History of slavery in New York

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Slave being burned at the stake in N.Y.C. after the 1741 slave insurrection.

Slavery in New York began when the Dutch West India Company imported 11 African slaves to New Amsterdam in 1626, with the first slave auction being held in New Amsterdam in 1655. The last slaves were freed in 1827.

The British expanded the use of slavery, and in 1703, more than 42 percent of New York City households held slaves, often as domestic servants and laborers. This was the second-highest proportion of any city in the colonies after Charleston, South Carolina.[1] Others worked as artisans or in shipping and various trades in the city. Slaves were also used in farming on Long Island and in the Hudson Valley, as well as the Mohawk Valley.

During the American Revolutionary War, the British troops occupied New York City in 1776. The Crown promised freedom to slaves who left rebel masters, and thousands moved to the city for refuge with the British. By 1780, 10,000 blacks lived in New York. Many were slaves who had escaped there from slaveholders in North and South. After the war, 3,000 slaves were evacuated with the British, most being taken to Nova Scotia for freedom.

After the American Revolution, the New York Manumission Society was founded in 1785 to work for the abolition of slavery and for aid to free blacks. The state passed a 1799 law for gradual abolition; after that date, children born to slave mothers were free but required to work for the mother's master for an extended period as indentured servants into their late twenties. Existing slaves kept their status. All remaining slaves were finally freed on July 4, 1827.

Dutch rule[edit]

The first slave auction in New Amsterdam in 1655, painted by Howard Pyle, 1917

Chattel slavery in the geographical area of the present-day U.S. state of New York began in 1626, when a shipment of 11 Africans was unloaded into New Amsterdam harbor from a ship of the Dutch West India Company. Before this time, the company had tried to encourage Dutch agricultural laborers to immigrate to and populate New Netherlands. This experiment was unsuccessful, as most immigrants wanted to accrue greater income in the lucrative fur trade and return to their home country in luxury.

The company turned to slavery, which was already well established in the Dutch colonies in the Caribbean, Southeast Asia, and Southern Africa. For more than two decades after the first shipment, the Dutch West India Company was dominant in the importation of slaves from the coasts of West and Central Africa. While the majority of slaves were sent to the sugar plantations of the Dutch colonies in the Caribbean, a number of slaves were imported directly from the company's stations in Angola to New Netherlands. They were used to clear forests, lay roads, and provide other heavy work and public services to the colony.

The lack of workers in the colony led to the company's over-reliance on African slaves. While the slaves laid the foundations of the future New York, they were described by the Dutch as "proud and treacherous", a stereotype for African-born slaves.[2] The Dutch West India Company relaxed its monopoly and allowed New Netherlanders to ship slaves back to Angola. They began to import more numerous "seasoned" African slaves from the sugar colonies of the Caribbean.

By 1644, some slaves had earned a half-freedom in New Amsterdam and were able to earn wages. They had other rights in the commercial economy, and intermarriage with whites was frequent.[3] According to the principle of partus sequitur ventrem adopted from southern colonies, children born to enslaved women were considered born into slavery, regardless of the ethnicity or status of the father.[2]

English rule[edit]

In 1664, the English took over New Amsterdam and the colony. They continued to import slaves to support the work needed. Enslaved Africans performed a wide variety of skilled and unskilled jobs, mostly in the burgeoning port city and surrounding agricultural areas. In 1703 more than 42% of New York City's households held slaves, a percentage higher than in the cities of Boston and Philadelphia, and second only to Charleston in the South.[1]

As in other slaveholding societies, the city was swept by periodic fears of slave revolt. Incidents were misinterpreted under such conditions. In what was called the New York Conspiracy of 1741, city officials believed a revolt had started. Over weeks, they arrested more than 150 slaves and 20 white men, trying and executing several, in the belief they had planned a revolt. Historian Jill Lepore believes whites unjustly accused and executed many blacks in this event.[4]

In 1991, the remains of 400 Africans from the colonial era were uncovered during excavation for the Foley Square Courthouse in Lower Manhattan. Construction was delayed so the site and some of the remains could be appropriately evaluated by archeologists and anthropologists. Scholars have estimated that 15,000 to 20,000 enslaved Africans and African Americans were buried during the 17th and 18th centuries in the cemetery in lower Manhattan, making it the largest colonial cemetery for Africans in North America.

This discovery demonstrated the large-scale importance of slavery and African Americans to New York and national history and economy. The African Burial Ground has been designated as a National Historic Landmark and a National Monument for its significance. A memorial and interpretive center for the African Burial Ground have been created to honor those buried and to explore the many contributions of African Americans and their descendants to New York and the nation.[5] These sites opened in 2007, followed by a Visitor Center in 2010.

American Revolution[edit]

Runaway slave advertisement (1778).

