Today, we’re really excited to have an extra special episode for you. We’re honored to present this episode in conjunction with the PBS series, Secrets of the Dead. Coming up this October, Secrets of the Dead will be airing the story of the Woman in the Iron Coffin, in which a team of death detectives will reconstruct the Woman’s life. We’ve been lucky enough to see a preview, and let us assure you – you need to see this! But in the meantime, we’re here to offer a little extra context to everything you’ll learn from the experts on the show. The Woman in the Iron Coffin is a great opportunity to talk about so many things, but because the Woman was a free black woman living in New York City in the 1850s, we’re going to spend this installment of our slavery series talking about slavery in the Northern United States, how it came to an end, and the lives of free black folks in the North.

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Transcript for Slavery and Freedom in New York City

Written and Researched by Sarah Handley-Cousins, PhD

Produced by Sarah Handley-Cousins, PhD and Elizabeth Garner Masarik, PhD Candidate

Sarah: Imagine you’re a construction worker, on the job in New York City, breaking ground for a new building. It’s just another day at work as the backhoe digs scoop after scoop of dirt – at least, until the backhoe scrapes against something that sounds like metal. No big deal – probably an old pipe. But when you get closer, you realize it’s not a pipe. No, actually, it’s an iron coffin, and so deteriorated that you can see that there’s a body in there.

Elizabeth: Yikes. We know this sounds exactly like the cold open of an episode of Bones, but it’s not – it’s real life. In 2011, a construction crew working in Queens, NY accidentally unearthed the coffin in, containing a body. They called the police, thinking they may have discovered a crime scene. But after some preliminary tests, medical examiners determined that the body wasn’t from a crime. Instead, it was the body of a black woman who had been dead and buried for some 150 years. The woman became known to investigators as The Woman in the Iron Coffin, and a team of forensic archaeologists, historians, and scientists spent the next several years trying to solve her mystery. Who was she? How did she die? Why was she buried in such a strange, iron coffin?

Sarah: Today, we’re really excited to have an extra special episode for you. We’re honored to present this episode in conjunction with the PBS series, Secrets of the Dead. Coming up this October, Secrets of the Dead will be airing the story of the Woman in the Iron Coffin, in which a team of death detectives will reconstruct the Woman’s life. We’ve been lucky enough to see a preview, and let us assure you – you need to see this! But in the meantime, we’re here to offer a little extra context to everything you’ll learn from the experts on the show. The Woman in the Iron Coffin is a great opportunity to talk about so many things, but because the Woman was a free black woman living in New York City in the 1850s, we’re going to spend this installment of our slavery series talking about slavery in the Northern United States, how it came to an end, and the lives of free black folks in the North.

I’m Elizabeth
and I’m Sarah
and we are your historians for this episode of DIG

Other episodes of interest:

Elizabeth: When we think of the America’s ‘peculiar institution,’ we automatically think “South” – and with good reason. But when this country was founded, slavery existed all around the thirteen colonies, North, South, East and West. New York was no exception. When the Dutch decided to change their approach to their New Amsterdam colony in the 1610s and 20s, they began to bring enslaved Africans with them to use as manual labor to clear the land and build a settlement. By 1625, black men were already being used in clear forests, break ground for agriculture, build barns and houses, and load and unload ships. Without this work, the small Dutch population would not have been able to establish a permanent presence in the little harbor that would later become New York City. The slaves that the Dutch brought were referred to as “Atlantic Creoles” because they were likely from all corners of the slave-holding Atlantic World. For instance, the first small group of enslaved men had names like Simon Congo, Anthony Portuguese, Jan Francisco, and Jan Fort Orange – revealing the diversity of backgrounds they likely had, ranging from the Portuguese and Brazilian to African influences. Wherever they were from, these enslaved men and many others were used to do the grunt work for establishing a greater Dutch presence in the so-called New World, specifically the tip Manhattan, where the Dutch West India Company had decided to establish its American headquarters. One of their tasks was clearing land and constructing new roads – including one you may have heard of: Broadway.

