Dr. Leslie Alexander: Historian. Professor. Author. Activist


African or American?

During the early national and antebellum eras, Black leaders in New York City confronted the tenuous nature of Northern emancipation. Despite the hope of freedom, black New Yorkers faced a series of sociopolitical issues including the persistence of Southern slavery, the threat of forced removal, racial violence, and the denial of American citizenship. Even efforts to create community space within the urban landscape, such as the African Burial Ground and Seneca Village, were eventually demolished to make way for the city's rapid development. In this illuminating history, Leslie M. Alexander chronicles the growth and development of Black activism in New York from the formation of the first Black organization, the African Society, in 1784 to the eve of the Civil War in 1861. In this critical period, Black activists sought to formulate an effective response to their unequal freedom. Examining Black newspapers, speeches, and organizational records, this study documents the creation of mutual relief, religious, and political associations, which Black men and women infused with African cultural traditions and values. 

As Alexander reveals, conflicts over early Black political strategy foreshadowed critical ideological struggles that would bedevil the Black leadership for generations to come. Initially, Black leaders advocated racial uplift through a sense of communalism and connection to their African heritage. Yet by the antebellum era, Black activists struggled to reconcile their African identity with a growing desire to gain American citizenship. Ultimately, this battle resulted in competing agendas; while some leaders argued that the Black community should dedicate themselves to moral improvement and American citizenship, others began to consider emigrating to Africa or Haiti. In the end, the Black leadership resolved to assert an American identity and to expand their mission for full equality and citizenship in the United States. This decision marked a crucial turning point in Black political strategy, for it signaled a new phase in the quest for racial advancement and fostered the creation of a nascent Black Nationalism.

"African or American? breaks new ground in its sustained attention to principal but little-known black community organizations and leaders in New York City. The comprehensive, in-depth treatment of the Five Points district, Seneca Village's relationship to Central Park, the Negro's burial ground, and more make this book exceptional. It is the best discussion to date of being an American in relation to antebellum blacks that I have read."

Sterling Stuckey, author of Going through the Storm: The Influence of African American Art in History 

"Focusing on the meaning of African heritage, Black Nationalism, community, and African emigration in New York City during the antebellum period, Alexander provides a compelling argument for the emergence of African heritage and identity and charts the waxing and waning of its meaning in the black community."

Leslie M. Harris, author of In the Shadow of Slavery: African Americans in New York City, 1626-1863


“Alexander brilliantly examines this topic for black people in antebellum New York City. . . . An important contribution. Highly recommended.”--Choice

"[Alexander's] survey of black leadership is excellent, her sensitivity to local black politics is admirable, and her tracing of the varied black investment in emigrations is . . . correct and adds to our understanding of antebellum reform and nationalism."--American Historical Review

"A powerful reminder that racial discrimination--and the struggle against it--cut across lines of region and section in the American past."--The Journal of American History

"A ripping good story."--Canadian Journal of History

"A rich narrative showing black New Yorkers' complex debates and organizing efforts to gain freedom, citizenship, and equality in the early national and antebellum northern United States."--Journal of American Ethnic History


Edited by Maurice Jackson and Jacqueline Bacon, this collection explores how the Haitian Revolution shaped the art, culture, and political expression of Black people in the United States. 

I contributed an essay entitled, "The Black Republic: The Influence of the Haitian Revolution on Northern Black Political Consciousness, which served as the foundation for my current research on the rise of Black Internationalism in the early nineteenth century. For more on this project, click on the link below. 


"This is a timely and enterprising collection that answers a growing need to set African American history in a broader international context. It combines essays that are diverse in approach with a wide-ranging selection of documents."

--David Patrick Geggus, co-editor of The World of the Haitian Revolution

"The chapters and documents presented in this edited volume deliver the goods in rich abundance as promised in its title, through deeply probing exploration of important connections between people of African descent in the United States of America and the history and legacy of the Haitian Revolution. The central significance of that upheaval, when slaves freed themselves in the Caribbean, cannot be overstated for its wide range of impact on the consciousness of enslaved and oppressed blacks in America. African Americans and the Haitian Revolution offers fresh insight and opens up many windows into the role of the historically fascinating and extremely complex world of the Haitian Revolution in shaping the African diaspora."

