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Rose is…Rising

First and foremost, I am so sad I missed Steven’s session in February. Every time I hear him speak, I learn something new or gain a new perspective. We entered Futures Initiative the same year and have been connected ever since. He’s not just doing the work, he’s living the work. I am consistently inspired by him and I know that session was on fire.

For my project, I am most excited about unearthing what life was like for freed and enslaved people in early New York. Since I am writing a fictionalized account of Rose Butler’s life, I need to understand what Black life was like in the 19th century, which hasn’t been an easy feat through the years of my research. Information about Black life in the North is scarce because of the popular narrative that slavery was rare up here. However, New York is a direct product of slave labor involving both Blacks and Natives, which means there has been rich and abundant Black culture here since the 1600’s. I want to delve into that for my project.

I’ve already found a few sources of information directly related to Rose Butler. I first started this project in 2018 with my Media and Production class. We decided to do a “haunted New York” theme for our project, and through our research we found our Washington Square Park used to be some gallows. We then found out a young 19-year-old enslaved woman named Rose Butler was the last person to be hung there and decided to focus on her story. Initially, we could only glean so much information about Rose and her crime. We focused mostly on slavery in early 19thcentury New York and why Rose would have been compelled to try and kill her “masters”. We found a poem written about her, as well as some blog posts here and there which go into the early gentrification of Tribeca and the areas surrounding Washington Square Park.

There is far more information and content out about Rose Butler now, including a short film by an accomplished Black actress and writer. The interdisciplinary project required that we produce our media script, create an advertisement campaign, social media profiles and the like. A lot of our information and sources were compiled online, and it makes me wonder if we inspired this latest interest in Rose Butler’s life.

Her Wikipedia page offers some information in the body, but the sources provide more valuable resources. It brought me to the textbook, In the Shadow of Slavery: African-Americans in New York City, 1626-1863 by Leslie M. Harris, which provides an incredible amount of insight into slavery in post-Colonial New York. I plan on using the information in this textbook to establish the physical, political and social setting surrounding our girl, Rose.

Harris reveals that Butler was said to be a thief. In fact, the catalyst to her crime was a conflict between her and Mrs. Morris about her stealing. A minister who attended to her speculated at her involvement in an underground crime network. I’m not necessarily inclined to believe this minister, simply because free white men could openly and brazenly lie on any Black person at this point in history. At the same time, Rose lived and socialized among free Blacks and could have wanted to taste what she was, in all honesty, entitled to, especially as an unpaid laborer. Either way, I plan on using this information in my characterization of Rose. I think the idea of her stealing adds some depth to the situation, and could be a conduit to explore the sociopolitical reality of New York at the time.

I found the most exciting and salacious information on Newspapers.com. I clipped a few articles about Rose Butler that were primarily in gazette-type publications. In her book, Harris points out that Rose Butler was an impactful figure of her time, a representation of the “dangers” of emancipating New York Blacks too quickly, too soon. However, I was surprised to see the New York Times or any other reputable publication did not cover her crimes or execution. I looked NYT articles from the week of the signing Emancipation Proclamation; no coverage of it was front page, nor did it address the freeing of enslaved peoples. Considering at the lack of coverage of both incredibly newsworthy stories, my tenuous conclusion was that white New Yorkers at the time weren’t willing to confront the reality of slavery in their city, nor were they willing to make any kind of substantial change until they felt comfortable.

The text reads: Case of Rose Butler.
Rose – (a colored woman) was this day brought up before the Supreme Court to receive sentence of death, for the crime of arson. She had previously been tried and convicted by a verdict of the jury at the Oyer and Terminer, held in November last, before chief justice Thompson.It appeared, from her own confession and other proof, that she had set fire to the house in which she lived, late at night, and after the family, consisting of her mistress, two young ladies, a small child who slept with her mistress, a young gentleman and a boy, had retired to bed, and were all asleep in the upper parts of the house. The combustible materials and the fire were placed upon the kitchen stairs by the wench. She then retired to bed in the same room where the boy slept. The fire soon kindled and made considerable crackling and smoke. The boy was alarmed by it, and twice asked Rose if he should go and call up Mr. Morris. She told him to lie till, as the noise he heard was only the cat jumping about[.] AT last he did go. Mr. Morris was awakened, he alarmed the rest. The fire by proper exertions was put out, after consu-[cont.]-ming three steps of the kitchen stairs.

The articles provide much more insight into her crime, the family structure, and her role within the home. In one article, the author writes “We are happy to learn, that coloured people of this city, being convinced of the enormity of the crime, are generally reconciled to the fate of Rose Butler, and it is hoped that no offence of a similar nature will ever again occur.” I wonder how much of that is true. I’m sure many Black people were offended by Rose’s crime and felt she threatened their progression into greater American society. However, I’m also sure many Black people were offended by the institution of slavery itself and felt that Rose made the right choice. Harris mentions that some publications hinted at groups of Black people were sending letters to the Mayor, threatening to repeat Rose’s crime.

Leslie Harris’ textbook, the other sources mentioned in the newspaper articles as well as the sources listed on Wikipedia are strong and provides a roadmap to other sources I would like to look into. My next step is making an appointment at the New-York Historical Society library to look at Rose’s affidavit and some pieces of witness testimony.

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