March 9, 1867

artist unknown


Black Americans; Home Life; New York City, Black Americans;

No 'People' indexed for this cartoon.


Neighboring Waiter (who has cleared his twenty-five feet of sidewalk long ago). "Say, Sam, how does you like livin' in a corner house when de snow comes?"

What is remarkable about this cartoon is how unremarkable it is. It depicts two black men (presumably in New York City) as employed, house-owning, responsible individuals. The focus of the cartoon is not about an issue related to emancipation, voting rights, or any topic of particular interest to black Americans; rather, the cartoon’s subject and setting are generic and commonplace. The two characters could have easily been white men, with no change in the nature of the joke or the impression the scene conveys. The commenting neighbor does speak in a slight dialect, but no greater in degree (and in some cases, less) than that which was usually associated with typical cartoon characters, such as working class, upper class, rural, Irish American, or German American. 

Harper’s Weekly ardently supported civil rights for African Americans and condemned anti-black discrimination and violence, whether it occurred in the South or the North. However, as discussed previously (see the archive for the cartoon of February 24, 1866, "Holy Horror of Mrs. McCaffraty"), the presentation of blacks in the newspaper’s illustrations and cartoons went through several stages. This cartoon was published during the era when African Americans were most visibly supported by the journal. At the national level, the journal’s editor and writers were urging passage of Congressional Reconstruction policies, and at the state level, the removal of a property qualification for voting required of black men, but not of white men, in New York. That editorial priority was reinforced by the dignified portrayal of blacks in the paper’s cartoons and illustrations.

While nineteenth-century New York City was home to a few African-American professionals, such as physicians and lawyers, most blacks competed with European immigrants and white rural migrants for jobs not necessitating highly trained skills. Black workers faced the additional burden of racial discrimination, which kept them barred from unions and certain occupations (e.g., as machinists). The black men in this cartoon are employed in a typical service-oriented job as restaurant waiters, an occupation which black men dominated in post-war New York City. The newspaper’s cartoons during the 1857-1880 period approximate the occupational ratio of urban black laborers: ten cartoons include images of black waiters, five of domestic servants, while a miscellany of other occupations are represented only once or twice.

As in the rest of the urban North, blacks constituted a small percentage of the population of New York City (less than 2 %) throughout the nineteenth century. Following the Civil War, when many blacks had fled the city after the violent anti-black draft riots, the black share of New York City’s population grew by over 25% from 1865 to 1870, and by over 50% in the 1870s. Most of the city’s new black residents were freedmen from the South, especially Virginia. In the late-nineteenth century, African Americans resided in communities throughout the metropolis, although most lived in the poor sections of San Juan Hill and the Tenderloin. The neighborhood in which the cartoon’s black waiters live is racially integrated (note the white man shoveling snow in the background). 

Robert C. Kennedy

May 29, 2024

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