--David Barry Gaspar, author of A Turbulent Time: The French Revolution and the Greater Caribbean

"Amidst a spate of exciting new work on U.S. perceptions of the Haitian Revolution, this work stands out ― not simply for the novelty and quality of the scholarship it contains, but also for its efficacy for the classroom. Here, first-rate historical analysis combines with excellent historical editing to offer students the single best volume that can be found on its topic. Highly recommended."

--Patrick Rael, author of African-American Activism before the Civil War: A Reader on the Freedom Struggle in the Antebellum North

"These essays and case-studies presented as a collection are so compelling because stylistically mirroring the historical ebb and flow of ideas across ‘porous borders’, the works in this volume converse with each other. They present a variety of evidence which unarguably attests to the enduring influence which Haiti has and continues to have on the actions and consciousness of African-Americans. ... What is abundantly clear through the chronologically wide-ranging array of evidence presented in this volume, is that Haiti’s revolution and its aftermath have been undeniably key in African-Americans' recognition of their own potential...to act in creating both material freedoms and continuing to inspire freedoms of mind."

–-Wendy Asquith, University of Liverpool

Learn More About My Current Research

Encyclopedia of African American History

Co-edited with Walter Rucker, this volume introduces readers to the significant people, events, sociopolitical movements, and ideas that have shaped African American life from earliest contact between African peoples and Europeans through the late 20th century.

This encyclopedia places the African American experience in the context of the entire African diaspora, with entries organized in sections on African/European contact and enslavement, culture, resistance and identity during enslavement, political activism from the Revolutionary War to Southern emancipation, political activism from Reconstruction to the modern Civil Rights movement, black nationalism and urbanization, and Pan-Africanism and contemporary black America. 

"Although this work is aimed at high school students and college undergraduates, graduate students and advanced scholars in the fields of American history, African American history, ethnic studies, and black studies will find it an accessible and useful resource."—Library Journal


"Overall, the Encyclopedia of African American History serves as an outstanding historical reference publication that will add value to any high school, academic, or public library. Moreover, this work will serve to complement any current reference collection covering African-American, Black studies, or cultural studies. In particular, the organization system of the encyclopedia, through its division of entries into themes, distinguishes it from similar reference books."—Reference Reviews

Find out more

We Shall Independent Be

Edited with Angel David Nieves, this volume contains twenty chapters from leading scholars in African American history, urban studies, architecture, women's studies, American studies, and city planning that illuminate African Americans' efforts to claim space in American society despite often hostile resistance. 

As these essays attest, Black self-determination was central to the methods African Americans employed in their quest to establish a sense of permanence and place in the United States.

Contributors define space to include physical, social, and intellectual sites throughout the Northern and Southern regions of the United States, ranging from urban milieus to the suburbs and even to swamps and forests. They explore under-represented locations such as burial grounds, courtrooms, schools, and churches. Moreover, contributors demonstrate how Black consciousness and ideology challenged key concepts of American democracy—such as freedom, justice, citizenship, and equality—establishing African American space in social and intellectual areas.

Ultimately, "We Shall Independent Be" recovers the voices of African American men and women from the antebellum United States through the present and chronicles their quest to assert their right to a place in American society. By identifying, examining, and telling the stories of contested sites, this volume demonstrates the power of African American self-definition and agency in the process of staking a physical and ideological claim to public space.

"The many thoughtful, original, and exciting essays in 'We Shall Independent Be' powerfully illuminate the interstices of black history and culture, revealing the myriad ways in which African Americans struggled to claim and develop spaces and places essential to survival and social transformation. This beautiful and moving anthology is essential reading."

—Darlene Clark Hine, author of A Shining Thread of Hope: The History of Black Women in America


This is a splendid collection of scholarly essays. . . . Its thematic rather than straightforward chronological approach enables us to fathom certain recurring continuities as well as discontinuities in the African American struggle for terrain in geographical, social, and spiritual terms."
—Professor Joe William Trotter Jr., History Department Head, Carnegie Mellon University

"This is a gem of a book, a clear, intelligent, multi-faceted exploration of the history of African-American search for space in the United States. The time periods covered extend from the early nineteenth century to the present, with an excellent overview of contested spaces in the courtroom, urban neighborhoods, places of worship, the suburbs, and even burial grounds. This is a creative and significant contribution to the study of race and space."

—Julie Manning Thomas, University of Michigan

Find out more