Reimagining the Draft Riots of 1863

Focused on 1863, particularly July 13th-17th (the days the riots took place), but my research is broadened to the whole first half of the 19th-century in New York City.

The New York City Draft Riots of 1863 extend beyond questions of the newly revised draft pool and invoke underlying racial stigmas hidden within under the violence and impetus of the white mob and their movement throughout the four days comprising the Draft Riots.  The racial motivation of white Irish laborers and labor unions during the riots were deliberate, not accidental, utilizing the draft as a rationalization for targeting places of black inhabitance.   Black bodies were violently accosted at random; also, the white mob strategically mapped out locations of black communities and places of work, perpetuating symbols, and actions associated with local, colonial, and national histories of white supremacy.   Within the racial provocation is an intersection of class and divisions of labor and wealth.  How did the draft riots preserve notions of whiteness, and target and displace African-Americans through the murder of black lives and destruction of social, educational, cultural and religious institutions providing African-Americans with agency otherwise discriminated against in a “free black” Manhattan?  I argue that the draft riots played an instrumental role in depriving the African-American communities of one, a collective political voice, and two, a right to equal representation over changes happening in the city.   The draft riots led to amplifying racial insecurities and pushing African-Americans outside the city and then back in through an eventual occupation of the northern section of the city.  To be clear, this argument does not presume black people in Manhattan are only the “victims,” but rather show how their lives were complicated by a persistence of racism.

My mapping project revealed the patterns of movement from African-Americans’ prominent place in the southern part of Manhattan before and during the riots and the eventual cultural prominence that became Harlem, a black cultural, intellectual, literary, and political hub.   The concentration of points below Central Park shows how the Draft Riots contributed to the removal of African Americans from the city interior.    The research that led to the making of the maps, such as dissecting Trow’s City Directory from 1863, and the language of “colored” establishments, reinforced the separatist and segregationist rhetoric still circulating among the city after Emancipation was decreed in New York.   The event involved a specificity of acute moments of violence and harrowing content that I feel the subjectivities of African-Americans, white institutions, and the white mob are diffused by a dispersion of points and me being able to only draw a vague connection between the culturally and politically charged space representing the collision between the white mob and black bodies and physical structures.  While I was unable to trace a realistic reanimation of the mob’s movement, I think the arbitrary nature related to the limits of digital tools and superimposing a perspective, speaks to how the white rioters were possessed of an insidious will that attacked at random, fed by a historical habitus and cultural consciousness that enfranchised and still enfranchises the American people on the basis of racial hierarchies and matter-of-fact, short-sighted oppositions and differences between white people, black people, and people of color more generally.  In the process of mapping, I realized how it is important to acknowledge that the aesthetics and stylistic imaging of cartography can lead to one thinking they are painting a reality, and it is precisely that liberty for me portray without being portrayed in return.  The map became a surface of my thoughts and isolated an individualized, asocial space, eliminating the more powerful dialogue engaged in our classroom around visual representation and the visual order of maps produced around 19th-century urban layouts.

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