Sarah: Now, there were Dutch settlers living in Manhattan – not a huge population, especially at first, because the Dutch were initially more interested in making New Amsterdam a base for fur trading rather than a settlement, but either way, white people lived there. But those white Dutch folks were much more interested in business than the grunt work that would make the business possible. To me, this is another place where we see the similarities between the use of unfree labor in the South and in the North. This was the same problem folks in the Chesapeake had at first, when English men emigrated thinking they would rake in the big bucks without doing any manual labor. The difference is that the Dutch had slaves at this point – in the Chesapeake, it took them a few decades to build up a population of servants and slaves to do that work for them. But the Dutch made sure that when they made their settlement in Manhattan, they had that labor from the get go. In fact, when they decided to switch gears away from using the settlement as a trading hub and toward creating a settled colony, this became part of the Dutch West India Company’s selling point for luring white settlers to New York. They promised well-to-do settlers large tracts of land to establish manors if these settlers promised to raise groups of at least 50 additional people to bring with them. In addition, the Company assured the wealthy settlers that “The Company will use their endeavors to supply the colonists with as many Blacks as they conveniently can …” to do all the hardest work.

Elizabeth: By 1650, roughly one-quarter of the New Amsterdam population was enslaved. These slaves worked in the “city” (such as it was) of New Amsterdam, doing what one historian called “municipal work” – essentially, doing the infrastructure necessary to build and keep the city running. In addition, as the century went on, more and more enslaved people were being sent up the Hudson to work as agricultural labor at all those manors established by wealthy Dutch settlers. But as the population of enslaved people grew, their status as “property” became more unclear. While black men and women were considered enslaved, there was really no legal declaration of what, exactly, that meant. Remember, this is in the mid 1600s. Even in the Chesapeake, which we associate much more strongly with its use of slaves, the legal status of black people was not totally fleshed out.

Sarah: Right – this is something I always try to emphasize to my students. Slavery didn’t just happen. It wasn’t innate or something. It was created through decisions made by white folks. Just because a black person was brought to New York in the early 1600s to be used as unfree labor, didn’t mean that meant the same thing to everyone. New Yorkers – just like Virginians and Marylanders and South Carolinians – had to make a series of decisions about what slavery meant. Was it for life? Could you pay slaves? What happened to enslaved people’s children – were they also slaves? These things didn’t happen naturally; they were the result of decisions made by people in power.

Elizabeth: Yes! And in the early-to-mid 1600s, all these questions were still up in the air. And in some cases, black residents of New Amsterdam used this to their advantage. In 1635, a small group of black laborers petitioned the Dutch West India Company for a raise in wages, saying that they deserved to be paid the same as white workers. (Yes, they were being paid for their work!) Not only did the Company agree that they had the right to make such a request, they agreed, and the men received a raise. Black residents also had access to the court system, and were able to make claims and testify. They also were treating relatively fairly by the court system, and allowed to carry arms and served in the militia. Enslaved Dutch people were allowed to legally marry, attend church, and their children could go to school, and men who served in the military were sometimes given their freedom and tracts of land on which to start farms. Black residents of New Netherland adopted Dutch culture, and had a real presence in the colony, developing their own places and spaces. One such place was the African Burying Ground, a cemetery established by black Dutch people – we’ll come back to this cemetery and its importance later.

This is all very, very different from what we know about Southern slavery, especially later in the 18th and 19th century, but let’s also not be too positive. Dutch people equated black skin with slavery, and even if they didn’t have a law giving them a legal basis, white Dutch people believed that was the proper way of things. It wasn’t uncommon for free blacks to be re-enslaved because Dutch people simply assumed they must have run away or were lying about their status.

A modern painting depicting a Dutch slave market in NYC

A depiction of a slave auction in New Amsterdam, 1655 | Public Domain / WIkimedia Commons

Sarah: In the mid 17th century, the governing body of New Amsterdam, called the Council of New Amsterdam, granted freedom to a small group of black men. These men had all worked for the Company for years, and we can guess had probably proven themselves as trust worthy and capable of supporting themselves. The Council granted freedom to eleven men and their wives, and gave them each land grants in the area that is now Washington Square Park in Greenwich Village, where they would be set apart from the rest of the settlers. In their declaration of freedom, the Council stated: “[released] the aforesaid Negros and their wives from their bondage for the term of their natural lives, hereby setting them free and at liberty on the same footing as other freedpeople here in New Netherland, where they shall be permitted to earn their livelihood on the land shown and granted to them.” There was a catch: the Council did not free the children. Instead, the children had an awkward status that some historians have called “half-free” – they were considered slaves and property of the Dutch West India Company, but they resided on these separate farms with their free parents. Obviously, this was pretty upsetting for the parents, who often tried to find work-arounds. Some had their children baptized as Christians, putting faith in the old tradition that one could not hold Christians in bondage. It didn’t work. Others tried to sue the government, using the argument that no other slave holding society enslaved the children of free people (sort of the inverse of the principle that the child follows the status of the mother). In the end, most parents were forced to accept their children’s status or buy their freedom – which was pretty darn expensive.

