Eric Foner | Gateway to Freedom: The Hidden History of the Underground Railroad | W. W. Norton & Company | January 2015 | 31 minutes (8,362 words)
Below is an excerpt from the book Gateway to Freedom, by Eric Foner, as recommended by Longreads contributing editor Dana Snitzky.
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The history of slavery, and of fugitive slaves, in New York City begins in the earliest days of colonial settlement. Under Dutch rule, from 1624 to 1664, the town of New Amsterdam was a tiny outpost of a seaborne empire that stretched across the globe. The Dutch dominated the Atlantic slave trade in the early seventeenth century, and they introduced slaves into their North American colony, New Netherland, as a matter of course. The numbers remained small, but in 1650 New Netherland’s 500 slaves outnumbered those in Virginia and Maryland. The Dutch West India Company, which governed the colony, used slave labor to build fortifications and other buildings, and settlers employed them on family farms and for household and craft labor. Slavery was only loosely codified. Slaves sued and were sued in local courts, drilled in the militia, fought in Indian wars, and married in the Dutch Reformed Church. When the British seized the colony in 1664, New Amsterdam had a population of around 1,500, including 375 slaves.
Under British rule, the city, now called New York, became an important trading center in a slave-based New World empire. In the eighteenth century, the British replaced the Dutch as the world’s leading slave traders, and the city’s unfree population steadily expanded. New York merchants became actively involved in the transatlantic slave trade as well as commerce with the plantations of the Caribbean. Slave auctions took place regularly at a market on Wall Street. Between 1700 and 1774, over 7,000 slaves were imported into New York, most of them destined for sale to surrounding rural areas. This figure was dwarfed by the more than 200,000 brought into the southern colonies in these years. But in 1734, New York’s colonial governor lamented that the “too great importation of . . . Negroes and convicts” had discouraged the immigration of “honest, useful and laborious white people,” who preferred to settle in neighboring colonies like Pennsylvania. By mid-century, slaves represented over one-fifth of the city’s population of around 12,000. Ownership of slaves was widespread. Most worked as domestic laborers, on the docks, in artisan shops, or on small farms in the city’s rural hinterland. In modern-day Brooklyn, then a collection of farms and small villages, one-third of the population in 1771 consisted of slaves.
New Yorkers later prided themselves on the notion that in contrast to southern slavery, theirs had been a mild and relatively benevolent institution. But New York slavery could be no less brutal than in colonies to the south. “Hard usage” motivated two dozen slaves to stage an uprising in 1712 in which they set fires on the outskirts of the city and murdered the first whites to respond. There followed a series of sadistic public executions, with some conspirators burned to death or broken on the wheel. The colonial Assembly quickly enacted a draconian series of laws governing slavery. These measures established separate courts for slaves and restricted private manumissions by requiring masters to post substantial bonds to cover the cost of public assistance in the event that a freed slave required it. The discovery of a “Great Negro Plot” in 1741, whose contours remain a matter of dispute among historians, led to more executions and further tightening of the laws governing slavery. As a result, few black New Yorkers achieved freedom through legal means before the era of the Revolution. Most censuses in colonial New York did not even count free blacks separately from slaves. On the eve of the War of Independence, the city’s population of 19,000 included nearly 3,000 slaves, and some 20,000 slaves lived within fifty miles of Manhattan island, the largest concentration of unfree laborers north of the Mason-Dixon Line. One visitor to the city noted, “It rather hurts a European eye to see so many Negro slaves upon the streets.”
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As long as slavery has existed, slaves have escaped to freedom. During the colonial era, long before any abolitionist networks offered assistance, New York City became both a site from which fugitives fled bondage and a destination for runaways from the surrounding countryside and other colonies. Black farmsteads on the northern edge of New Amsterdam were notorious for sheltering fugitives. Offering refuge to the slaves of one’s rivals became a common practice in imperial relations, facilitating runaways’ quest for freedom. Connecticut and Maryland, the British colonies nearest to New Netherland, encouraged Dutch slaves to escape and refused to return them. In 1650, Governor Petrus Stuyvesant threatened to offer freedom to Maryland slaves unless that colony stopped sheltering runaways from the Dutch outpost.
