JULY 13, 1863

A white mob burned New York City’s Colored Orphan Asylum. The drawing above depicting that attack was featured in Harper’s Weekly on Aug. 1, 1863.

The Civil War Draft Riots began in Manhattan — one of the bloodiest insurrections in the nation’s history. What started as a riot by white working-class residents, upset by the government’s draft, turned into an attack on Black Americans. The mob of thousands torched dozens of buildings, including the Colored Orphan Asylum, which housed up to 800 children. 

“On the 13th July at 4 PM, an infuriated mob … surrounded the premises of the Asylum and 500 of them entered the house … they deliberately set fire to it … simply because it was the home of unoffending colored orphan children,” according to the orphanage’s board minutes

The mob shot, hanged and burned Black residents. A crowd watched as the mob tortured and killed sailor William Williams. No one intervened, and when the mob finished, they cheered, promising to carry out vengeance on “every n—– in New York.” 

By the end of the carnage, at least 120 had been killed, and more than 2,000 were injured. Within two years, the Black population had plummeted beneath 10,000, the lowest for the city in more than three decades. Many of those who stayed eventually made their way to a neighborhood now known as Harlem. 

“New York City had never unified to overcome the problems of racism and fully embrace black freedom,” wrote author Leslie M. Harris. “Neither would the nation.”

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The stories of investigative reporter Jerry Mitchell have helped put four Klansmen and a serial killer behind bars. His stories have also helped free two people from death row, exposed injustices and corruption, prompting investigations and reforms as well as the firings of boards and officials. He is a Pulitzer Prize finalist, a longtime member of Investigative Reporters & Editors, and a winner of more than 30 other national awards, including a $500,000 MacArthur “genius” grant. After working for three decades for the statewide Clarion-Ledger, Mitchell left in 2019 and founded the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting.