“One of the smallest and least known national groups in this country is a group of Black Jews.  In New York, Newark, Philadelphia, and other cities, and in some of the West India Islands as well, they congregate in little synagogues, strictly adhering to the faith of their forefathers.”  So wrote photographer and historian Alexander Alland in his introduction to a series of photographs of the Commandment Keepers Congregation in Harlem, taken in 1940.


The Commandment Keepers were founded in 1919 by Wentworth Arthur Matthew, who believed that Black Jews had direct lineage from the ancient Hebrews and Israelites and that ancient biblical figures were black.   By 1940, the Harlem congregation numbered above 500.  They followed traditional Jewish practice and observed Jewish holidays, such as Simchat Torah, pictured above.


In conjunction with the synagogue, Rabbi Matthew ran a school where children learned Hebrew and Jewish History and received religious training.


At the time Alland photographed the Commandment Keepers, their synagogue was located above a drugstore at 128th Street and Lenox Avenue.  In 1962, the Commandment Keepers moved into the former residence of Arm & Hammer Baking Soda baron John Dwight, located at 1 West 123rd Street.  A neo-Renaissance brownstone designed by architect Frank H. Smith, the building was later given landmark status.   Matthew’s death in 1973 led to internecine battles over who would succeed him as spiritual leader, which culminated in 2007 with one faction selling the historic building for 1.26 million dollars.   A lawsuit contesting the sale was brought by the other faction and the issue remains unresolved.

Lately the words “Black Swan” are more closely associated with Hollywood, but those familiar with the history of performing arts in New York City might know them in reference to Elizabeth T. Greenfield and her memorable performance at Metropolitan Hall in 1853.

Metropolitan Hall, Century Illustrated Monthly Magazine, June 1882.

Greenfield was born a slave in Natchez, Mississippi in the early years of the nineteenth century.  Granted her freedom by her widowed mistress in the 1820s, she arrived in Philadelphia around 1836 and likely began her singing career at church services there.  By 1851 Greenfield’s star had risen, through a debut performance in Buffalo that brought comparisons to the famous Jenny Lind, or “Swedish Nightingale.”  Still, her moniker “Black Swan” was born of another celebrated singer at the time, the Irish-born “White Swan,” Catherine Hayes.

Despite a substantial audience of over 2,000 and a suitably impressed public, Greenfield’s New York performance on the March 31, 1853 was not without controversy.  Metropolitan Hall, where the concert took place, chose to block African-Americans from attending, perhaps the result of arson threats it had received for putting a black performer on stage.

Clipping from page 220, April 2, 1853 proof issue of The illustrated News.

This angry reaction to Greenfield’s concert provides a likely explanation for the rather unusual decision by The Illustrated News demonstrated by two of the images shown here.  Even though the above wood engraving of Greenfield is clipped from The Illustrated News and bears the date April 2, 1853, the same page on the library’s intact copy of the same issue contains no such image (as shown below).  The reason?  The Greenfield wood engraving was from a proof, and presumably the negative public reaction caused The Illustrated News to cut both the illustration and description.  So it was for a woman about whom Harriet Beecher Stowe in Sunny Memories of Foreign Lands commented “Had she had culture equal to her voice and ear, no singer of any country could have surpassed her.”

Page 220 of The Illustrated News, April 2, 1853.

The position of African-Americans during the American Revolution was complicated by the incongruous conceptions of freedom held by American colonists.  Fears about what arming African-Americans and promises of freedom might do to the institution of slavery meant limited interest in attracting blacks to actively contribute to the cause.   This reticence gave ample opportunity to the British to foment slave unrest in the colonies, and to attract larger numbers of slaves and free blacks to their ranks.  As a result, many runaway slaves flocked to British-held New York seeking a chance at freedom.  A large number of those who made it served non-combat roles as drivers and laborers as shown in the image below.

Minutes of the British Board of General Officers, New York, 1781.

Still, while not always officially encouraged to enlist, blacks served on the American side throughout the war, albeit in smaller numbers than on the British side.  On March 20, 1781, the New York State General Assembly passed a bill (documented in the assembly journal below) which included in its sixth article a provision to entice slave owners to contribute male slaves to continental regiments, entitling the owners to a land grant as remuneration.

Journal of the New York State General Assembly, 20 March 1781.

Under the provision, the slaves themselves who served out their three years, or were discharged, would be rewarded with their freedom.  Below is the published text of the complete bill, showing article VI.

Laws of the State of New-York, 20 March 1781, volume 1, 1st – 15th sessions.

If you are interested in examining other material relating to the history of African-Americans in New York, we strongly suggest visiting the recently-completed Slavery Digital Project.  The site contains digital images of fourteen N-YHS manuscript collections that relate to slavery.

Creative: Tronvig Group