A greenish statue of Peter Stuyvesant

Peter Stuyvesant statue, New York City | Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

Elizabeth: Things began to change in 1647, when Peter Stuyvesant became the director of the Dutch West India Company, and therefore the head of the New Amsterdam settlement. Stuyvesant was less friendly to the black Dutch population. He also was under pressure from the Netherlands States General (sort of their Congress) which was frustrated that the Company had not been more active in the slave trade, which, they rightly believed, was quite profitable. Stuyvesant ramped up the slave trade within the Company. The Company had for decades kept a tight grip on the slave trade, not wanting independent traders getting in on the cash for fear of driving down prices or over drawing on the stock … in other words, depleting the population of West Africa. But in 1652, the Company decided that the market was robust enough to support more traders, and Dutch businessmen rushed to get in on the business. This included residents of New Netherland, including the Schuylers and the Van Cortlandts.

Sarah: If you’re from New York State, you should recognize those names – we have a Schuyler County and a Cortland County, as well as towns named Schuyler, Cortland, and Cortlandt Manor. And if you’re a Hamilton fan, you know the Schuylers: they became Alexander Hamilton’s in-laws. So yeah. All that money that Angelica and Eliza’s daddy had? That was slaver money.

Elizabeth: I mentioned that things started to change when Peter Stuyvesant took control of the company in 1647. Well, they changed even more in 1664, when the English Navy sailed a fleet to the mouth of New York Harbor. Peter Stuyvesant wanted to resist the English even though they obviously had the military might to just roll over them, but he couldn’t convince literally anyone else to back him up, so on September 8, 1664, the Dutch surrendered New Amsterdam to the English, and the colony. This is, of course, when the colony of New Netherland and the city of New Amsterdam became known as New York.

Sarah: Just months later, the English codified slavery legally. At the same time, the English began to reduce the use of white indentured servants and enslaved Native Americans. We keep comparing this to the situation in the South, but I think this is really telling. In the Southern colonies, obviously also held by the English, there were also a series of laws passed in the late 17th century that began to codify slavery into the laws. But more even than that, there were a series of laws that were designed to widen the gulf between different forms of unfree labor. For instance, between the 1660s and 1680s, Virginia passes a number of laws that restrict black mobility and freedom and make white indentured servants more distinct from enslaved blacks – for example, blacks couldn’t own weapons, own livestock or own their own slaves, blacks were to be treated separately by the court system, couldn’t intermarry with whites, and of course, that the children of an enslaved woman were also themselves slaves. This of course served to restrict what black people could and could not do, but it also had a cultural purpose: it began shift the colonies away from being a place where lots of different kinds of unfree labor existed, and where lots of different kinds of people could perform varying degrees of unfree labor, and towards one where black people were slaves.

Elizabeth: In other words, while the Dutch were content to enslave black people, and were often pretty damned racist, they also considered them just another part of their society. The English were beginning to create a different system, where black people were no longer just another form of labor, but instead, transformed into chattel.

The English also doubled down on slavery. Between 1698 and 1756, the population of New York City grew significantly, as did the percentage of that population that was enslaved. Most of these enslaved people were transported directly from Africa, though some did stop briefly in the British Caribbean. The auction market where enslaved people were bought and sold was known as the “Meal Market,” which was at the water’s edge at the end of Wall Street.

Sarah (interject): I’ve been right there. I wish had known that when I was last in that area.

Elizabeth: The most demanding market for slaves was for young girls and women to be domestic servants, especially nurses for young white children. To be clear, we don’t mean wetnurses, but more like a nanny. I emphasize that they weren’t wetnurses because New Yorkers specifically sought out black women who did not have children to be domestics. Pregnancy and motherhood made enslaved women less useful, and added the financial burden of more mouths to feed. Barrenness became a selling point. It also made infanticide more likely, as enslaved women, afraid of being sold away or punished, give birth to babies in secret and killed them, as this note a 1736 issue of New York Weekly illustrates: “Yesterday morning was found in the Negroes Burial place a small infant in a wig box, and partly buried underground.”

