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Dabel Examines Black History In 19th Century New York City

Published: February 17, 2014

With the movie “12 Years a Slave” up for nine Academy Awards this year, African-American history could not be more timely in the opinion of History’s Jane Dabel.

Dabel is the author of 2008’s A Respectable Woman: The Public Roles of African-American Women in 19th Century New York from the New York University Press.

Her main goals were to understand gender roles among African-Americans, to examine the history of free blacks between the years 1827-80 and to study race relations in New York City. Her research revealed how African-American women entered the workforce out of a necessity since African-American men were relegated to the most dangerous and lowest-paying jobs. Using census data and a database composed of nearly 60,000 profiles of African-Americans living in the city between the years of 1850-80, she demonstrated how New York’s free blacks lobbied for equal rights at home and an end to Southern slavery.

“Normally, when we think about African-American women in the 19th century, we think solely about slavery,” said Dabel, who joined the History Department in 2001. “But there were 250,000 free blacks living in northern cities such as Boston, Philadelphia and New York. New York had the most sizable population which is why I decided to focus on them. I wanted to look at what their daily lives were like as non-slaves since there was no slavery in New York at that time. But they were not true citizens. They were in a limbo in which they were neither slave nor free. I was curious about what kinds of jobs they were working, what sort of family structures they were living in and where they were living in the city.”

Her research yielded some surprises.

“African-American women in New York at that time had no rights. The most common job they had were as washer-women which was a very complicated process that began with going to a public pump and carrying a bucket up many flights of stairs where the water was heated over a fire. Then they scrubbed the clothes, dried them and ironed them. It was hard, back-breaking work,” she said. “Yet, in spite of all the challenges they faced, they were able to carve out interesting lives. They were very active in their churches, they sent their children to school at higher rates than white children, and there were musical societies and 19th century versions of the Oprah Winfrey Book Club. In spite of all the challenges these women were facing, they were able to carve out meaningful lives. They did not allow themselves to be victims of circumstance.”

Her research dovetails with “12 Years a Slave.”

“This is a tremendous, haunting film that stayed with me for weeks,” she recalled. “Solomon Northup is part of the demographic I study. He lived with his family north of New York in Saratoga Springs as a well-known and respected musician. His wife was a well-known cook and they lived in a lovely home. It is clear he views himself as a free man leading a free life. Then it is all taken away. The film brutally captures the experience of slavery in the South. With ’12 Years a Slave,’ you see slavery in all its brutality and psychological mechanics. It is really, really disturbing.”

Dabel received her B.A. from UC Berkeley, her M.A. and Ph.D. from UCLA and, in 2007, she received CSULB’s Distinguished Faculty Teaching Award. Her research took her from the New York Historical Society’s documents from the Colored Orphan Asylum to the New York Public Library, the New York Municipal Archives and the National Archives in Washington, D.C., and its Civil War pension records documenting claims by African-American soldiers.

Dabel Examines Black History In 19th Century New York

“Because African-Americans were not allowed to marry legally at the time, when applications were made for husbands who were unable to work due to their injuries, they couldn’t check the box about being married. They would have to fill out affidavits and legal documents to prove they were, for all intents and purposes, married,” she said. “I discovered wonderful love stories such as the woman who could not recall the exact year of their marriage but it was during the Mexican War which places it between 1846 and 1848. These were people living deep in poverty yet finding some joy in life.”

According to Dabel, there were between 10 and 20 African-American churches in New York during this period, the bulk of the congregants being women.

“The churches formed a central part of their lives,” she said. “Look at St. Philip’s in Harlem. The church was there for so much more than worship. They hosted fundraisers to support abolitionists. They formed sewing circles so children would have something to wear to school. They found ways to find a little joy amid horrific circumstances.”

Dabel plans to continue her scholarly commitment to African-American history.

“If I had the choice to do over, I would,” she said. “Ultimately, I’m an optimist. I see in my research people fighting back and creating remarkable lives in spite of all the challenges. These were monumental challenges that they would not let destroy them.”