“We are convinced that the greatest amount of the prejudice in our country, which exists against our people, has its foundation in wrong views of them, and that such views are predicated upon ignorance.”
Despite his work in the ministry and journalism and as an ardent abolitionist and conductor along the Underground Railroad, Charles Bennett Ray’s name is not as widely known by historians as other notable African Americans of the nineteenth century. “Colored Churches in This City” is a closely organized survey of the churches within the New York City area where African Americans could freely worship, some of which are still in existence today.
Charles Ray had another motive for creating the survey, which was printed in the Colored American, a regional newspaper of which he was editor: he hoped that it would also serve as a vehicle to help inform whites and reduce prejudicial attitudes and behaviors toward African Americans. Ray often preached that prejudice was a result of ignorance, and in keeping with his belief in using peaceful measures to combat prejudice, he also wrote the survey hoping to educate the white community on the “meritorious, and virtuous, and consistent” behavior of African Americans.
In 1799, the New York State legislature passed the Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery, which allowed for measured but continued freedom for slaves. In 1817, the New York legislature declared that all slaves in the state would be free as of July 4, 1827. Although African Americans living in New York City were considered legally free in 1840 when Charles B. Ray wrote and published “Colored Churches in This City,” many were living under significant restrictions on their civil and political rights, thus ensuring that freedom was not completely realized. In 1821, for instance, New York removed the property requirements for white men to vote, but requirements were increased for free black men: an amendment to the state constitution in 1821 raised the voting requirement for African Americans from $100 worth of owned property to $250. Additionally, the increased immigration of Europeans to New York City beginning in the 1840s dramatically reduced job prospects for African Americans, who were then forced to take work as unskilled laborers or domestic servants.
As a result of these and other restrictions on personal freedoms and rights, African Americans began a concerted effort during the 1800s to develop a cohesive and supportive community. Black-organized and -run churches, newspapers, schools, and literary and book-lending societies grew in number, and abolitionism and antislavery sentiment expanded among African American as well as white communities during this time.
The first African American churches in New York City were formed in the late eighteenth century, starting with the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, which Ray lists in his survey as the Zion Church, “the mother church of all the rest.” Numerous other churches were formed, representing several denominations, including the Baptist, Methodist, and Episcopal faiths. Out of these early churches grew uniquely prominent and influential African American news, literary, artistic, and political societies that served to support not only the African American community but the abolitionist and antislavery movements as well.
The first African American newspaper, Freedom’s Journal, was founded in New York City in 1827 with the goal of helping to improve African American rights and liberties and advocating for the end of slavery. The Colored American, which was initially named the Weekly Advocate, was first launched in 1837 by Presbyterian minister Samuel Cornish, New York City activist Philip Bell, and minister and abolitionist Charles B. Ray with the purpose of improving the moral and political lives of African Americans throughout the northeastern United States. The weekly paper also advocated for the peaceful emancipation of all slaves. In 1839, Ray became the sole editor and owner of the paper and continued its mission by reporting on stories important to African American suffrage, freedom, and civil rights. Above all, Ray believed that prejudice against African Americans was based in ignorance and that “contact [with African Americans], in every possible way, will be a very efficient method to change the views and the feelings of the public, and the course they pursue towards us; because, it will develop the whole people, and the whole character of the people.”
It is not known exactly how many white readers Ray reached with the Colored American, but his words in “Colored Churches in This City” point to his belief in the ability to change negative attitudes toward African Americans through the equalizing morality of religion and the unity achieved through faith.
Charles Bennett Ray was born on December 25, 1807, in Falmouth, Massachusetts, the eldest of seven children of parents Joseph Aspinwall Ray, a postal worker, and Annis Harrington. He first attended school in Falmouth, then moved to Westerly, Rhode Island, for five years to work on his grandfather’s farm. Afterward, Ray moved to the Massachusetts island of Martha’s Vineyard in order to learn the boot-making trade. In 1830, Ray became determined to be a Methodist minister, and with the financial backing of several white abolitionist friends, he was admitted to Wesleyan Academy in Wilbraham, Massachusetts, in order to begin his training. After two years in Wilbraham, Ray applied to the newly opened Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut, in order to further his theological studies. Ray was the university’s first African American student, and he left after several weeks due to racial tension.
