One hundred and fifty years ago, a good deal of Manhattan was under siege. The New York Draft Riots were in their second day. New Yorkers would have locked themselves in their houses, worried that the events of yesterday would continue.
Those events involved the burning of significant parts of Manhattan, the destruction of the Colored Orphans Asylum, the murder of about 100 innocent black people, and the attack on the homes of both wealthy and anti-slavery New Yorkers. Mobs of mostly Irish men were protesting the draft, and standing against the threat that the newly freed slaves would bring to their jobs. They did not want to die for a black man’s freedom, so they killed them in New York streets.
Last night, it rained in New York. The rain also fell on the first night of the Draft Riots, but the rage continued. Most of the North was celebrating the Union victory at Gettysburg. In New York, the veterans of Gettysburg came to put down the riot. It took weeks, perhaps even decades, to heal the city.
In Florida, families would have been mourning their dead from Gettysburg. They may have questioned the North as well: how self righteous of the North to say that the South mistreats its black people when they hunt them down and lynch them in New York! To burn down an orphan’s asylum showed a deep lack of respect for life, and the slave — even as property — was much better respected…or so they may have thought.
It is one hundred and fifty years later, and New Yorkers are gathering to mourn a young black man killed in Florida’s streets, as the man who took his life was found “not guilty”. Just as those black New Yorkers were doing nothing but walking around one hundred and fifty years ago in the wrong place at the wrong time, Trayvon Martin was walking around and doing nothing, being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
We will never know exactly what happened on the night Trayvon Martin was killed, but I would like to think that those black men murdered on New York’s streets one hundred and fifty years ago may have thought that, riding on the victory of Gettysburg, we would see a restored Union based on freedom and basic human rights. And this Union would include Florida, and in Florida, or in any state for that matter, a black man could live without fear.
They must have thought it would be better one hundred and fifty years later.