Sarah: In New York, regardless of what kind of work enslaved people performed, they lived cheek-and-jowl with their white masters. Slaves slept in attics, spare rooms, and kitchens of their master’s houses, and performed work alongside white laborers. But slaves also established their own networks. One of the last chores for enslaved people during the day was to fetch water for the next morning, which turned water pumps into sites of gossip and camaraderie. Slaves were also often used to run errands, which meant they were able to establish relationships with slaves all around the city. In Jill Lepore’s book New York Burning, she describes the rounds of an enslaved man named Pedro, made in 1741: last Fall he (Pedro) went out one Sunday Morning with Mrs. Carpetner’s Negro Albany. As they went along the Broadway, they met with Mr. Slydall’s Jack, who was going to Comfort’s for tea water; at the market near Mr. DeLancey’s house they met two other Negroes; and Albany asked them all to go down to Hughson’s and drink with them.” This gives us a little glimpse of an hour in the life of one of these men, and shows the social networks that enslaved people built. The problem with Pedro’s jaunt around town is that it was illegal. The English were becoming increasingly paranoid about slave insurrection as they neared the middle of the 18th century. It was actually illegal for more than three slaves to gather together at once, for fear that large groups of enslaved people were dangerous and that such gatherings offered the chance to plot.

Elizabeth: Another similarity to the slaveholding South.

Sarah: Right. More than that, Pedro was also violating other laws, including being out after dark. If the group got a little rowdy, that would violate a law that made it illegal for “negro, mulatto, or Indian slaves above the number of three to assemble or meet together on the Lord’s Day called Sunday, and sport, play, or make any noise or disturbance.” There were a whole bunch of similar, complicated and super-specific laws like this. In 1730, NY Governor John Montgomerie consolidated those laws. This law upheld the strictures on mobility and gathering in large group, and also made it illegal to carry or own weapons.

The cover of New York Burning by Jill Lepore

The cover of New York Burning by Jill Lepore

Elizabeth: These laws weren’t the result of pure paranoia, though. They had good reason to fear that the enslaved population of the city would rise up against them. In March 1712, a group of about 40-50 slaves made a plot to burn the city and kill every white person in it. They were armed with guns, knives, and axes, and managed killed 9 white New Yorkers, wound 6 more. New York slaves were severely punished for the uprising, with more than 25 executed – some hanged, but others burned at the stake and one tortured on the wheel. But what happened in 1741 was even more horrifying. In March 1741, a fire broke out in the Governor’s Mansion, on the very tip of Manhattan. In a time when fires were the greatest possible threat to a city, and the only defense was a bucket brigade and tiny crew of firemen – essentially, volunteers who passed buckets of water to one another to be tossed on the flames – this was a serious threat. The fire spread from the mansion to Fort George, engulfing wooden homes in its path, including the Secretary’s Office, which was – inexplicably – filled with hand grenades, that exploded when lit. Even while the city burned, people began to speculate that the fire was intentionally set as part of a slave conspiracy to overthrow white power.

Sarah: A grand jury was convened to investigate the fires and determine the existence of a conspiracy. The result was something like the Salem Witch Trials: when people were accused of taking part in the plot, they attempted to save themselves and their loved ones by implicating others, setting off a domino effect of accusations, most of them likely untrue. The very first witness, a 16-year-old slave girl, named a handful of slaves who had committed a burglary, then testified that those same slaves plotted to set a fire, and when white people came to put the fire out, the slaves would murder them, overthrow the government, and declare one of them governor. Several of those slaves implicated others before they were executed – one of them hanged and then his body hung in a cage (gibbeted) to act as a warning to others. As more accusations were made, more trials took place. It ballooned to an almost absurd degree – the supposed plot was said to have taken place over a lavish feast, shared by a promiscuous gathering of black men and their white lovers. The gathered conspirators were accused of plotting to murder whites, burn the city to the ground, overthrow the government, declare one of them king. Eventually it morphed into an international, Papist – maybe Spanish? – conspiracy to overthrow Protestant English rule. Unable to believe that black people were sophisticated or intelligent enough to weave such a complex plot, the judge overseeing the trials, Daniel Horsmanden, insisted that white people must have orchestrated the whole thing. In the end, 161 blacks and 20 whites were arrested, 17 black people were hanged, 13 were burned at the stake, and 70 were banished from the city. No one is entirely sure whether there was actually a plot, although Jill Lepore lays out some evidence that the enslaved men themselves likely did at least discuss their desire for freedom and the possibility of setting fires.

