In the mid-1800s, New York City was already on its way to becoming the dynamic metropolis we know today. Manhattan was a city of half a million people and about 15,000 of these New Yorkers were members of a free black community. Although this community’s place in our city’s history is often forgotten, it was instrumental in establishing modern New York. In the years leading up to the Civil War, free black people established schools, churches, theaters, and activist networks. Some even operated as agents for the Underground Railroad and helped aid those who had escaped from slavery.
On Sunday, February 10, our Reading into History Family Book Club will look into this overlooked chapter of history with Tonya Bolden’s award-winning book Maritcha: A Nineteenth-Century American Girl. Bolden will join us in person to discuss her vivid rendering of New York City through the eyes of Maritcha Lyons, a remarkable young girl who engaged in activism and witnessed the 1863 New York City Draft Riots.
Join us on February 10 to discuss Bolden’s brilliant book, ask her questions about her writing and research, and visit Black Citizenship in the Age of Jim Crow for a special guided tour!
DiMenna Children’s History Museum: In the preface to Maritcha: A Nineteenth-Century American Girl you write about the thrilling experience of finding Maritcha Remond Lyons’ memoir at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. Why did Maritcha’s story immediately stand out to you as special?
Tonya Bolden: What jumped out to me is how relatively few stories we have of free black people—and the black middle class—in antebellum America.
DCHM: Maritcha Lyons grew up in New York City. What do you think our young readers living in New York today would find most surprising about the city that Maritcha knew?
Tonya Bolden: I imagine readers might be surprised to learn that New York City was far from a bastion of liberalness and of liberty and justice for all—and that many in the North had no quarrel with slavery. Also that Brooks Brothers existed back then.
DCHM: In order to realize your dream of telling Maritcha’s story, you write that you had to do a “fair amount of detective work—dots to connect, facts to ferret out.” What are some of the sleuthing techniques you used in order to tell Maritcha’s story?
Tonya Bolden: For one, I went down to the Municipal Archives on Centre Street, not far from where Maritcha was born, to search for property-related documents that would help me figure out when her family lived at different residences. I also had to research many of the people she mentioned in her memoir, from her godfather James McCune Smith and the Downings to Sarah Doyle, Maritcha’s “guiding star” at Providence High. I needed to fact-check certain events she mentioned in her memoir because few people have a perfect memory and, well, we all make mistakes.
DCHM: Your book features so many incredible images that capture Maritcha’s world. Why were images crucial to telling Maritcha’s story?
Tonya Bolden: I love telling history with both words and images. Images put us on the scene, put ourselves in the shoes of other people. A favorite of mine is the cover page and first page of Maritcha’s high school graduation essay. What penmanship! Another is the look down one of the streets she lived on, the print of a look down the block at the corner of Frankfort and Vandwater. It enables a reader to imagine her running errands, playing outside and such.
DCHM: What three words would you use to describe Maritcha: A Nineteenth Century Girl?
Tonya Bolden: Surprising. Revealing. Inspiring.
Written by Caitlin O’Keefe, Family Programs Educator