As the slave population increased under British rule, so did the number of escapes from the city. Since nearby colonies, controlled by the British, no longer offered safe refuge, slaves often escaped to upstate Indian nations or French Canada. As early as 1679, New York’s colonial Assembly imposed a fine of twenty-five pounds—a considerable sum at the time—for harboring fugitives. In 1702, taking note of the alarming practice of slaves “confederating together in running away,” it banned gatherings of more than three slaves. Three years later the lawmakers mandated the death penalty for any slave found without permission more than forty miles north of Albany. Another law, seeking to reduce fugitives’ mobility, made it illegal for a slave to gallop on horseback. Meanwhile, even as some slaves attempted to escape from New York City, others fled there on foot or arrived hidden on ships. Many found employment on the docks or on the innumerable vessels that entered and left the port. The city’s newspapers carried frequent notices warning captains not to hire runaways. Especially during the eighteenth century’s imperial wars, however, such admonitions were routinely ignored, due to the pressing need for sailors on naval vessels and privateers.
New York City’s colonial newspapers published advertisements for runaways of various kinds—not only slaves, but also indentured servants, apprentices, soldiers, and criminals—and the number increased steadily over the course of the eighteenth century. One study of several hundred fugitive-slave notices in the city’s press found that 255 of the runaways originated in New York City, 259 in nearby New Jersey, 159 in rural New York, and 25 as far away as Virginia and the West Indies. These advertisements conveyed considerable information about the fugitives to assist in their apprehension. One, for example, from the New-York Gazette in 1761 offered a reward of five pounds for the return of the slave Mark Edward:
A well set fellow, near six feet high, talks good English, plays well on a fiddle, calls himself a free fellow, goes commonly with his head shaved, hath two crowns on the top of his head, small black specks or moles in his eyes. . . . Had on when he went away, a good pair of leather breeches, a blue broadcloth jacket, a red jacket under it without sleeves, a good beaver hat.
The vast majority of colonial runaways were young adult men. Because of the small size of slaveholdings, numerous married slaves lived apart from one another, and many fugitives were said to have absconded to join family members. Individuals, white and black, on occasion assisted fugitives, but no organizations existed to do so and most runaways appear to have eventually been recaptured.
Although justices of the peace and other officials sometimes pursued runaway slaves, no law in colonial New York dealt explicitly with their recapture—this generally relied on action by the owner himself, through newspaper ads, letters, and the physical seizure of the fugitive. Such owners were exercising the common-law right of “recaption,” which authorized the reappropriation of stolen property, or lost property capable of locomotion—a stray horse, for example, or a fugitive slave—without any legal process, so long as it was done in an orderly manner and without injury to third parties. (The right also extended to the recapture of runaway indentured servants, apprentices, children, and wives, but, given the subordinate position of women under the common law, not to an aggrieved wife hunting down an absconding husband.) Since the law presumed blacks to be slaves, accused fugitives had a difficult task proving that they were free.
Throughout the colonies, the American Revolution disrupted the system of slavery and seemed to place its future in jeopardy. Nowhere was this more true than in New York City. Before the imperial crisis that led to American independence, chattel slavery had not been a matter of public debate, although colonists spoke frequently of the danger of being reduced to metaphorical slavery because of British taxation. By the early 1770s, however, a number of Methodist and Quaker congregations in the city encouraged members to manumit their slaves. Quakers were particularly prominent in antislavery activity in the late colonial period. Their belief that all human beings, regardless of race, possessed an “inward light,” allowing God to speak personally to each individual, led increasing numbers of Quakers to condemn slavery as an affront to God’s will. Most Quakers, however, disliked political agitation and saw abolition as a process that should take place gradually, with as little social disruption as possible.