Elizabeth: The hysteria over conspiracy did eventually die down, but it was only a few decades before another crisis threw slavery in New York into chaos again – this time, the crisis really was an international one. The Revolutionary War created a complicated situation for black New Yorkers. Black New Yorkers, both slave and free, protested and rioted the Crown together, including helping the Sons of Liberty to pull down the statue of King George. At the same time, the city government reenacted old laws mandating physical punishments for slaves out after dark because so many slaves were simply walking away from bondage – partly because there was ample opportunities for jobs in the bustling port city. When the war broke out, although some blacks had joined with patriots in the preceding years, slaves found that the Americans were not invested in ensuring freedom and liberty for everyone – just whites. When Lord Dunmore, the governor of Virginia, declared that the British would grant liberty to slaves to joined the British troops, slaves saw this as a sign that the English were the safer bet. When the military unit created by Dunmore’s Proclamation, Dunmore’s Ethiopian Regiment, came to New York City, hundreds of fleeing New York slaves sought freedom by running to their ranks. As historians Graham Russell and Gao Hodges put it, “New York under British rule became an emporium for black freedom.” In 1777, British General Henry Clinton made the same promise that Dunmore had made, offering slaves freedom in exchange for their service for the Crown. A year before, Clinton had created an all-black military unit, the Black Pioneers, and not only allowed black men positions as non-commissioned officers, he paid them equally to other white British soldiers.

Sarah: At the same time, the British – believing that they would win the war and retain the colonies – did not free the slaves of Loyalists. (Technically, Dunmore and Clinton’s proposals to slaves to run to their ranks applied only to the slaves of Patriots, but no doubt many slaves of Loyalists snuck in under the radar.) So even while taking strides like offering formerly enslaved soldiers equal pay – something even the Union Army struggled to do 80 something years later – the British made no steps to stop the slave trade or to free slaves universally across even the New York colony. In fact, the price of slaves rose precipitously during the war as supply dwindled and the transatlantic trade was paused to prevent taking men and ships from the Royal Navy, so internal slave trading made some Loyalists a fortune during the war years. But even then, because of the increased freedom the British allowed some black New Yorkers, racial lines became a little more flexible during the war. White and black soldiers enjoyed dances and pastimes like horse racing together, and the racial divide narrowed a bit.

Elizabeth: When the Americans won the war, however, things became dicey for newly freed slaves. Their status was completely up in the air. Their freedom had been granted by the British – who were largely powerless to enforce it. Slaveholders considered even enslaved men who had served in the British ranks as stolen property – including George Washington. Still, General Guy Carleton, commander-in-chief of the British forces, committed to ensuring that all slaves who were promised freedom received it. In 1783, Carleton documented some 3000 black New Yorkers (1336 men, 914 women, and 750 children) who had been promised their freedom in a volume that became known as the Book of Negroes. Each former slave was given a certificate that acted sort of like a passport, allowing them to leave New York City and go elsewhere in the British Empire. Almost all of those recorded in the Book of Negroes moved to Nova Scotia.

Sarah: Even though slavery did not die in New York State with the Revolution, it had fundamentally changed. Major players in state and city politics started to become abolitionists. It was lost on exactly no one that the United States had built a nation “conceived in liberty” while denying liberty to an entire class of people held in bondage – a concept historians often call the American Paradox. John Jay, NYC attorney, later Governor or New York, later Supreme Court justice, urged that New York’s constitution end slavery in the state, writing “Till America comes into this measure, her prayers to Heaven for liberty will be impious.” [Side note: I just love that, because it’s such powerful proof that people knew that this was a serious problem. We often like to think that the founding fathers just couldn’t figure that out, or didn’t think about it. They did!] Together with Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr, John Jay went on to form the New York Manumission Society, which lobbied the state government to loosen the laws of slavery if they would not abolish it outright. They led boycotts against the businesses of slaveholders, and helped to change slave laws in New York State to restrict slavery and ensure slaves received fair trials.

Elizabeth: But even with the atmosphere for liberty and this commitment from several “Founding Fathers,” ending slavery in New York State was not easy. The Founding generation was committed not just to liberty, but to natural rights – one of which was property. Even for those who believed that slavery was wrong also felt uncomfortable with the idea of the government telling citizens that they no longer had the right to own their property. Of course, the paradox was that the natural rights argument also meant that if slaves were people, then they also deserved natural rights, specifically, their freedom. To illustrate just how paradoxical this all was, one-fifth of the members of the Manumission Society actually owned slaves themselves, and continued to acquire slaves into the 1790s. The solution to the paradox that the Manumission Society and eventually, the New York State Government found was in gradual emancipation, a slow, steady decrease in slavery until it died naturally. This wasn’t completely out of left field: lots of members of the Founding generation believed that slavery was going to die out eventually, but New York State formalized this into law at the urging of the Manumission Society.

