John Brown Russwurm (1799–1851) was an abolitionist, newspaper publisher, and colonizer of Liberia where he moved from the United States. He moved from Maine to New York City, where he was a founder with Samuel Cornish of the abolitionist newspaper, Freedom’s Journal, the first paper owned and operated by African Americans.
Mr. Russwurm was born in Jamaica to an English Merchant and an enslaved woman. He was sent to Quebec when he was young for his education. He reunited with his father in 1812 and moved to Maine with his father and stepmother. The stepmother kept him with the family after the death of his father in 1815.
He graduated from school in Maine and began to teach at an African school in Boston. His stepmother and her new husband helped him pay for his college education at Bowdoin College from 1824 – 1826. He became the first African American to graduate from Bowdoin College and third African American to graduate from an American college.
He moved to NYC in 1827 and published the first edition of Freedom’s Journal that March. His position on Africans moving back to Africa was controversial and he quit the paper in 1829 to lead colonization by African Americans in Liberia. In 1836 he became the first black governor of Maryland in Africa, a colony that later became part of Liberia in 1857. He held this post until his death in 1851.
Simon Congo (approx 1600/1608 – 1667/1668) was one of the first African men to be brought to New Amsterdam. He was born in the Congo and brought over with Paul d’ Angola, Anthony Portuguese, John Francisco, and seven other males in 1626. Their names indicate that they may have been slaves on Portuguese or Spanish ships captured at sea.
Mr. Congo, along with the other men, served the Dutch West India Company in New Amsterdam for around 22 years. The Company released these slaves on a “half‑freedom” plan which gave the Company the produce and periodic labor that it required without the responsibility of superintending and maintaining the slaves. Simon chose to become a farmer for himself and was given land in the area we know as Greenwich Village.
His “freedom” was granted “on condition that they . . . shall be bound to pay for the freedom they receive . . . annually . . . to the [Dutch] West India Company . . . thirty skepels of Maize or Wheat, Pease or Beans, and one Fat hog, valued at twenty guilders.” If the tribute were not paid, their freedom was forfeited. They were also obligated to work for the Company for wages whenever their services were required.
Unfortunately, any children the men had would be required to serve the company as slaves for 35 years before “freed”. This became a very controversial caveat in the community. Many families bought the freedom of their children when possible.
George T. Downing (1819-1903) was an abolitionist and activist for African-American civil rights. From the 1830s until the end of slavery, Downing was active in the abolitionist movement and in the Underground Railroad, with his restaurant serving as a rest house. During the American Civil War, Downing helped recruit African American soldiers.
Downing’s grandparents were former slaves. He attended one of the first free African schools in New York City and went on to Hamilton College. In 1842, Downing started a catering business in Manhattan. His work brought him in touch with many of the elites of the city, including the Astors and Kennedys. In 1850, he moved to Providence, Rhode Island, continuing to work in Newport during the summer. In 1854 he built the Sea Girt Hotel, which was burnt to the ground on December 15, 1860, by an arsonist. He replaced the building with Downing Block, part of which he rented to the Government to serve as a Naval Academy hospital.
Downing was an important leader in abolitionism in New York. He was active in the organization of the American Anti-Slavery Society in 1833, and together with Frederick Douglass and Alexander Crumell. Downing was central in the movement for African American civil rights during the Civil War. He was also president of the Convention of Colored Citizens in Boston on August 1, 1859. He played a role in Reconstruction politics as well pushing for the support of blacks against violence and repression in the south.
Vertner Woodson Tandy (1885 – 1949) was an American architect. He was the first African American registered architect in New York State. He initially attended Tuskegee Institute studying architectural drawing. In 1907 he graduated from Cornell University with a degree in architecture.
Tandy also holds the distinction of being the first African American to pass the military commissioning examination and was commissioned First Lieutenant in the 15th Infantry of the New York State National Guard.
He designed buildings for Harlem millionairess Madam C. J. Walker, St. Philip’s Episcopal Church at 204 West 134th Street in NYC, and the Ivey Delph Apartments, designed in 1948, was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2005.