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A Respectable Woman

The Public Roles of African American Women in 19th-Century New York

Jane Dabel

Publication Year: 2008

In the nineteenth century, New York City underwent a tremendous demographic transformation driven by European immigration, the growth of a native-born population, and the expansion of one of the largest African American communities in the North. New York's free blacks were extremely politically active, lobbying for equal rights at home and an end to Southern slavery. As their activism increased, so did discrimination against them, most brutally illustrated by bloody attacks during the 1863 New York City Draft Riots.

The struggle for civil rights did not extend to equal gender roles, and black male leaders encouraged women to remain in the domestic sphere, serving as caretakers, moral educators, and nurses to their families and community. Yet as Jane E. Dabel demonstrates, separate spheres were not a reality for New York City's black people, who faced dire poverty, a lopsided sex ratio, racialized violence, and a high mortality rate, all of which conspired to prevent men from gaining respectable employment and political clout. Consequently, many black women came out of the home and into the streets to work, build networks with other women, and fight against racial injustice.

A Respectable Woman reveals the varied and powerful lives led by black women, who, despite the exhortations of male reformers, occupied public roles as gender and race reformers.

Published by: NYU Press

Title Page

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p. vii


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pp. ix-x


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pp. 11-18

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1 “I Resided in Said CityEver Since”

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pp. 19-50

"In 1890, Caroline Cornelius (n

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2 “We Were Not as Particular inthe Old Days about GettingMarried as They Are Now”

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pp. 51-72

"Following the abolition of slavery in New York, blacks renegotiated their family situations and created stable units. Black women were resilient and worked hard to ensure the survival of the black family as well as the larger black community during a period of intensifying racial discrimination. As economic, social, and political forces continued..."

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3 “I Washed for My Living”

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pp. 73-101

"Following emancipation in New York, black women entered the wage-earning labor force in large numbers to support themselves, their families, and their community. Although only a few occupations were open to them, their position in the labor force allowed them to define themselves as freedwomen with their employers and within their..."

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4 “Idle Pleasures andFrivolous Amusements”

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pp. 103-117

"As black women flooded into the wage-earning sector in New York City, they sought ways to enjoy their few free hours. Economic and cultural changes opened the door to new activities for them after emancipation. Throughout the nineteenth century, black women carved out their own leisure activities and spaces within the city despite..."

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5 “They Turned Me Out ofMy House”

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pp. 119-138

"Race-based violence, including riots and racially motivated attacks, was rampant throughout nineteenth-century New York City.1 It was carried out primarily by white men against black men.2 There is evidence of racial animosity toward black men in New York City from their earliest days of freedom. This animosity had many sources, including resentment about slaves’ emancipation, workplace competition, and..."

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6 “We Should CultivateThose Powers”

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pp. 139-166

"Nineteenth-century New York City was a hotbed of black activism. During the antebellum era, African Americans battled the twin evils of northern racism and southern slavery. The community fought for the civil rights of all African Americans and believed that no black was truly free as long as the institution of slavery remained. Blacks..."

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pp. 167-169

"In January 1883, the editors of the New York Globe argued that 'although twenty years have elapsed since emancipation colored men in some states, north as well as south, are even now subjected to the grossest indignities. They are refused admission to theaters and other places of amusement, unless they take seats in the corner designated..."


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pp. 171-216


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pp. 217-240


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pp. 241-253

About the Author

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p. 255

E-ISBN-13: 9780814785188
E-ISBN-10: 0814785182
Print-ISBN-13: 9780814720110
Print-ISBN-10: 0814720110

Page Count: 240
Publication Year: 2008

OCLC Number: 794701038
MUSE Marc Record: Download for A Respectable Woman

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • African American women -- New York (State) -- New York -- Social conditions -- 19th century.
  • African American women -- New York (State) -- New York -- History -- 19th century.
  • Racism -- New York (State) -- New York -- History -- 19th century.
  • Women's rights -- New York (State) -- New York -- History -- 19th century.
  • Sex role -- New York (State) -- New York -- History -- 19th century.
  • African American women -- Political activity -- New York (State) -- New York -- History -- 19th century.
  • Community life -- New York (State) -- New York -- History -- 19th century.
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