From Brooklyn to the Burbs: The Story of John Joseph
Updated: Jun 15, 2022
(Erica Buddington in Brooklyn, 2014)
I looked down at the new schedule and shrugged. It was time for my ninth-period history course.
I was fifteen and over it.
Mr. Silva* taught in a monotone voice and was easily agitated if you pushed back against his teachings. I would come to learn, at a much older age, that Mr. Silva could not teach us what he did not know.
Ten minutes after my arrival, Mr. Silva was going on and on about westward expansion.
His classroom was filled with posters about dead white men and quotes about "believing in America."
The classroom was populated by Black and Brown kids staring out at our school parking lot, the happenings in the hallway, and the eraser remnants on their desks—anything but what was on the board. His room decor was almost identical to the army recruiter pamphlets handed out in the school lobby.
I fell asleep as the words Lewis, Clark, and other revisionist history made their way into my dreams. Mr. Silva didn't take kindly to this and decided to take a moment to call me out.
"Ms. Buddington! Who was the Native American woman who assisted Lewis and Clark on their expedition?"
I knew that Mr. Silva expected me to jump up from my sleep, startled. He didn't know that I was teetering on the fine line of sleep stages—still aware of the happenings around me.
I lifted my head momentarily and stated, "The teenager that led the expedition was Sacagawea, alongside many other Native Americans."
After I replied, I put my head back down, and Mr. Silva took the opportunity to make another point, "Ms. Buddington must've learned that in her honors class. The one she was removed from. They must be ahead of us."
This statement couldn't have been further from the truth.
I'd learned it from my father.
I was removed from all of my honors courses because I was failing math, a glaring F next to all of my As and Bs.
My guidance counselor said, "It's best to just remove you from all of your classes so that you're not overwhelmed."
While I now have strong feelings about "gifted classes," my parents rectified that in a few weeks.
But someone else in that school couldn't do Math: Mr. Silva.
During one of his lessons, he made it a point to tell us about the development of Long Island.
He said, "There weren't many Black people on Long Island until the 1950s, 60s, and 70s. They migrated here for domestic jobs, in wealthy white homes."
I was wide awake and forgot about raising my hand, "That doesn't make sense."
"How so, Ms. Buddington?"
"I see Black churches that say they were built in the 1800s. If Black people weren't here, who were they for?"
Since then, I've learned the AME churches and other churches founded in Long Island and across the nation have long been literal places of sanctuary for Black Americans and all who care to worship there.
They are often the heart of communities, unincorporated and unrecognized by surrounding entities, and usually evidence of the Black enclaves that once existed.
One man who'd found his way to a new Black enclave with an AME Church was a Caribbean businessman named John Josephs.
His story resonated with me as a child whose parents suddenly decided to move to the suburbs of Long Island.
My mother and father visited house after house before purchasing one. They were always a bit uncomfortable with the single predominant demographic in most Long Island towns until they found a home in Hempstead/Uniondale.
One afternoon, my father would walk me through the last fifteen years of his life. He drove down Uniondale Avenue and towards Hofstra University’s football stadium, where The Jets once practiced. It was the most I’d known about his college experience up until now.
While we waited at a red light, he’d pointed to Hempstead Turnpike in front of us, “Your mother and I would always walk up and down this road. We were so excited to be here. At the time, your mother’s school was much more diverse than mine. Hofstra only had 2% Black kids. We should’ve known after—”
My father turned left and sighed hesitantly, “Your mom and I had a few experiences where we were called the n-word as people drove past us. It was the ’80s, but it wasn’t that long ago.”
I was pissed, “In a Black neighborhood? How dare they come into our space and—”
“This area hasn’t always been a Black neighborhood. But, we were arriving at the end of something called "white flight." We bought our house from a white couple who almost didn’t sell it to us.”
“I’m not entirely sure, but they met you during our second meeting with them. The wife said you were brilliant and eloquent, and a kid like you deserved this neighborhood.”
Based on the artifacts that John Josephs left behind, he did not allow anyone to tell him what he did or did not deserve.
John Joseph, also known as Johnny Joe, was once enslaved in Martinique, West Indies.
Upon his arrival to America in the early 1800s?, his enslaver freed him, and he became a waiter serving many families until the War of 1812.
(One of my sources says that John was brought to America in 1795, while the other says he was born in 1800. This leaves John's actual age a mystery. He could have been 12 when he went off to war or over 18.)
During the War of 1812, he accompanied Captain Alexander Hamilton (son of the American Revolutionary by the same name) to Governor's Island, then partially a military recruiting station. Joseph would then serve other military officials and politicians, like Colonel Thayer and Beaufort T. Watts.
At one point, he was forced to defend himself with a gun during the war but told a reporter, "He felt sick and did not like the sight of dead and wounded men falling around him."
Johnny Joe's travels as a cook and waiter took him from Brooklyn to West Point to South America and then back to Brooklyn.
Upon his arrival in Brooklyn in 1825, he married a Black woman named Louisa Britton, also formerly enslaved in Martinique, and was brought to New York, where she was freed. They were married on July 5, 1825.
Here is an excerpt from an 1880 Brooklyn Daily Eagle obituary discussing The Josephs' union:
By 1836, Johnny Joe signed a lease with a Mrs. Mary Stewart in Stewart's Alley, which is now located under the modern-day entrance to the Brooklyn Bridge. Johnny used $1,600 (about $52,565.27 today) in gold he'd brought back from his travels to make the purchases.
