Unlocking Black History at the New York Municipal Archive

writes Ginger Adams Otis for the New York Daily News, Saturday, October 24, 2015, 5:28 PM

Some of the city’s best-kept secrets are all hidden in one place — but you have to know what you’re looking for to find them.

Inside the Municipal Archives, there’s a remarkable set of records full of forgotten history: the District Attorney’s Indictment Papers.

They’re part of an incredible 221,000 cubic feet of documents kept by the city’s team of archivists and conservationists. Almost anything related to New York City life can be found there, from 1645 all the way through the Bloomberg years.

This includes things like the very earliest etchings of the green space that became Central Park, tales of a black millionaire who got his start running brothels in the city and Robert Moses’ vision to create a huge expressway in lower Manhattan.

It’s even more unusual to get a glimpse of African-American New Yorkers over the centuries — but through the court records, rich details of their lives appear.

A census from 1810 shows a hefty population of enslaved African-Americans — but a growing number of free blacks, too. Six years later, records show, an African-American woman named Nancy paid $2 to then-Mayor Jacob Radcliff for a certificate of freedom — allowing her to travel unimpeded in the city.

Australian historian Shane White at the New York County Clerk Records office, which he said has "the best set of records I have ever seen."

The contents of the District Attorney’s Indictment Papers are so astounding that historian Shane White — a specialist in the city’s historic African-American life — comes all the way from Australia just to study them.

He’s unwrapped more than 30,000 dusty old files, carefully untying fragile red ribbons to read through descriptions of murders, drunken brawls, even libel cases.

“As it happens, the best set of records I have ever seen ... are contained in the Municipal Archives,” said White, whose latest book, “Prince of Darkness: The Untold Story of Jeremiah G. Hamilton,” recounts the life of the first black Wall Street millionaire.

Sometimes old evidence from long-ago cases drops out of the files into his lap, he said.

White has found “flick knives” from stabbings, old rope from a kidnapping and an implement used to terminate a pregnancy, he said.

When White’s not prowling the archives, he is up on the seventh floor in the New York county clerk’s office — where senior archivist Joe Van Nostrand holds the key to a sealed room holding tens of thousands of court cases from the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries.

“These offer rare snippets of life for African-American New Yorkers over the centuries,” White said.

“Sooner or later, even the most respectable of New York blacks had his or her day in court as a litigant or merely as a witness and left a paper trail in these records,” he noted.

The archives tell a far more inclusive story about New York’s past than most people realize, White said.

The ruthless Wall Street trader Hamilton wasn’t alone among the city’s successful black businessmen of the time.

Another black entrepreneur, William Thompson, made his fortune running brothels in the 1830s.

“Just like many white New Yorkers, he got his start with immoral gains, then he invested in real estate,” White said.

“Most people have no idea that a black man once owned the lower half of Times Square — in fact, there’s a subway there today,” White said. “Whenever I walk by there, I give a little tip of my hat to him.”

For full article see New York Daily News Website