African Americans fought on both sides in the American Revolution. Many slaves chose to fight for the British, as they were promised freedom by General Carleton in exchange for their service. After the British occupied New York City in 1776, slaves escaped to their lines for freedom. The black population in New York grew to 10,000 by 1780, and the city became a center of free blacks in North America.[3] The fugitives included Deborah Squash and her husband Harvey, slaves of George Washington, who escaped from his plantation in Virginia and reached freedom in New York.[3]

In 1781 the state of New York offered slaveholders a financial incentive to assign their slaves to the military, with the promise of freedom at war's end for the slaves. In 1783, black men made up one-quarter of the rebel militia in White Plains, who were to march to Yorktown, Virginia for the last engagements.[3]

By the Treaty of Paris (1783), the United States required that all American property, including slaves, be left in place, but General Guy Carleton followed through on his commitment to the freedmen. When the British evacuated from New York, they took 3,000 freedmen with them for resettlement, mostly in Nova Scotia and other colonies.[3] A joint board of enquiry at Fraunces Tavern failed to find evidence of enslavement for most of the Negroes who had fought in the King's cause.[citation needed]

The Book of Negroes lists the 3,000 Black Loyalists who left with the British in 1783 to resettle in Nova Scotia (now Maritime Canada), England, and other parts of the British Empire. With British support, in 1793 a large group of these Black Britons moved on from Nova Scotia to create an independent colony in Sierra Leone to escape discrimination and other conditions in Canada. They were the ancestors of the Krios, Sierra Leone Creole people.


In the aftermath of the Revolution, men assessed slavery against the revolutionary ideals and many, in the North especially, increased their support for abolitionism. In 1781, the state legislature voted to free those slaves who had fought with the rebels during the Revolution. Abolition was not achieved for several years, but the legislature passed a law making the process of manumission easier, and numerous slaveholders individually freed their slaves.

The New York Manumission Society was founded in 1785, and worked to prohibit the international slave trade and to achieve abolition. It established the African Free School in New York City, the first formal educational institution for blacks in North America. It served both free blacks and the children of slaves. The school expanded to seven locations and produced some brilliant alumni, who advanced to higher education and prominent careers. These included James McCune Smith, who gained his medical degree with honors at the University of Glasgow after being denied admittance to two New York colleges. He returned to practice in New York and also published numerous articles in medical and other journals.[3]

By 1790 one in three blacks in New York state was free. Especially in areas of concentrated population, such as New York City, they organized as an independent community, with their own churches, benevolent and civic organizations, and businesses that catered to their interests.[3]

Steps toward abolition of slavery accumulated, but the legislature also took steps back. Slavery was important economically, both in New York City and in agricultural areas. In 1799, the legislature passed a law for gradual abolition. It declared children of slaves born after July 4, 1799 to be legally free, but the children had to serve an extended period of indentured servitude: to the age of 28 for males and to 25 for females. Slaves born before that date were redefined as indentured servants but essentially continued as slaves for life.[6]

African Americans' participation as soldiers in defending the state during the War of 1812 added to public support for their full rights to freedom. In 1817, the state freed all slaves born before July 4, 1799 (the date of the gradual abolition law), to be effective in 1827. It continued with the indenture of children born to slave mothers until their 20s, as noted above.[6] On July 4, 1827, the African-American community celebrated final emancipation in the state with a long parade through New York City.

New York residents were less willing to give blacks equal voting rights. By the constitution of 1777, voting was restricted to free men who could satisfy certain property requirements for value of real estate. This property requirement disfranchised poor men among both blacks and whites. The reformed Constitution of 1821 conditioned suffrage for black men by maintaining the property requirement, which most could not meet, so effectively disfranchised them. The same constitution eliminated the property requirement for white men and expanded their franchise.[6] No women yet had the vote in New York. "As late as 1869, a majority of the state's voters cast ballots in favor of retaining property qualifications that kept New York's polls closed to many blacks. African-American men did not obtain equal voting rights in New York until ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment in 1870."[6]

Civil War[edit]

According to the 1860 census, on the verge of the American Civil War, 49,005 free colored lived in New York state, out of a total population of 3,880,735. The state's population had been transformed from the 1840s by extensive immigration particularly from Ireland, England and Germany. Shortly before the Civil War, 25 percent of New York City's population was born in Germany.

The 1863 New York Draft Riots were caused chiefly by Irish immigrants and their descendants, who attacked African Americans and their property in New York City, as well as the residences and businesses of known white abolitionists. The Irish resented being drafted for the American Civil War when wealthier men could pay for substitutes. They resented having to fight, as they saw it, on behalf of people with whom they competed daily for wages in low-skilled jobs. In the riot, the mostly Irish mobs killed 100 blacks and burned many buildings to the ground, including the Colored Orphans Asylum at 44th Street and Fifth Avenue. The children escaped harm, aided by Union troops in the city. Many African Americans from New York City enlisted to serve with the Union Army to defeat the Confederacy.

By 1870, the African-American population in New York had increased slightly, to 52,081. The state's population had grown markedly to 4,382,759, of which more than one million, nearly one quarter, were foreign born. Many of the new immigrants settled in and around New York City, their port of entry and a place with a variety of jobs.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b "Slavery in New York", The Nation, 7 November 2005
  2. ^ a b Douglas Harper, "Slavery in New York", Slavery in the North Website, 2003, accessed 27 September 2011
  3. ^ a b c d e f g "Exhibit: Slavery in New York". New York Historical Society. October 2005. Retrieved 2008-02-11. 
  4. ^ Jill Lepore, New York Burning; Liberty, Slavery, and Conspiracy in Eighteenth-Century Manhattan, 2005
  5. ^ "African Burial Ground National Monument", National Park Service, Accessed 29 December 2007
  6. ^ a b c d "African American Voting Rights", New York State Archives, accessed 11 February 2012

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