In the Shadow of Slavery: African Americans in New York City, 1626-1863by Leslie M. Harris
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"The black experience in the antebellum South has been thoroughly documented. But histories set in the North are few. In the Shadow of Slavery, then, is a big and ambitious book, one in which insights about race and class in New York City abound. Leslie Harris has masterfully brought more than two centuries of African American history back to life in this illuminating new work."—David Roediger, author of The Wages of Whiteness
In 1991 in lower Manhattan, a team of construction workers made an astonishing discovery. Just two blocks from City Hall, under twenty feet of asphalt, concrete, and rubble, lay the remains of an eighteenth-century "Negro Burial Ground." Closed in 1790 and covered over by roads and buildings throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the site turned out to be the largest such find in North America, containing the remains of as many as 20,000 African Americans. The graves revealed to New Yorkers and the nation an aspect of American history long hidden: the vast number of enslaved blacks who labored to create our nation's largest city.
In the Shadow of Slavery lays bare this history of African Americans in New York City, starting with the arrival of the first slaves in 1626, moving through the turbulent years before emancipation in 1827, and culminating in one of the most terrifying displays of racism in U.S. history, the New York City Draft Riots of 1863. Drawing on extensive travel accounts, autobiographies, newspapers, literature, and organizational records, Leslie M. Harris extends beyond prior studies of racial discrimination by tracing the undeniable impact of African Americans on class, politics, and community formation and by offering vivid portraits of the lives and aspirations of countless black New Yorkers.
Written with clarity and grace, In the Shadow of Slavery is an ambitious new work that will prove indispensable to historians of the African American experience, as well as anyone interested in the history of New York City.
“A powerful story of New Yok City’s African Americans from the colonial period through the Civil War. The strength of the book lies in its capacity to synthesize a tremendous amount of scholarship on antislavery and black activism while simultaneously offering novel interpretations. . . . Few have done as much as Harris to challenge historians to weave the African American experience into a retelling of the national narrative. The book is a stunning achievement—an insightful and wide-ranging work that may long stand as definitive.”
Phyllis F. Field
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IN THE SHADOW OF SLAVERY
African Americans in New York City, 1626-1863
By Leslie M. Harris
The University of Chicago Press
Copyright © 2003 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.
Slavery in Colonial New York
On the fourth and fifth of July, 1827, New York City's African Americans took to the streets, marching in processions with banners and music. Many attended church services, offering prayers and songs of thanksgiving to God and speeches praising the state legislature and white reformers. Slavery, an institution virtually as old as European settlement on Manhattan Island, had finally ended in New York State. From the time of the Revolutionary War, New Yorkers had debated ending slavery, but it took almost fifty years for them to eradicate the institution completely. Repeated attempts to pass legislation ending slavery failed in the 1770s and 1780s. New York's first emancipation law, passed in 1799, freed no slaves and granted only partial freedom to the children of slaves: those born to slave mothers served lengthy indentures to their mothers' masters, until age twenty-five if female and twenty-eight if male. Finally, in 1817, Governor Daniel Tompkins convinced the New York State legislature to end slavery completely, but even then, the legislature took the longest time suggested by Tompkins-a decade.
Slavery's long demise-indeed, slavery's long history in New York-indicates the importance of black labor to the region between 1626 and 1827. As in the South, black slave labor was central to the day-to-day survival and the economic life of Europeans in the colonial North, and no part of the colonial North relied more heavily on slavery than Manhattan. Slave labor enabled the survival of the first European settlers in Dutch-governed New Amsterdam in the seventeenth century. In the eighteenth century, the British sought to heighten white New Yorkers' reliance on slave labor and the slave trade in order to make Manhattan the chief North American slave port and economic center. As British New York became known as a center of slave labor, few European laborers, free or indentured, chose to immigrate there. Under both the Dutch and the British, slaves performed vital agricultural tasks in the rural areas surrounding New York City. By the end of the seventeenth century, New York City had a larger black population than any other North American city. The ratio of slaves to whites in the total population was comparable to that in Maryland and Virginia. In the eighteenth century, only Charleston and New Orleans exceeded New York City in number of slaves.