Sarah: The process of gradual emancipation was, well, gradual. Even settling on how it would work was complicated. The New York State Assembly settled on a manumission bill in 1785. In this measure, slaves would be freed slowly over the course of a number of years – those born before 1785 would remain enslaved, and those born after would be freed, although they would be indentured as “apprentices” to their masters until their 25th birthday. The idea was that putting abolition off until their 22nd (women) or 25th (men) birthday meant that masters still recouped some of the lost investment, sweetening the deal for grumpy slaveholders. However, the New York State Senate and Assembly were split over whether freed slaves would be considered full New York State citizens after their emancipation. The assembly supported manumission, but not equal rights; the Senate thought this was problematic, and supported giving blacks more rights. Eventually, they compromised and passed a bill that freed slaves, allowed blacks to run for public office – but inexplicably denied them the right to vote. However, during the first decades of New York State’s history, bills passed by the legislature went through a third process known as the Council of Revision, made up of the governor, the “chancellor” (in other words, the highest ranking judge in NYS), and two judges from the New York State Supreme Court system, which would review all bills. The Council rejected the bill precisely because of its inability to live up to the standards of the Revolution: you couldn’t free people, expect them to live among the population of the state, but deny them the right to participate in their government. The bill died and slavery remained in tact.

The Gilbert Stuart painting of John Jay

John Jay, Gilbert Stuart | Public Domain / WIkimedia Commons

Elizabeth: The abolitionists members of the New York State government were not deterred. By 1792, John Jay became governor of New York, and breathed new life into the movement to end slavery in the state. It was by no means an easy process – many New Yorkers were quite dedicated to slavery and accused Jay of wanting to “rob every Dutchman of the property her possess most dear to his heart, his slaves.” Many more thought that it was illegal to deny a citizen their property without compensation, and that abolition was a form of tyranny. Despite proslavery folks’ complaints, in 1799, the New York Legislature finally passed a bill that abolished slavery gradually. Like the 1785 measure, this bill stated that any slave born before July 4, 1799 would remain enslaved, but any born after that date would be freed. Also like the 1785 law, it dictated that these freed children would be indentured to their masters until their 21st birthday, ensuring that masters recouped at least some of their losses. The state also agreed to take on the expense of caring for children as well as disabled and elderly slaves, so masters had that “burden” lifted.

Sarah: So even when New York abolished slavery, the institution remained more or less as it had been. In fact, while New York City had been a beacon of freedom (however tenuous) during the Revolutionary War, when the war ended, the city’s enslaved population was higher than any other city in the northeast. Even as the rest of the state naturally began to rely less on slave labor, the city doubled down. As Patrick Rael states, “In a time when slavery weakened through the region, it was remarkable that New York City’s slave population increased by 20 percent in the last decade of the eighteenth century.” Gradual abolition was both a positive and negative for enslaved people themselves. Knowing that slavery was coming to an end, slaves and masters began to negotiate terms, effectively writing contracts. Take for example an enslaved man named Yat, owned by John and Sarah Glen. In 1805, the three agreed that Yat would remain enslaved for six more years, then freed; but in the meantime, Yat had to obey certain rules, observe a set schedule of work and rest days, and by 1805, Yat had to pay his former masters $90. This shows us that Yat must have had some ability to negotiate with his masters, and that they weren’t unwilling to free him – but only if he held up his fairly difficult end of the bargain.

Elizabeth: The old debate over whether or not freed slaves would become full citizens was also not entirely settled. While the Gradual Emancipation Law did not say that freedpeople could not be citizens, many New Yorkers were reluctant to actually honor the civil rights of black people. While abolitionist legislators were able to get bills strengthening some rights, like the right to marry, opponents placed strictures on black suffrage. While black people could still vote, they needed to produce freedom papers to be allowed to the ballot, and later, all black men needed to register to “prevent voter fraud,” though whites weren’t held to the same standard.

In 1812, the abolitionists had another boost when Daniel D. Tompkins, long time member of the Manumission Society and governor, asked the legislature to free the slaves that were left in bondage by the Gradual Emancipation Law. In 1817, they finally passed a law that all those born before July 4, 1799 would be freed. Great, right? There was a hitch. It didn’t go into effect until July 4, 1827 – ten years later.

