In 1712 and again in 1741, black New Yorkers rose up, killed white owners and neighbors, and threatened the city with fire. Many paid with their lives—and then were all but forgotten.
African-Americans had not forgotten, though, writes novelist Johnson (Hunting in Harlem, 2003, etc.), and when the African Burial Ground above Wall Street was discovered in the early 1990s, it became “a chance to grieve for the atrocities of the past and mourn for the nameless who came before them.” Thanks to colonial recorder Daniel Horsmanden, the alleged perpetrators of the 1741 conspiracy to burn New York had names, most of them Spanish, with smatterings of Dutch. These black men and women—about 160 in all—were implicated through chains of denunciation at whose center stood a 16-year-old white servant named Mary Burton, who personally witnessed and overheard plans to make a great murderous conflagration—or so she said. Burton may or may not have done so, but no matter; as Johnson writes, “People believed that the Great Negro Plot, regardless of the evidence, was a real threat, and this in itself brought real consequences. White people believed it. Black people believed it.” In the end, after the noose had been stretched, Burton began to change her story. Now it was not only blacks and a few evil white instigators who were alone rebellious; instead, Burton said, “There were some people with ruffles that were concerned,” that is, members of the elite. With that, the witch-hunt ended, even as many of the 160 blacks were sent to plantations away from New York, even as others were burned alive.
Most of this lies on ground Jill Lepore covers in the superior New York Burning (2005), which offers broader historical context. Still, Johnson brings a storyteller’s sensibility into play, and he makes excellent use of sources and testimonials.