The system of racial slavery became the foundation of New Yorkers' definitions of race, class, and freedom far into the nineteenth century. As Ira Berlin, Barbara Fields, and other historians have pointed out, the initial purpose of slavery was to secure a labor force-to "make class." But as white New Yorkers created a working class based on African slavery, they also developed racial justifications for the enslavement of Africans above all other groups of workers. Haltingly under the Dutch and more consistently under the British, Europeans defined blacks as the only group fit to be slaves amid a society with numerous racial and religious groups. The use of racial ideologies that defined blacks as inferior to other racial groups and thus deserving of enslavement condemned blacks to unequal status into the nineteenth century and beyond. Europeans did not always define the terms of racial inferiority consistently, but their reliance upon these justifications during the time of slavery meant that when blacks celebrated freedom in 1827, their struggle for equality in New York City had just begun.
Enslavement dominated every facet of colonial black New Yorkers' lives-the work they did, their ability to form families, their religious practices, even how they defined themselves. But black men and women did not simply acquiesce to enslavement or to an inferior racial status. Throughout Dutch and British slavery, enslaved Africans demonstrated through their labor, their resistance to bondage, and their creation of families and communities that the racial stereotypes of inferiority promulgated by Europeans had no basis in reality. Black New Yorkers used Europeans' reliance on their labor, as well as their own knowledge of European ways, to ameliorate the conditions of slavery and to push for full freedom-through legal methods under the Dutch and, under the British, through violent resistance. Recognition of blacks' centrality to colonial New York's economic system and of blacks' continual pursuit of freedom gives the lie to Europeans' claims of African inferiority.
* * *
The first non-Native American settler on Manhattan Island, Jan Rodrigues, was of African and possibly Afro-European descent, a free man and sailor from a Dutch vessel. In 1613, Rodrigues's shipmates dumped him on the island after a shipboard dispute. Rodrigues became fluent in Native American languages, and when European explorers and traders arrived at Manhattan Island in subsequent years, Rodrigues facilitated trade relations between them and Native Americans. Rodrigues eventually married into the Rockaway tribe. Rodrigues's role in trade and his marriage into a Native American tribe began the commercial and cultural exchanges for which Manhattan Island would become famous.
By 1621, the Dutch West India Company had obtained exclusive rights to settle the colony of New Netherland, including Manhattan. The first European settlers on Manhattan Island were Walloons, an oft-persecuted Belgian minority who traveled to New Netherland under the auspices of the company, for Dutch citizens had little interest in leaving the economically prosperous Netherlands for the American frontier. The company hoped that the Walloon settlements would secure its hold on New Netherland against the British, who also claimed rights to the territory during the seventeenth century.
In 1625, the first Walloon families settled on Manhattan Island under the directorship of Hollander William Kieft, who renamed the island New Amsterdam. Initially, the settlers lived in makeshift shelters-trenches seven feet deep, lined with timber, and roofed with turf or bark. Late that same year, a group of Dutch builders arrived with plans for more permanent structures: a fort with a marketplace, houses, a church, a hospital, and a school within its walls. Construction began soon after Pieter Minuit allegedly purchased Manhattan Island from local Native Americans in early 1626. Following the acquisition, migrants from England, France, Norway, Germany, Ireland, and Denmark joined the Walloons on the island. Although New Netherland was a Dutch colony, non-Dutch settlers at New Amsterdam probably constituted as much as 50 percent of the population, leading one observer to state that Manhattan had "Too Great a Mixture of Nations." Another estimated that the island's settlers spoke eighteen different languages.