Sarah: Actually, there was another hitch. Imagine you were a young enslaved woman, maybe in her twenties or thirties during the decade between 1817 and 1827. There’s a pretty high likelihood that you would have a child, right? And as we know, the condition of the child follows the condition of the mother – they would be freed in 1827, right? No, not necessarily. Like the 1799 law, the 1817 law dictated that children born into slavery, even up until July 4,1827, would be ‘indentured’ to their masters until their 21st birthday. This meant that effectively, slavery (or at least slavery by another name) could extend until 1848. The good news is that it didn’t – by 1830, the census revealed only 75 enslaved people still living in New York State; and by 1840, there were none. After a long, protracted death, slavery in New York was finally gone.

Elizabeth: That didn’t mean that everything was perfect for black New Yorkers. Many free blacks continued to work long, grueling hours in often menial jobs. Black men often worked as “bucket men,” who emptied out the city’s privies by night, or hustled at a variety of small freelance jobs. For instance, black men often waited by the docks offering to carry traveler’s bags in return for a few coins. Both men and women peddled various wares on the street – most often as street food vendors. The majority of free black women continued to work in domestic service. But at the same time, in the first decades of the 19th century, a class of educated, elite free blacks emerged. In 1785, several members of the New York Manumission society (including John Jay and Alexander Hamilton) established the New York African Free School. In 1792, a sister school for girls was founded. In these schools, young black students learned the same things their white counterparts did: literature, mathematics, science, geography. Almost as important, the school fostered leadership skills. This was more an accident than anything else – the school was so chronically understaffed that older, advanced students were required to help teach the little ones, so they learned how to organize, plan, and lead others. The school, and others like it, did help to create a class of black intellectuals, but it also had its dark side. First, the school was a product of the white savior syndrome: because many whites – including those of the Manumission Society – believed that blacks were inherently less civilized and prone to criminality and sloth, the school was meant to be a kind of intervention, raising black children in the “right” way. Lessons emphasized deference to authority and maintenance of order and discipline

Sarah: Right. Historian Carla Peterson tells the story of an essay that several of the students wrote in 1828. These essays were delivered to an abolitionist group, and were purported to have just spontaneously written without prompting from their teachers. But all the essays were the same – like, not identical, but they all had the same exact pattern. And all the essays included profuse thank yous for their “benefactors”- ie, the white people who funded the school – and descriptions of themselves as “poor little descendants of Africa.”

The other second dark side of the school was that it may have produced well-educated and genteel young men and women, but all that education couldn’t create a racially egalitarian society for them to walk into. Even with their excellent educations, graduates of the school struggled to establish careers, especially in fields that were considered elite or professional. When several young men from the African Free School tried to go to the Noyes Academy in Connecticut for more schooling – probably more or less akin to college – but a mob of whites, livid that the school might be co-ed, destroyed the school and drove the men out. Later, they did find a school, founded by abolitionists, to attend, but then when one of the wanted to go on to become an Episcopal priest, he was rejected from the Protestant Episcopal Theological Seminary in New York City because he was black. I tried to find where he ended up going, but couldn’t figure it out – either way, he did eventually ordained.

Elizabeth: This all sounds pretty bad – and it should, because it is. But at the same time, we need to acknowledge that many graduates of the school did go on to great success, and as I mentioned before, help to create the black NYC elite. Graduates of the school had the major example of networking, with both other black graduates, but also with the white men who helped to fund the school. These connections helped many graduates to find places in business, where they often worked their way wealth and status. For example, Philip White, used his connection to Peter Guigon, an older alumni, to secure an apprenticeship in the older man’s drug store, which made him eligible for the New York City College of Pharmacy. (He didn’t get barred because of his race most likely because the pharmacy profession was new and desperate to establish itself, so was probably just happy to have people going to the school.) Later, he built his own drugstore, which later expanded to sell drugs wholesale – helping to make him wealthy and elite in his own right.

