Moses Price: City Point’s 1st Black Shopkeeper

Most of the “historical” portions of this website record lives and events from a time when City Point was, like most urban neighborhoods, almost exclusively inhabited by whites. Thanks to the post World War II, federally subsidized “white flight” to the suburbs, the demographic make up of City Point today is quite the opposite.

Nevertheless, old photos of oyster workers show that the oyster industry’s workforce apparently was integrated at least by the 1890s. (For example, see the photos in the Tom Hines and John Crowther collections on the Historic PHOTOS  page.) While this perhaps illustrates a remarkable level of enlightenment on the part of company owners during that pre-Civil Rights period, more likely it reflects the nature of the business. Prior to the invention of the modern suction dredge, oystering was a labor-intensive, low-paying job: just the sort of niche often filled by those at the bottom of the socio-economic ladder, e.g. blacks. Oyster company employees also included ex-convicts and alcoholics: two groups who also would have found securing employment elsewhere difficult.

Unfortunately, the names and personal stories of these early black City Point oyster workers have been lost in the mist of time—with one exception: Moses Price. Even his history is but a few fragments of information. However, the fact that we know anything at all about him makes it worth telling, since relatively little of New Haven’s black history has been preserved.

According to city directories, Moses Price was employed by Smith Bros. Oyster Co. from 1908 to 1909. Former resident Millicent Bradley (1908-2005) recalled that he was the engineer of the Resolute, a ship later owned by Sea Coast, which bought out Smith Bros. at about that time. From 1910 to 1915 he is listed as being an employee of J.P. McNeil Oyster Co. In recorded interviews, George McNeil recalls him as being one of his most valuable employees.

“Mr. McNeil had given Moses Price a full ‘share’ (wage). This upset a number of people according to George, but Moses became one of the most valued oyster company employees. George also admired him, and when sickness befell a crew number, it was Moses who brought the man his pay:  the McNeil family regarded him as their most trusted and valued employee. George also had extremely positive things to say about him and Moses’ cooking ability, which is, according to George, a legend on South Water Street. One thing that George told me—and his demeanor changed when he told it—a man’s worth is in his work and deeds. And then he told me that until last century a racial term which described oysters was now considered offensive and was strictly banned at the McNeil business. Anyone making any racist remarks, slang or comment was reprimanded or fired. This was to respect Moses and,  according to George, it had angered some people in which he had business dealings.” [recollections of former McNeil neighbor & friend Timothy C. Visel]

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1911 photo of McNeil Oyster Co employees. Moses Price is next-to-last on the right.

The directories of 1916 & 1917 simply describe Moses Price as “laborer”. It was during these years, according to Millicent Bradley, that he ran his own small store on the left side of the Sea Coast oyster barn, 106 South Water Street. His home-made rice pudding was a particular favorite among both residents and workers at “The End”, as the largely impoverished South Water Street was called by City Pointers at that time. Before the modern era of disposable plastic containers, his patrons could bring containers from home to be filled with fresh pudding or other food items.

Although at least part of the workforce of City Point was integrated at that time, residences apparently were not. Many of the black oyster company employees lived on the boats. However, during all of his years working at “The End”, Moses Price chose not to live on the boats, but rather is listed in city directories as boarding at 133 Adeline St. in the Hill, and later 93 Webster Street off Dixwell Ave. He likely left Adeline because at that time the Hill was predominantly Irish and Italian, whereas Dixwell already had a long history as being the center of New Haven’s African American community. By 1921 he had moved a few blocks to 93 W. Winchester. The 1922-23 directories list him as a “cook”, and by 1928 he was back in the Hill at 135 Congress Ave., with his occupation being “chef”. The Great Migration, which ultimately would transform the demographics of the Hill (and City Point) had just begun.

The 1930 Federal Census states that he was born in Virginia, c. 1863 (and therefore almost certainly born into slavery) and was married to Mary W. Price. His last listing in the city directory is 1933. The 1934 directory lists his wife Mary as his widow.

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Moses Price’s former shop, photographed in 2010 (nearly a decade after South Water St was made a “local historic district”…)
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His shop was a somewhat later addition to the 19th century Smith Bros./Sea Coast oyster barn. When examined by this editor in July, 2017 it still was undergoing a gradual “demolition by neglect”. Shame. Shame. Shame…

 

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