Slavery in New York

From the revolutionary war era through the end of the Civil War, New York was on all sides of the slavery issue. Slavery was alive and well during the years preceding the conflict, and then the desire for soldiers caused both sides during the war to grant freedom to males who were willing to enlist. Six thousand slaves served in the Continental Army and even more served on the British side when the Royal Governor of Virginia, Lord Dunmore, issued the first emancipation proclamation, which preceded Lincoln’s famous decree by ninety years. In this proclamation, the royal governor promised freedom to “all indentured servants, negroes, and others belonging to rebels,” if they enlisted in the British army as part of Dunmore’s Ethiopian Regiment. Their uniforms were marked with the phrase, “Liberty to Slaves.”

The word spread fast of the offer of freedom from the British and the flow of runaways to New York during the British occupation of the city was so strong, officials instructed ferryboat operators to temporarily stop transporting runaway slaves to stem the tide. While many of the runaways did enlist, others worked in various capacities for the British Army. These blacks earned wages for the first time in their lives and were treated as free even though their ultimate fate remained uncertain.

When the war ended, many of the formerly enslaved blacks feared they would be returned to their masters. Thankfully, the British insisted in the Treaty of Paris of 1783 that slaves who were promised freedom were exempted from the provision that required the return of all property. This failure to return slaves was a major sticking point in Anglo-American relations for years to come.

After the war, a number of Methodists and Quakers encouraged members in New York to manumit their slaves. They declared slavery an affront to God’s will, but viewed abolition as a gradual process that should take place with as little social disruption and violence as possible. This religiously based movement led to the creation of the Manumission Society, which would grow to include hundreds of white merchants, bankers, ship-owners, and lawyers.

Progress was slow, however, and in 1790 slavery was still well entrenched in New York. The state’s population of 340,000 included 21,000 slaves, and 4,600 free blacks. New York City recorded a black population of 3,100, two-thirds of them slaves. Over twenty percent of all households in the city were slave-owners. In Brooklyn, slaves accounted for forty percent of the entire population—the same as Virginia.

The Manumission Society operated within the law and offered legal assistance to accused runaways. Society members even pledged to respect the provisions of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793, which enabled escaped slaves to be returned to their owners. In many cases, however, corrupt New York politicians used the Act to legalize the kidnapping of blacks on the streets of New York by providing kidnappers with legal paperwork, in exchange for a bribe, which enabled blacks taken off the streets of New York to be transported to the South.

In 1799, New York’s legislature finally adopted a measure for gradual abolition, becoming the next-to-last northern state to do so (New Jersey delayed until 1804). Follow-up legislation in 1817 decreed that all slaves who had been living at the time of the 1799 Act would be emancipated on July 4, 1827. On that day, nearly 3,000 persons still held as slaves in the state gained their freedom, and slavery in New York finally came to an end. Our annual Independence Day celebration, therefore, commemorates not only the independence of our nation but also the end of slavery in New York.

About ten years before the end of slavery in New York, efforts to remove free blacks from the country began to gain momentum. The most well known group supporting this cause was the American Colonization Society. The colonization movement gained momentum in the 1820s when Congress provided funds to establish Liberia on the west coast of Africa as a refuge for blacks from the United States. Some African Americans shared the society’s perspective, but most opposed voluntary emigration vehemently. They viewed the rise of the colonization movement with alarm and conducted a mass meeting in Philadelphia in January 1817, soon after the founding of the American Colonization Society, to organize their resistance.

Asserting their own rights as Americans, free blacks reminded all who would listen of our nation’s founding principal of equality, and had the nerve to say that it applied to blacks as well. Their mantra—“This Country is Our Only Home,” rang true for almost all blacks, who were, in fact, born in the United States. Through this coordinated attack on colonization, our modern-day concept of a type of equality that transcends racial boundaries took root.

This was the political backdrop to the founding of the free black town of Weeksville in Brooklyn in the 1830s. Many Weeksville residents owned land, which enabled them to vote according to the laws of the time. Weeksville residents also benefited from their own school, Colored School No. 2, which was led by the very well known writer and activist, Junius Morel. The school alone was reason enough to believe the next generation would be better than the last. This very special community was a refuge for Civil War era blacks, who fled Manhattan after the New York Draft Riots of 1863, and provides the backdrop for my second novel, entitled, “A Wave From Mama.” I hope you enjoy it!