This image of the Fulton Ferry landing, just a few years before it would be remade into the commercial thoroughfare we can still see today, seems at first glance to be a charming if unremarkable tableau. In fact, it contains at least a couple of elements that make it rather unique.
In the nineteenth century most urban images produced for public consumption were idealized, at least to some extent. The heightened romanticism of Currier & Ives is perhaps the most extreme example. It seems unusual, then, to note what might be characterized as an iconic depiction of a sow in the street, especially considering the fact that hoards of roaming pigs were, for several decades of the period in both New York and Brooklyn, a topic of significant controversy. Issues of personal liberty and sustenance for the laboring classes confronted increasingly difficult and even dangerous issues of sanitation, not to mention simple public decency and civil order.
Of greater interest, however, is the prominent placement of an African American man in the picture (the shading is not supplied by the tinting but by the engraving itself). Slavery was outlawed in New York only a few years before this view was composed, and Brooklyn quickly became a popular location for free blacks — many of whom were former Long Island slaves — to settle. In this time period, most of the African American community were in High Street, near Bridge.
Blacks were as integrated in early Brooklyn as they were likely to be anywhere, and many personal histories archived in the 1870s and ’80s recall memorable individuals.
There was an old Negro fortune teller who lived on a corner of Boughton’s farm whom everybody consulted. She was a veritably wise woman. Of course I too went to her to try my fate and sorry I was, for coming home across the bridge, I was caught in a heavy thunderstorm and reached home thoroughly drenched and frightened. Did she tell me true? Ah! So much has come and gone in the days since then I cannot tell!
— 1887 interview with a woman identified only as “an old lady still living in the house on Carlton avenue, near Myrtle, into which she was taken a happy bride over fifty years ago.”
Even more remarkable, this image may actually depict a specific individual.
Numerous Brooklyn reminiscences recall the city’s first omnibus driver as being black, and one in particular describes a two-seat rockaway wagon, the conveyance which had preceded the launch of the stage line, as having been driven by man known as Black Sam. He ran the wagon on Clinton and Washington Avenues, to the Fulton and Catherine Street (at Main) ferries.
Was it Black Sam who was then hired to drive Brooklyn’s first omnibus, the Fair Ring, on Myrtle Avenue? Does this picture, with all its iconic Brooklyn imagery, feature the Fulton landing stage driver at his usual post, the ubiquitous Black Sam?
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