: Cemeteries as Archives, Cypress Hills Cemetery

As Peterson said in the Q&A after her March 22 lecture, “There is no limit to where your imagination can go in search of archives.” Including the graveyard.  Peterson visited Cypress Hills Cemetery in Brooklyn to find the burial sites of her ancestors and their friends. From a printout she received at the cemetery’s front office, Peterson learned not only the locations of the graves, but also the dates of purchase for the plots. The bulk of the family and church communities that she had uncovered in her research had all bought burial plots between January and May of 1850, indicating that they desired to be a community in death, as they had been in life.

Image from New-York Historical Society, St. Philip’s Church on Centre Street, c. 1819

“Black Gotham in/outside the Archive”: City Streets as Archives, The Brooklyn Bridge

While researching Philip White’s life in postbellum New York City, Peterson used city directories to uncover that while White had moved his residence from Lower Manhattan to Brooklyn in 1870, his pharmacy remained in its same location in Manhattan until his death in 1891. Peterson wondered why, since he moved his home, White hadn’t also moved his business, either in 1863 in the aftermath of the Draft Riots (which traumatized the black community), or in 1867, when he married Elizabeth Guignon? So she decided to walk the streets where White’s home had once been located—and found the entrance ramp for the Brooklyn Bridge. To build the unsuspended approaches and anchorages leading up to the bridge’s span on the Manhattan side, “this required clearing six blocks between Chatham and Water and Frankfort and Duane Streets…Philip’s drugstore on the corner of Frankfort and Gold was saved, but his home on Vandewater Street was demolished” (311). City directories led to city maps which led to city streets which revealed urban renewal – and a crucial piece of Peterson’s story.

“Black Gotham in/outside the Archive”: Research Practice & The Rhoda Freeman Papers

Peterson quotes Ira Berlin’s advice to her in talking about research practices. “Always start with the census!” Peterson adds that after the census, always check out municipal archives. She also quoted Berlin’s warning to her when she began the project that became Black Gotham: “You’re looking for a needle in a haystack.” And, to a certain extent, she found that needle. How did she do it? “Don’t ignore the grandparents,” she says, by which she means the incredible amount of information contained in the research done by scholars whose work may not be considered current, groundbreaking or even relevant. Peterson found the first two documents that helped her begin to write her story in the Rhoda G. Freeman Papers at the Schomburg Center, material that Freeman began collecting in the course of writing her dissertation (later her book), The Free Negro in New York City in the Era Before the Civil War, during the 1960s and 197os.

In addition to not ignoring the grandparents, Peterson advises young scholars to make personal contact. “Talk to strangers,” she says. Make phone calls before you go, get comfortable talking to people, and don’t be afraid to ask the person sitting at the table next to you what she’s working on. Conversations with archivists and fellow researchers are the best way to sustain your own work. Peterson herself only takes notes while in the archive, but she doesn’t wait long to start sifting through and analyzing her material – sometimes she does it on the bus ride home.


Our second Workshop in our series, “From Process to Product: Working the Archive,” featured Carla Peterson working through excerpts from Black Gotham with graduate students and young scholars from a variety of New York-area humanities departments.  We opened with a quotation from Black Gotham, which spoke to the “in” part of “Black Gotham in/outside the Archive” and to Peterson’s returning, again and again, to the Schomburg Center:

“Having reached a dead end, I turned to the archives, those storehouses of memories that have been painstakingly preserved on scraps of paper or in other forms, from paintings and photographs to digital images. Archives are man-made. Not all communities have the power to establish them since they require material resources—money, buildings, technologies of writing and preservation—as well as cultural resources, including literacy and historical knowledge. Those who have the means assemble, classify, and deposit what they deem worth preserving, discarding what they consider trivial, irrelevant, or even threatening to their way of life.  They create history, determining what can be forgotten, and what must be remembered and passed to future generations. Even after archives have been assembled, they never remain static monuments but are imbued with a sense of impermanence. Materials get damaged, lost, sold, removed from their original site and forgotten, destroyed through political upheaval or just sheer carelessness. What would I find? Not find? How would I be able to put together the scraps that I found? What could I make out of those I didn’t find?  I visited the Schomburg Center time and again, and haunted the city’s many other libraries, museums, historical societies, and memorials. I gradually realized that although much of New York’s black history was irretrievably lost, some of its was still there, buried but waiting to be found.  I also discovered that despite any personal or cultural traumas nineteenth-century black New Yorkers might have suffered, many had made determined, if sometimes futile, efforts to commemorate their history.” (19-20)

Since the Workshop aims to train young scholars, Peterson spoke directly to her methodology, which she describes as intuitive and persistent. The heart of Black Gotham, as she told us, lies in its detail. “If I couldn’t find the detail that could make the story sing,” she said, “I’d just be replicating the work of others.” She also warned young scholars never to stop at the database – “You always have to look at newspapers. Lord knows what lies on the page.”

While acknowledging that younger scholars and graduate students might not have the opportunities to write a trade book with such personal stakes early in their careers, Peterson nonetheless offered valuable encouragement about the writing process. Often, when telling a story, the materials we use can reveal the best narrative strategy (which, in Peterson’s case, meant “writing to the scrap,” making Black Gotham’s chapters into narrative scrapbooks). Using archives allows us to revisit literary forms in new ways to reveal cultural work that they’re doing. It also gives us access to new kinds of documents to consider as literary objects.

Writing a Scrapbook #2: Obituary for Peter Guignon

Also in the Rhoda G. Freeman Manuscript and Research Collection at the Schomburg, Peterson discovered her second scrap – an obituary for Philip White’s father-in-law, her great-great-grandfather Peter Guignon. Signed “A.C.” for Alexander Crummell, a close friend of Guignon’s, the obituary describes Guignon’s days at the Mulberry Street School for colored children, where his classmates included James McCune Smith (one of the first black doctors in the U.S. and Philip White’s mentor) and Henry Highland Garnet. Not only did this second scrap lead Peterson to another family member who would become a part of Black Gotham’s story, it also offered a portrait-in-text of another significant member of a pre-Harlem community of black elites in nineteenth-century New York City. As her subsequent research would illustrate, these communities were distinct from those growing apace in other Northern cities like Boston and Philadelphia. Both Boston and Philadelphia possess an extensive paper trail of publicly visible black women activists working in the antebellum North. Analogous communities of women remain concealed in the culture of antebellum New York City, a difference that Peterson attributes in part to a particular focus in black Gothamites’ reform efforts: the restitution of male suffrage for free blacks, restricted by New York’s 1821 state constitution.


Writing a Scrapbook #1: Obituary for Philip White

In her lecture, Carla Peterson described Black Gotham as a “partial” history of black elites in New York – “partial” because it is incomplete, because she is attached to it and because her family is a part of it. She also told us that it is a “spatial history,” organized by the geography and topography of New York City.

But the story begins with a family tale about her paternal great-grandfather Philip Augustus White, which lead Peterson to seek out more information at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. There, in a box labeled “biography” by a researcher from an earlier generation (Rhoda G. Freeman, author of The Free Negro in New York City in the Era Before the Civil War), she found this piece of paper, an obituary for “the late P.A. White.” This first scrap, his obituary from the February 21, 1891 issue of the New York Age, provides the first tangible piece of  the scrapbook in Black Gotham. It transformed Philip Augustus White from a mis-described family legend (as a “white Haitian”) into a documented, embodied pharmacist who was educated in African Free Schools and became longtime communicant at St. Philip’s Episcopal Church.

Image from the Rhoda G. Freeman Manuscript and Research Collection, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture