- Radical Hospitality and Political Intimacy in Grahamite Boardinghouses, 1830–1850
After enduring three days of crowded steamboats, segregated cars, and rutted roads, three hundred travel-weary abolitionists filed slowly toward their appointed meeting place in May of 1840 only to meet a menacing crowd. Residents of New York City's fourth ward lined Franklin Street to jeer the unwelcome arrivals. Familiar with such episodes, the antislavery delegation from New England moved with practiced calm toward St. John's Hotel. Urban boardinghouses overflowed with reformers during each anniversary week in the 1830s and 1840s, inundating the scarce lodging spaces otherwise accessible to abolitionists. Added to these usual pressures, the Garrisonian contingent also anticipated an exceptionally ugly battle among fellow abolitionists at the annual meeting of the American Anti-Slavery Society. The cresting debate over women's full membership in antislavery organizations had attracted, according to one observer, "far greater numbers" of activists than had attended prior conventions.1
The Franklin Street crowd had been summoned by a white man who [End Page 397] claimed to have witnessed an instance of interracial flirting in the street near the hotel. But a domestic threat soon overshadowed the sexual one. The crowd roared at the sight of "white, black and mulatto, men and women, married and single" carrying "trunks, cloaks, umbrellas, band-boxes, carpet bags, smelling bottles, bedding and other necessary articles" for what appeared to be the start of housekeeping together. Reporters on the scene noted the "cart loads of beds, kitchen utensils, provisions cooked and raw" that the abolitionists carried with them. They watched as the first arrivals "took possession" of the hotel's kitchen to cook a communal meal. A group of teenage girls from the Plymouth Juvenile Antislavery Society realized that the hotel would not have beds for everyone and began hanging up their shawls to portion its ballroom into makeshift sleeping quarters. In the street, "light-colored fathers" ushered their "precious family" indoors. As abolitionists "tumbled in the Hall, with luggage, bed and bedding," men in the crowd bellowed that it would just be a matter of time until they "all lay, like pigs, amalgamated together." A few of them accosted the hotel's proprietor and threatened to burn his building to the ground. He admitted that Arthur Tappan had reserved the hotel for a large group of "religious" travelers but denied admitting this "mixed multitude of commingling colors, tongues and notions of propriety" into his large, elegant hotel. Escorted by street toughs, the hotelier "downed the rough-board table of his early customers, tumbled it and their mass of trumpery into the street, and then compelled the amalgamators to follow their luggage."2
Where could this enormous group of abolitionists find lodging on a moment's notice? And even if the delegation broke into smaller parties, where would African Americans be welcome? Urban entrepreneurs and municipal authorities had built the exclusion of black lodgers into the first national network of hotels. Those who allowed black guests to stay among their predominantly white clientele risked legal suppression as well as extralegal violence. Their businesses could be closed by court order, a policy that survived until the mid-twentieth century. The problem of navigating hostile spaces was nothing new to African Americans in the 1830s and 1840s, particularly when it came to lodging, which was a necessity during journeys that took days or weeks. As Elizabeth Pryor [End Page 398] has recently shown, black mobility was heavily constrained by exclusion, segregation, and harassment. These actions profoundly limited black freedom and citizenship. Unrestricted mobility theoretically separated free people from slaves and bound servants. As freedom of movement increasingly defined citizenship in an expanding nation, "colored travelers" undermined the association in many white minds between blackness and servility. In this context, white Americans fortified their monopoly on travel accommodations and black activists fought campaign after campaign for the right to move freely. In practical terms, the black abolitionists ousted from St. John's Hotel would ordinarily have turned to hospitable friends or black-owned boardinghouses. African American boardinghouse-keepers such as Amelia Seaman advertised directly to black abolitionists, but these resources stretched thin during mass political gatherings. One attendee...