In 1832, Ray moved to New York City, opened a boot-and-shoe shop, and became a Methodist (later Congregational) minister. He was also introduced to renowned abolitionist and Presbyterian minister Theodore Wright, whose house and church were several blocks from Ray’s shoe shop. Ray joined the growing antislavery movement that was developing in the city among African Americans and many whites. He became a conductor in the Underground Railroad, guiding many escaped slaves to freedom while securing financial support for the antislavery cause from wealthy white abolitionists.
In 1837, Ray was offered a position at the newly founded weekly newspaper the Colored American. Begun in January of that year by antislavery advocates Philip Bell and Samuel Cornish and initially named the Weekly Advocate, the Colored American promoted nonviolent means of abolishing slavery. The paper regularly ran stories and editorials calling for enhanced civil rights and better educational and economic opportunities for African Americans. Many articles reported on successful religious, educational, and economic ventures by African Americans. Others reported on regional and national events of the day in an effort to raise awareness among the community. One such article covered the case of the slave ship La Amistad and the slaves aboard who mutinied and fought for their freedom.
Ray became the sole owner and editor of the paper in 1839, which continued its circulation until 1841. During his time with the paper, Ray was also a passionate public speaker, always promoting the cause of abolition while sharing his perspectives on the gross mistreatment of slaves. In doing so, he helped to legitimize the African American fight for freedom and liberty.
Ray was married to Charlotte Augusta Burroughs, with whom he had seven children. Two of their daughters, Charlotte T. and Florence Ray, were the first African American female attorneys in the United States; another daughter, Henrietta Cordelia Ray, was a nationally recognized poet. Charles Ray died in August of 1886.
Faith was vitally important to Charles Bennett Ray; he spent much of his life training for the ministry, becoming ordained as both a Methodist and a Congregationalist minister and later serving as pastor of Crosby Congregational Church and Bethesda Congregational Church, both in New York City and both attended primarily by white parishioners. “Colored Churches in This City” illustrates Ray’s devotion to spiritual life and his desire for all African Americans to be able to worship freely.
As with many groups beset by ostracism and intolerance, faith and organized religion were powerful sources of unity for African Americans as well as formidable symbols of hope for the future. The survey compiled by Ray and published in the Colored American, however, served another purpose, as he explains in the second paragraph of the article: “In presenting . . . different churches in this city . . . we have more than one object to accomplish.”
Charles Ray and the Colored American advocated for nonviolent methods as effective means to abolish slavery. The Colored American held a policy—which was outlined in the paper’s first editorial and which Ray promised to continue when he assumed the editorship—that the printed word was a viable means to educate the uninformed, to advocate for the emancipation of all slaves, and to unify all African Americans toward a common goal of racial improvement. Furthermore, Ray believed that white prejudice was a direct result of ignorance and that to combat prejudice against African Americans, whites must be educated, or “develop[ed],” so as to no longer be ignorant. Thus, in the third paragraph of the survey, Ray, as spokesman for the paper, explains, We are convinced that the greatest amount of the prejudice in our country, which exists against our people, has its foundation in wrong views of them, and that such views are predicated upon ignorance, or upon what the people do not know of what is meritorious, and virtuous, and consistent amongst them, and that contact. . . . We know of no better way to effect this, than to develop through the press, the mind of the people.
We are convinced that the greatest amount of the prejudice in our country, which exists against our people, has its foundation in wrong views of them, and that such views are predicated upon ignorance, or upon what the people do not know of what is meritorious, and virtuous, and consistent amongst them, and that contact. . . . We know of no better way to effect this, than to develop through the press, the mind of the people.
This is not to say Ray thought that prejudiced whites were unintelligent. Rather, he believed that white prejudice was caused by a lack of exposure to and understanding of the African American community and that “contact by our people, in every possible way, will be a very efficient method to change the views and the feelings of the public.” It is with this intent that Ray created the survey of African American churches so that whites would learn “what is meritorious, and virtuous, and consistent among” the black community and begin to understand that African Americans could be viewed in a manner that contradicted the stereotypical assumptions.