But relative to other colonies, New Netherland had difficulty attracting European settlers until the 1650s. Dutch citizens could make a comfortable living in Holland and thus had no desire to travel to the American colonies. Also, the difficulties New Netherlanders faced in the first decades of settlement frightened away the Dutch as well as other Europeans who might have been attracted to the colony. From the 1620s through the 1640s, the New Netherland colony was on the defensive against the Native Americans and the British; settlers who arrived at the colony expecting to labor peacefully instead were forced to defend themselves in violent skirmishes, if not outright wars. The settlers also struggled economically because of mismanagement by local directors general and the Dutch West India Company's monopoly on trade. Directors Verhulst and van Twiller conflicted with colonists over the labor owed to the company. The company had a generous land-grant and land-use policy, particularly for the five elite Dutch men to whom it granted patroonships-thousands of acres of land and extensive rights over the land's resources in return for attracting settlers to work the land. But the company restricted settlers' and patroons' earnings from the most profitable resource in the colony-fur-and limited the export of other goods from the colony. These restrictions, as well as taxes on exported goods, made it difficult for those granted land to profit from it. Out of five patroonships the company granted throughout the colony in the 1620s, only one, Rensselaerswyck, survived. Numerous settlers returned to Europe after a few difficult years, and some even filed suit against the company because of the hardships they experienced. In 1630, 300 colonists lived in New Netherland, of whom 270 were clustered at New Amsterdam-not enough to make the colony a profitable enterprise. By 1638, New Amsterdam held approximately 400 residents, but the city of Boston, founded four years after New Amsterdam, already contained 1,000. Not until 1640, when the Dutch government removed the Dutch West India Company's trade monopoly, did trade restrictions begin to ease in the colony; and not until the mid-1650s did the colony attract consistent numbers of European settlers. By 1664, the end of Dutch rule, European settlers at New Amsterdam numbered approximately 1,500.
African slaves became the most stable element of the New Netherland working class and population. The Dutch West India Company's importation and employment of most of the colony's slave labor enabled the settlement and survival of the Europeans at New Amsterdam as well as the limited economic success the colony experienced. The first eleven African slaves were imported in 1626. The company, not individuals, owned these slaves, who provided labor for the building and upkeep of the colony's infrastructure. In addition to aiding in the construction of Fort Amsterdam, completed in 1635, slaves also built roads, cut timber and firewood, cleared land, and burned limestone and oyster shells to make the lime used in outhouses and in burying the dead. In 1625, in an attempt to diversify the colony's economy, the company established six "bouwerys," or farms, along the eastern and western shores of Manhattan Island, just north of the settlement. By 1626, company slaves worked these farms; the produce they grew fed the colony's inhabitants. Company-hired overseers watched the slaves during their laboring and leisure hours.
Despite the colony's reliance on slave labor, the Dutch West India Company initially imported slaves into New Amsterdam haphazardly. The company was more concerned with attracting European colonists to New Netherland than with importing slaves, and it did not want to supply New Amsterdam's merchants with surplus slaves with which they might compete with the company in North American slave markets. Until about 1640, most European settlers, reluctant to commit to permanent settlement in the colony, worked as traders and had little need for long-term, year-round assistance from slave or free laborers. They tended to hire slaves from the company or from the few private slaveowners for short periods rather than buy them. Thus, the company directed most of its slave labor to the Dutch colonies of Curaçao, Aruba, Bonaire, and briefly, Brazil; slaves arrived at New Amsterdam irregularly and sometimes accidentally. For example, settlers in 1636 bought three slaves from a ship's captain from Providence Island colony. In 1642, a French privateer dropped off an unknown number of slaves at New Amsterdam. And in 1652, a Dutch privateer captured a Spanish ship and landed its cargo of forty-four slaves at the settlement.
