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The beginning of the end of slavery in New York

March 28, 2012

A 1917 painting by Howard Pyle depicts the first slave auction in Dutch New Amsterdam, later New York City, in 1655. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

EDIT: Thanks to Julie Golia of the Brooklyn Historical Society for pointing out that I jumped the gun by one day: Actual passage was 29 March 1799. My excitement over the anniversary trumped caution. And she also notes that you can see a scan of the law from the New York State Archives, here. Much obliged for the correction, and my original post begins below.

As a Southerner transplanted into Upstate New York, and an archaeologist who studies the African Diaspora, today marks a compelling anniversary for me. On this date in 1799, New York State started on its long journey toward full emancipation for its population of enslaved Africans.

The issue of northern slavery is one of those facts of history that takes many people by surprise. I’ve graded papers by students who have written about how “the North was always antislavery” and slavery was “exclusively a Southern problem.” In fact, I’ve worn out entire red pens writing comments on those papers. But I generally believe it’s better to educate than to fault, which in part motivates this post.

The Gradual Abolition Act, which set a date of freedom for children of slaves born after 4 July 1799, was New York’s first step in emancipation, and like other places where  freedom was slowly granted via statute, it proceeded slowly. In 1817, a revision was passed that freed those born before 4 July 1799, effective in 1827. This extended gradual emancipation to those unaffected by the previous law, so at that point, all enslaved people in New York fell under one of the two. So by July 4, 1827, complete emancipation was the law of the land.

See this link (.pdf) for text of the 1799 Gradual Abolition Act. Right up top, it clearly spells out the “gradual” part of its title (emphasis in original):

Be it enacted .. . That any child born of a slave within this state after the fourth day of July next shall be deemed and adjudged to be born free: Provided nevertheless. That such child shall be the servant of the legal proprietor of his or her mother until such servant, if a male, shall arrive at the age of twenty-eight years, and if a female, at the age of twenty-five years.
And be it further enacted. That such proprietor, his, her or their heirs or assigns, shall be entitled to the service of such child until he or she shall arrive to the age aforesaid, in the same manner as if such child had been bound to service by the overseers of the poor.

New York was not the only northern state with a slave population, nor was it particularly in the forefront of emancipation.The first northern “state” to outlaw slavery was Vermont, which did so in its initial (Republic) constitution, adopted in 1777. Slaves in New York worked in agriculture (particularly in New York City’s rural hinterlands, present-day Brooklyn and the Bronx), as well as light industry and trade, and as domestic labor. The numbers, particularly in the 18th century, were enormous in percentage terms: In 1740, one in five residents of New York City was enslaved. At the same time, the city had a sizable free black population, though as you might imagine, their social position was somewhat precarious.

You can view data on slave populations by state at this link from the University of Virginia’s Historical Census Browser. In 1790, there were 21,193 enslaved people enumerated in New York State, by far the highest population of any state north of Maryland. The figure declines slowly, then quickly, as a result of the amended emancipation laws, until by the 1840 census only 4 were counted, and none subsequently. (Those 4 were likely brought into the state by a slaveholder who emigrated from elsewhere – like other states, New York was even slower in prohibiting current slaveowners from entering with full legal rights to their “property.”).

If you’re interested in this topic, you can read good, brief summaries of New York slavery here and here. I always take a chance to point readers to the African Burial Ground National Monument in Lower Manhattan, and if you’re on Twitter, I highly recommend following them, @AfBurialGrndNPS, for consistently interesting Tweets. Finally, an excellent online exhibit on the history and scope of slavery in New York City can be found at this site from the New-York Historical Society.

Northern slavery is a compelling topic because it is so far off the radar for most people, and when it comes into the spotlight (as in the discovery of the African Burial Ground in New York City), it inspires us to re-examine what we think we know about history. If you have any favorite sources to share, be they blogs, books or other media, I’d love to hear about them in the comments.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. quentinlewis permalink
    March 29, 2012 4:31 am

    Hey John,

    The story of the abolition of Slavery in Massachusetts (1783) is equally as interesting. It was decided not by legislation, but by judicial review, then a novel concept in American law.

    In effect, Justice Cushing of the MA supreme court declared that slavery was unconstitutional, but exactly what that meant for people who were enslaved is still not well understood.

  2. John R. Roby permalink*
    March 29, 2012 11:23 am

    Great link, Quentin, thanks for sharing it. That’s an important point: the actual effects of emancipation (let alone this nebulous shift to “indentured servitude”) are not well understood in terms of daily life of formerly enslaved people. Emancipation isn’t the end of the story, but the beginning of a new phase, where former slaves, former masters, and free black people all had to adjust to changing statuses enshrined by law.

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