Ray begins his survey by listing ten churches in and around the New York City area, starting with “those farthest up, in the suburbs of the city.” He includes in each church’s description the merits or faults of its location; the pastor’s name, often with additional comments on his religious, educational, and moral reputation; the number of parishioners in attendance and the church’s total capacity; and, often, whether the church building is owned, leased, or mortgaged. The variety of Protestant denominations that are represented by these churches is also stressed. These points serve to inform interested African Americans of the choices available for worship in the New York City area. What the survey further accomplishes, however, is a humanizing of African Americans, who are presented as moral, religious, decent, just, and therefore worthy of respect. Faith, then, was one way that Ray and the Colored American attempted to combat prejudice and to advocate for more equal treatment for African Americans.
Interestingly, the primary readership of the Colored American was African American and white abolitionists, and it is unclear whether Ray’s survey reached his intended audience: white racists who supported slavery and the restrictions on the civil rights of African Americans. Regardless of whether any whites other than abolitionists read the survey, it was able to inform and help unify, and thus strengthen, African Americans in their quest to attain the same rights and liberties as their white counterparts.
Charles Ray believed in the power of the printed word and its ability to sway public opinion while informing and educating its readers. Through his published survey of African American churches, he hoped to prove the true moral nature of all African Americans, which would in turn help further the cause of emancipating all slaves. Unsurprisingly, Ray and the Colored American had advocated for African American rights and freedoms many times prior to 1840, when the survey was distributed.
In 1839, the year before “Colored Churches in This City” was published, which was also the same year Ray became owner and editor of the Colored American, slaves aboard the Spanish vessel La Amistad freed themselves and revolted, killing the captain and several crew members. The slaves then demanded that they be transported back to the African continent, but the crew tricked them and instead sailed north. The ship was taken into custody off the coast of Long Island, New York, and the Africans were imprisoned in New Haven, Connecticut, while their case and their rights were debated.
Because international slave trade had been outlawed in 1807, a lengthy court battle ensued to determine the legal rights of the Africans. The case drew national attention, especially among abolitionists and abolitionist newspapers, who used the event to further their cry for emancipation. The Amistad incident also caught the attention of Charles Bennett Ray, who reported extensively on the case and utilized his paper to further its stated goals of educating and unifying the African American community while simultaneously advocating for freedom of all enslaved individuals.
The Colored American printed several articles in support of the Africans, especially their leader, Joseph Cinqué (whom the paper referred to as Cinques), and the October 19, 1839, issue reprinted an article placing Cinqué among the likes of several renowned leaders. The article, originally printed in the September 28, 1839, issue of the abolitionist newspaper Herald of Freedom and attributed by an 1849 collection to Herald editor Nathaniel Peabody Rogers, compares Cinqué to American senator Daniel Webster—”The head has the towering front of Webster. . . . He has Webster’s lion aspect”—and refers to Cinqué as “noble.” The article states that if Cinqué were white rather than black, he would be honored rather than imprisoned—”Were he not an African, a black man, his fame would be emblazoned forever on the tide of time, and written in high eulogium by the historian’s pen”—and closes by contemplating the effect the case of La Amistad will have upon slavery.
The paper followed the case extensively and published several more articles on Cinqué and his fellow shipmates. A correspondent from the paper was sent to Washington, DC, to report on the Supreme Court proceedings and arguments before the justices.
Charles Bennett Ray used the written word to further his commitment to employing nonviolent means to abolish slavery. He worked toward realizing emancipation on several levels, including his belief that prejudice could be eradicated through education and information.
This passive stance is also found in a quote used by historian M. N. Work in the article, “The Life of Charles B. Ray.” Work explains that the objectives of the Colored American were to effect “the more directly moral, social, and political elevation and improvement of the free colored people; and the peaceful emancipation of the enslaved” (364). This recommendation of nonviolence worked in conjunction with Ray’s belief in presenting a unified and religious face to those prejudiced against the black community. He did not see it as a front but, rather, wished to take advantage of the strongest element of their group. Their faithful dedication to the church was their validation of civility within America, and presenting themselves as promoting their rights through peaceful measures reinforced the latter. To do otherwise, to rise up in violence while exhibiting themselves as committed, churchgoing people, would be counterproductive and underscore the already-false assumptions.
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