In the words of Lao-tzu, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” In Carla L. Peterson’s case, that first step was taken at New York City’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. There, within the pages of an unidentified scrapbook, she found the obituaries of Philip Augustus White, her paternal great-grandfather, and Peter Guignon; White’s father-in-law and her great-great-grandfather.

These obits, meticulously crafted by Alexander Crummell, a prominent black leader of the time, are evidence that these two men were amongst an elite group of movers and shakers in their communities. Her quest to discover more about her family had begun, and while she states that the context of her narrative is shaped by the lives of White and Guignon, the two men “also serve as a pathway to a larger public history: the history of social movements, political events, and cultural influences in which my great-great-grandfather and great-grandfather were participants and witnesses.”

Peterson, an English professor at the University of Maryland, College Park, wonders why the story of these men had been kept under wraps within her own family. Perhaps, she writes,”an unbridgeable generation gap” had opened between her grandparents’ and her father’s generation, where accounts of nineteenth century black New Yorkers didn’t hold much meaning for them, so they saw little need of preserving it. She also addresses the fact that although black New Yorkers of that era lacked the means to create and preserve their own archives, that didn’t hinder their efforts to commemorate their history.

Frustrated about the dearth of information on the men and women of color who helped shape this city, the author was determined to bring to light their rarely acknowledged achievements. Peterson begins by shattering what she calls some commonly held “truths” about African-Americans: “That the phrase ‘nineteenth-century black Americans’ refers to enslaved people; that ‘New York State before the Civil War’ denotes a place of freedom; that ‘blacks in New York City’ designates Harlem; that the ‘black community’ posits a classless and culturally unified society; that a ‘black elite’ did not exist until well into the twentieth century. The lives of Peter Guignon and Philip White belie such assumptions.”

She reconstructs the lives of these men and their contemporaries, who were born free during a time when slavery was still legal in New York State. People like Henry Highland Garnet, George DeGrasse, and Patrick Reason, Eliza Richards, Maria DeGrasse, Marchita Lyons, and Rebecca Peterson. They attended the best schools for young blacks at that time, they worshiped at St. Philips Episcopal Church, and they founded literary societies and news papers, and fought for political causes, often working alongside whites. They took on trades as tailors, carpenters, shopkeepers, restaurateurs, and shoemakers while others became ministers, educators, or pharmacists, like Philip White. They were a politically savvy group involved in fighting for their rights as citizens, their right to vote, and their right to be.

These men and women were part of the cultural and intellectual elite well before the Harlem Renaissance, at time when Harlem was just a tiny village. They lived in racially diverse neighborhoods, first in Manhattan, then in Brooklyn, and generally supported one another. There were men, like prominent Brooklyn school teacher, William J. Wilson, who publicly expressed pride in his African roots, but Peterson discovered that Philip White’s record on supporting other blacks was sometimes less than stellar, “I wanted my great grandfather to be a dedicated race man.” However she does note that eventually he did take more interest in his race later in life.

Peterson is especially clear in pointing out that education was paramount to this population and much of their efforts went to bringing education to other less fortunate blacks. This was an arena where the women of this society were truly able to shine. Peterson weaves the history of her ancestors into the fabric of New York: the great fire of 1835, the Panic of 1837, the cholera outbreak in the summer of 1832, the devastating draft riots of 1863,

In Peterson’s words, Black Gotham is “not exactly a family memoir, but neither is it traditional social history. It is a narrative that lies somewhere in between.” What the book does do is shine the light on the emergence of a black elite during the 19th century, offering a glimpse into this little-known sector of American history.theGrio spoke with author Carla L. Peterson about Black Gotham:

What was your impression of nineteenth century New York City before you began your research and how did it change over the course of time?

I actually had not spent much time thinking about nineteenth-century New York. As I say at the beginning of my book, my father had told me very little about his family’s background. And, as a literary critic, I was spending my professional energies helping to recover and analyze long forgotten African-American literary texts — novels, poetry, etc. But, if asked, I probably would have talked about the great families—the merchant princes — who helped to turn NYC into Gotham as well as the great disparities of wealth and poverty in the city. I knew that Harlem did not exist as a “black community” at that time, but I certainly assumed that blacks lived separately under severe conditions of residential racial segregation. Since working on my book, I’ve learned so much more, particularly the degree to which white and black New Yorkers interacted in so many unpredictable ways.

It was interesting to discover that there was quite a bit of interaction between blacks and whites in New York in the early nineteenth century. What were some of your most surprising findings?

I was most impressed by what I came to call the “rule of whimsy.” There was indeed a lot more contact between whites and blacks than I ever suspected, but much of it was not predictable. In a period of intense racial hostility, one would have thought that the protocols of race relations would be clearly spelled out, but they were not. The white allies whom black New Yorkers thought they could count on ended up by disappointing them. Diehard segregationists — like George Templeton Strong — sometimes took their side (especially during the Draft Riots). One day they could ride on a railroad car without being molested, the next day they could be summarily ejected. One day they were free to visit Niblo’s or the Crystal Palace, the next day they were barred entrance. In every instance of racial violence during the 1863 Draft Riots that I came across there was always one anonymous “kind neighbor” who came to the defense of black victims.

I was also impressed by the degree to which white merchants were willing to help talented blacks in business. Two examples: 1) at the age of 11, Peter Ray started out in the Lorillard Tobacco Factory as an errand boy; at his death in the early 1880s he had risen to the position of superintendent at the new factory in Jersey City. 2) My great-grandfather, Philip White, had a drugstore in a neighborhood called the Swamp in Lower Manhattan. The white merchants in the area appreciated his hard working nature and threw business his way so that he was eventually able to add a wholesale business to his retail store.

Your relatives were fortunate; they were educated, financially stable, and free to pursue cultural interests. Their lives were so different from most blacks living in New York during that time, and yet they felt a strong desire to bring education to those less fortunate and to defend their rights. What do you think gave them this sense of duty?

You’re really asking me about the ideology of “racial uplift” which is a vexed question even today. Many would say that my family and their friends were being elitist and condescending, treating the black masses as a lower social order that they had to bring up to their level. It’s absolutely true that one reason for racial uplift was that the elite feared whites would lump them all together and not see distinctions between them and the black masses. But on the other hand racial uplift was an act of racial solidarity since on doing so the elite were not turning their backs on the masses. They simply believed — just as black leaders do today — that education was the best path to social equality and full citizenship, that it would lead to better jobs, greater wealth (important for the right to vote) and that this would benefit the entire black community. And the black elite always recognized that they could not rest on present accomplishments but that they too needed to continue uplifting themselves.

I was also impressed by their pride and confidence. In a society so keen on keeping us in place, where did these men and women draw their strength from?

Conviction that they were in the right, which they got from their reading of U.S. founding documents and classical European literature, and from their travels. Above all their abiding sense that God was on their side. This sometimes led to a belief in their superiority over whites. A writer published an article mid-century titled “What Shall We Do with the White People?”

How has learning about your ancestors changed you?

I spent ten years growing up in Geneva, Switzerland where my father worked for a U.N. agency. My parents made sure to teach us about what it meant to be African-American, but this was a time when “ecumenical” thinking was the order of the day. We simply belonged to “the family of man” and not really to any place. So now I feel that I do belong to a place — New York — and there’s nothing I like better than roaming around the streets of lower Manhattan and standing somewhere where I know an ancestor had lived, visited, worked. I feel I belong!