This area had a dense Black population: ferry workers, merchants, washerwomen, and more. The Brooklyn Bridge's construction rapidly changed the demographic of Brooklyn's downtown area as we know it today.
To know New York City in the 19th century is to understand that it had small segregated Black settlements in each ward that never exceeded 8% of that ward's population.
Well, until Harlem. The Harlem Renaissance is where most people believe NYC's Black history begins, but that's incorrect.
Here are copies of Johnny Joe's lease from Mrs. Stewart, sent to me via Historian Ken Hawkins:
(Kings County, New York, Land Deeds, Volume 62, pp. 474-74)
Johnny Joe's new residences stood in an alley named after The Stewart Family, behind the house of a William M. Stewart, who'd passed away before The Joseph's arrived. On the lease above, it shows that the widows of the former property owners were the ones who'd leased the spaces to Johnny Joe, making it possible for him to begin his renowned Oyster Bar/Restaurant.
Why oysters? Well...
New York's street vendors didn't start with hotdogs, Halal food, and roasted nuts. Hotdogs were a staple of the late 1800s, while roasted nuts didn't make an appearance until the 1980s.
By the way, you can thank immigrants for all of the items listed above.
However, in the early 1800s, you would find that oysters were a street food vendor's best friend.
Clam seller in Mulberry Bend, N.Y., 1900
Fiona Zublin of ozy.com writes, "Oysters from New York Harbor — “as large as cheese plates,” Charles Dickens marveled when he visited in 1842 — were famous around the world, and oyster cellars, with red-lit globes hung outside their doors, were as ubiquitous as pizza parlors."
Another famous oyster connoisseur was Thomas Downing, a Black man who commandeered the oyster industry of New York. There's an entire segment on him in Netflix's High On The Hog.
"Thomas Downing, New York City Pioneer and Restaurant Owner"
It makes sense that this is the type of business that John Joseph would open in the 1830s after leasing space from Mrs. Stewart.
In the 1830s, The Hamilton Literary Association-- a club dedicated to the fanfare of Alexander Hamilton--made Johnny Joe's Oyster Bar the place to be in Brooklyn. According to Johnny's 1880 Brooklyn Daily Eagle obituary, Johnny and Louisa served "the best wine, the best oysters, and the best cookery."
The bar and restaurant were also the hangout spot for prominent judges, authors, lawyers, editors, and more.
The Hamilton Club's records even have a song that mentions the place:
"Our trysting place at Johnny Joe's,
Where we all ate the oyster fries,
down there at Johnny Joe's."
Johnny would use his earnings to purchase real estate in the surrounding area but struggled to receive the rent needed to maintain his properties. As a result, he eventually had to surrender his properties and find elsewhere to live.
I'm unsure how Johnny figured out his next move, but I have an idea.
Many of Long Island's small Black settlements had workers and merchants that made their way to and from the brush of the island to the docks of Brooklyn.
Perhaps kin told him that Black folk were settling on the island, and Johnny thought to move to another place where his people surrounded him.
This move is what connected me to Johnny.
I was reading a book that mentioned a painting called "Winter Scene in Brooklyn by Francis Guy" when the caption said that the building where Johnny Joe's restaurant was later located could be seen in the painting.
Winter Scene in Brooklyn by Francis Guy
The scene in the painting is a rendering of what downtown Brooklyn would've looked like around the time Johnny returned to Brooklyn in 1825.
The caption confounded me:
It said that Johnny Joe had moved to a "settlement of colored people" called Bushy Plains near Jericho.
As a Long Island kid, I'd never learned of any 19th-century Black settlements on Long Island and had only learned of Sag Harbor's history through friends who grew up in the area and an Oprah special.
I needed to know more.
Johnny Joe passed away in 1880. Based on his obituary, he died with his wife and adopted daughter (Julia Denison?) by his side, and he owned 25 acres of land (19 football fields worth) and several buildings in Long Island's "Bushy Plains" at the time.
The excerpt from the obituary above states, "He was buried from the colored church at Westbury on Tuesday." I've searched the online records of both churches to no avail, but I intend to keep looking.
I can't stop thinking about Johnny Joe's and the hundreds of Black Americans whose stories are looked over as they're lumped into themes in a textbook that refuses to center Black history as American history.
I thought back to my high school experience and the history educator who definitively told me there were very few Black people on Long Island during the 19th century. I wondered how many journeys, like Johnny's, are still sitting in an archive or on a descendant's tongue.
For a Black family to establish a life filled with patrons, parcels of land, and property, despite enslavement, war, and torture, is astounding.
It's a story that deserves telling, time and time again.
Unlike Mr. Silva, who rolled his eyes and moved on with his lesson that fateful day, I want to bring these stories to the forefront.
Over the last few days, I've come to realize that the "Bushy Plains" had a different name given to it by the Black folk that would cultivate the land others thought to be infertile, establish churches and businesses atop that same land, and emerged from wooded areas (the brush) meant to hide them.
I learned that the people in these settlements were descendants of 155 enslaved people freed, all at once, by the Quakers of Long Island in the 1700s.
I always find, in my research, that finding one Black enclave opens the doors to many others because anywhere we are is a sanctuary.
The story of "Bushy Plains" led me to the story of three distinct Black Long Island communities, Guinea Woods, Grantville, and The Brush, but you'll most certainly have to stick around to learn more.