Cornell University Press New Netherland NY History slavery US history

The Forgotten History of Slavery in New York

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When discussing slavery in Dutch New York, I am often asked why so little of this history is taught in schools or at historic sites. Most Americans know very little about U.S. slavery or that it extended far beyond the southern cotton plantations. The U.S. North is often portrayed as a safe haven for enslaved Southerners, when in reality New York did not abolish slavery fully until 1827, only 34 years before the Civil War began.

Within their homes, New York’s enslavers restricted the people they enslaved to back rooms, cellars, attics, and garret spaces.

While there are a concerted efforts by, among others, Slavers of New York, historic sites like Philipsburg Manor, and the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation & Historic Preservation to bring more attention to this history, New York’s slavery past is still relatively unknown.

Dutch slavery in New York began not long after the first Africans were brought to Virginia in 1619. As early as 1628, the Dutch West India Company put enslaved Africans to work in its colony of New Netherland, some of them laboring in chain gangs. In 1664, the Dutch lost the colony to the English, but that was not the end of slavery or Dutch slaveholding in the region. In fact, the number of individuals who relied on the labor of enslaved peoples increased during the eighteenth century. With this expansion of slavery came more emphasis on limiting the movements and activities of enslaved New Yorkers. Through legislation white New Yorkers prohibited enslaved people to trade, travel, or purchase alcohol without permission. Within their homes, New York’s enslavers restricted the people they enslaved to back rooms, cellars, attics, and garret spaces. In all of these spaces, enslavers used systems of control necessary to hold people in bondage.

Child of the Van Rensselaer Family
and Servant
. Attributed to John Heaton. Albany, NY,
c. 1730. Current repository: Ms. and Mr. Rockefeller.

As elsewhere, racist ideologies proved integral to sustaining racial slavery. One document reveals the deep-seated racism of a Kings County–now Brooklyn–community. When in 1788 Dutch Reformed Church minister Peter Lowe received a request from a group of Black men who wanted to become full members in the church, congregants objected to admitting the men because, they claimed among others, Black people “have no souls,” “they are descendants from Ham, or the treacherous Gibeonites,” and “they are a species very different from us—witness their nauseous sweat, complexion, and manners &c, I cannot endure them near me. I would be asham’d to commune with them.”[1] At the time of their objections, close to 75% of the free, white Kings County families enslaved people within their home.

Close to 75% of the free, white Kings County families enslaved people within their home.

Enslaved New Yorkers resisted their bondage through everyday resistance and outright rebellion. Enslaved men, women, and children found ways to escape surveillance and control in private and public spaces by developing alternative ways of knowing and navigating these spaces. Many fled the homes in which they were enslaved, and some of them revolted, as was the case when in 1712 enslaved New Yorkers killed nine white residents of the city of New York.

Recent challenges to teaching U.S. slavery threaten attempts to bring this history to the wider public. Such opposition has been especially evident in the pushback against The New York Times Magazine 1619 Project, developed by Nikole Hannah-Jones. Since its publication two years ago, the 1619 Project has been widely celebrated and extensively criticized. In some cases, it has become a target of Republican lawmakers like Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas, who have embraced opposition to critical race theory and the teaching of America’s difficult histories. Yet, the history of U.S. slavery is still not well-understood by most Americans, or perhaps it is because much of this history remains unknown that such opposition to teaching it has been so effective.

[1] Andrea C. Mosterman, “’I Thought They Were Worthy’: A Dutch Reformed Church Minister and His Congregation Debate African American Membership in the Church,” Early American Studies (Summer 2016): 610-616, 615.

Cover image of Spaces of Enslavement.
Read more about this book.

Andrea C. Mosterman is Associate Professor in Atlantic History and Joseph Tregle Professor of Early American History at the University of New Orleans. Follow her on Twitter @ACMosterman and visit her website at andreacmosterman.com.


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