Sarah: While the black elite was growing, black culture in the city was also flourishing. For working class blacks, one of the preferred pastime was “the stroll” – something that was free, sociable, and could be done in the evening after work or on Sunday afternoon. Strolling – which is exactly what it sounds like – was a pretty common activity for whites and blacks alike, but black New Yorkers used it as a time to flaunt their freedom by asserting their right to dress up, be loud, and take up space. White people in the early 19th century, especially travelers to the city, were constantly horrified at the clothing that black people wore. One English man was disgusted to see black women strolling wearing “white muslin dresses, artificial flowers, and pink shoes.” OMG, am I right? These women’s crime was that they dressed in a way that would attract attention. On other hand, men were described as wearing “broadcloth coats, very many of them boots, fashionable Cossack pantaloons, and white hats; watches and canes.” If you think back to our episode on suits, you might be thinking … geez, it sounds like they dressed exactly like white men. Right! While women (at least in that quote) were dressing to attract attention by being a little flirtatious and playful in their clothing, these men were wearing white men’s clothes. In both cases, these were black people asserting their right to dress and walk as they wished – rejecting the strictures that had been placed on their bodies, clothing, and movement while in bondage – and white people feeling affronted that black people weren’t more demure and deferential.

Elizabeth: Strolling wasn’t the only pastime. Black New Yorkers were known for their fiddling and dancing prowess. We often think of “fiddle folklore” as emanating from the South and Appalachia, but stories circulated around New York State about black fiddlers who were forced to fiddle for the devil or who were so skilled with their instrument that listeners fell into trances and danced for hours without rest. Speaking of dancing, black men and women crowded into “dance cellars” to party and dance together. Occasionally, more elite blacks held their own charity balls, which were ostentatious affairs where people dressed up, rented fancy coaches, had an extravagant meal, drank, and danced. Whites often dismissed these events as blacks trying to “emulate white elites,” and playacting, in ridiculous ways. It’s important, I think, for us to remember that any event where blacks unapologetically occupied space for their pleasure was a threat to white supremacy – so even when they were having fun, black New Yorkers were also resisting!

Sarah: Black New Yorkers also worked to create physical and civic space for themselves in the city. In 1800, a group of black Methodists, tired of the racism they felt was endemic in their churches, joined together to create the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, known even now as Mother Zion. A few years later, another all black congregation was created, called the Abyssinian Baptist Church. Black church membership was overwhelmingly female – Abyssinian was 75% female – and while the leadership were all men, women congregants (?) headed up all the church’s committees and outreach programs, giving women a powerful platform for social reform. Social organizations proliferated, including groups like The New York African Society for Mutual Relief, which began as a way for community members to pool their money to support one another for health and death benefits. As membership grew, and as wealthier folks joined the organization, the group also started to serve as a fraternal organization and political lobbying group. Similar associations funded schools, organized all-black cemeteries, funded health care and death benefits, encouraged civic engagement, and of course, abolition.

Elizabeth: Black New Yorkers also entered journalism – often considering publishing an extension of their work in voluntary societies. Black newspapers not only to inform Black New Yorkers, but also served to help organize action. For instance, when a black New Yorker named George Jones was kidnapped and was to be sold into slavery, a newspaper called the Emancipator helped to spread the word to energize the community to save the poor man. Together with voluntary organizations, newspapers mobilized the community, until, as one member later recalled, “every thinking man and woman was a volunteer on the famous ‘underground railroad.” Abolition was a unifying force during the antebellum era. Black abolitionists had their own style. While white abolitionists tended to appeal to ‘hearts and minds,’ hoping to use moral suasion to bring people to the side of right, black abolitionists were steadfast in, essentially, calling out slavery for what it was. Black New Yorkers were not only militant in their abolitionism, they were radical (at least from the white perspective) in their demands for a post-emancipation society. They rejected calls for colonization, demanded full civil rights – including the right to vote – and an end to white supremacy.

Sarah: I’ll be honest – this episode could easily be another hour-long. I really struggled with where to cut this one-off. The Women in the Iron Coffin raised so many fascinating and important questions, I just wish we had the time (and the energy?!) to talk about all of them, but I hope we can return to some of them later – things like funeral culture, the history of black religious culture, the history of small pox, black domestic service … so much to talk about. But that’s what’s fun about history, isn’t it? Just when you poke your nose into one thing, you realize there are ninety bazillion other rabbit holes to go poking around in. But we’ll cut ourselves off for now. Be on the look out for more information about the Woman in the Iron Coffin, from Secrets of the Dead on PBS, coming out this October! We’ll definitely be keeping you updated about air dates and viewing information. If you love digging into the past (HAR DE HAR HAR) you will not want to miss this incredible documentary!


Berlin, Ira and Leslie Harris. Slavery in New York.. New York: The New Press, 2005.

Lepore, Jill. New York Burning: Liberty, Slavery, and Conspiracy in Eighteenth-Century Manhattan. New York: Vintage Books, 2006.

Slavery and Freedom in New York City


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