After Holland lost Brazil to the Portuguese in 1654, the Dutch West India Company began to ship slaves to New Amsterdam more consistently, in larger numbers, and directly from Africa in an effort to develop New Amsterdam into a major North American slave port. European colonists profited from the increased importation of slaves. On the bouwerys just outside of New Amsterdam and the farms of the Hudson Valley, landowners used slaves to clear the land, plant grain crops, and take care of livestock. These farms supplied grain and livestock to other Dutch colonies and to the Netherlands. In New Amsterdam, larger numbers of wealthy merchants, artisans, and business owners bought slaves and trained them to work in their businesses. Other merchants hoped to join in the profits of the slave trade and bought slaves in order to resell them to other New Netherland residents or to other colonies. One of the largest of these shipments came aboard the Witte Paert in 1655. When the ship docked in New Amsterdam, residents knew of its arrival because of the stench that arose from the holds, where slave traders had tightly packed three hundred African men and women and left them to travel across the Atlantic amid their own waste. By 1660, New Amsterdam was the most important slave port in North America.
African slaves constituted the predominant part of New York City's colonial working class. Throughout the Dutch period, the colony attracted few European indentured servants, especially relative to other North American colonies. Thus, the colony relied heavily on slave labor. In New Netherland and other parts of the colonial Americas in the seventeenth century, colonial governments were less concerned with defining racial difference under the law than ensuring the presence of a steady labor force. No European states formally regulated slavery in the North American colonies before the 1660s; Virginia established the first comprehensive slave codes between 1680 and 1682. Neither did colonies limit slavery to Africans-Europeans enslaved Native Americans when they could, although not other Europeans. In New Netherland, African slaves could testify in court and bring suit against whites; had the same trial rights as whites; could own property, excepting real estate or other slaves; and could work for wages. Slaves, white and black indentured servants, and free black and white workers in the seventeenth century held more rights and experiences in common in New Amsterdam, and indeed in North America, than would be true in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
Nonetheless, during the 1600s African ancestry became increasingly important in defining the bound segment of the working class. Although trans-Atlantic travel during this time was difficult for everyone, only African captives and European criminals and prisoners of war arrived in the New World in chains, as slaves and indentured servants, respectively. The presence of relatively few European indentured servants, criminal or not, meant that few Europeans came to the New Netherland colony as bondpersons, especially after New Netherland became more involved in the slave trade after 1640. Masters had the same control over servants during their indentures as they had over slaves. Indentured servants could not marry until their indentures were complete; masters could sell indentured servants' time to new owners as they could sell slaves; and punishments of indentured servants were similar to those of slaves. Even the fact that Africans were enslaved for life sometimes made little difference in colonies where life expectancies were short and indentured servants might not survive their seven-year contracts. In Virginia and other colonies during the seventeenth century, indentured servants worked alongside slaves; similarities in their conditions led to cooperation between European and African bondpersons in ways ranging from running away together to intermarriage. But the fact that there were only small numbers of indentured servants in New Amsterdam exacerbated the differences between African and European laborers.
Practically from the arrival of the first slaves, many European laborers in New Amsterdam, feeling the pressure of a tight labor market, actively sought to distinguish themselves from slave laborers and promote their status as free workers. Most had little incentive to identify with the colony's slaves. Because free laborers earned poor wages from the Dutch West India Company, by far New Amsterdam's largest employer, many worked more than one job to survive, and even the schoolmaster took in washing. In the limited labor market, free skilled white workers particularly feared competition from slave laborers, for a slave could be purchased for the same amount as a free laborer's annual wages. This fear prompted white workers in 1628 to convince the company not to train slaves for skilled labor, as it did in other American colonies. By the 1650s, European settlers began to declare publicly that Africans were not as competent skilled laborers as Europeans. When the officers of the Dutch West India Company in Amsterdam tried to encourage the New Amsterdam settlers to train slaves as skilled workers, Director General Stuyvesant replied that there were "no able negroes fit to learn a trade." Under Dutch colonial rule, Europeans of all nations united to racialize jobs and skills in Manhattan, excluding enslaved and free blacks from lucrative occupations.
Excerpted from IN THE SHADOW OF SLAVERY by Leslie M. Harris Copyright © 2003 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author
Leslie M. Harris is an associate professor of history at Emory University.
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