During the American Revolution, slavery in New York City experienced profound shocks, from very different directions. One was the rise of a revolutionary ideology centered on individual liberty, which convinced a number of patriot leaders of slavery’s incompatibility with the ideals of the nation they were struggling to create. After an initial reluctance to enlist slaves as soldiers, moreover, New York’s legislature allowed owners to send slaves as replacements for military service, with the reward of freedom. In 1777, the Continental Congress opened the ranks of the revolutionary army to black men, promising freedom to slaves who enrolled. By the end of the war, an estimated 6,000 black men had served in state militias and the Continental Army and Navy. Most were slaves who gained their freedom in this manner, including an unknown number from New York City.
Of more import to New York’s slaves, however, were the actions of British officials who offered freedom to the slaves of patriots in order to weaken the revolutionary cause. The first emancipation proclamation in American history preceded Abraham Lincoln’s by nearly ninety years. Its author was the Earl of Dunmore, the royal governor of colonial Virginia, who in November 1775 promised freedom to “all indentured servants, negroes, or others” belonging to rebels if they enlisted in his army. Several hundred Virginia slaves joined Dunmore’s Ethiopian Regiment, their uniforms, according to legend, emblazoned with the words “Liberty to Slaves.” Unfortunately for their compatriots in bondage, American forces soon drove the governor out of the colony. With the remnants of his army, including its black unit, Dunmore arrived at Staten Island in August 1776. A month later, George Washington’s forces retreated from Manhattan. As British forces occupied New York, many of the inhabitants fled, and a fire destroyed a considerable part of the city.
The British did not leave New York City until the War of Independence had ended. During the occupation the city became “an island of freedom in a sea of slavery,” a haven for fugitive slaves from rural New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut, as well as for hundreds of black refugees who had fled to British lines in Virginia, the Carolinas, and Georgia. The influx reached the point that, for a time, city officials directed Hudson River ferryboats to stop transporting runaway slaves to the city. The fugitives, along with New York slaves who remained when their owners departed, found employment reconstructing the damaged parts of the city and working for the British army as servants, cooks, and laundresses and in other capacities. For the first time in their lives, they received wages and were effectively treated as free, although their ultimate fate remained uncertain. When the British evacuated Philadelphia in 1778, more black refugees arrived, and still more followed in 1781 and 1782 after the British defeat at Yorktown.
Of course, some black New Yorkers identified with the cause of independence. Black men had taken part in the crowd actions of the 1760s and 1770s that protested British measures such as the Stamp Act, including the group that tore down of a statue of George III in 1775. But once the British occupied the city, New York’s slaves and black refugees from other colonies concluded that their freedom depended on Britain winning the war. This belief was reinforced in June 1779 when Sir Henry Clinton, the commander of British forces in North America, issued the Philipsburg Proclamation, which greatly extended Dunmore’s original order by promising freedom to all slaves, except those owned by loyalists, who fled to British lines and embraced the royal cause. “Whoever sells them,” he added, “shall be prosecuted with the utmost severity.” According to the Pennsylvania cleric Henry Mühlenberg, the idea that “slaves will gain their freedom” in the event of a British victory quickly became “universal amongst all the Negroes in America.”
When the War of Independence ended, 60,000 loyalists, including some 4,000 blacks—those formerly enslaved in the city, others who had fled there during the conflict, and slaves brought by loyalist owners—were behind British lines in New York City. One who left a record of his experiences was Boston King, a slave in the South Carolina low country who fled to Charles Town in 1780 when the British invaded the colony. Thanks to them, he later recalled, “I began to feel the happiness of liberty, of which I knew nothing before.” King soon made his way to New York City, where, he wrote, the restoration of peace “diffused universal joy among all parties, except us, who had escaped from slavery.” Rumors spread that fugitive slaves “were to be delivered up to their masters, . . . fill[ing] us all with inexpressible anguish and terror.” Slaveowners appeared in the city, hoping to retrieve their slaves. The Treaty of Paris of 1783 specified that British forces must return to Americans property seized during the war, but Sir Guy Carleton, who had succeeded Clinton as British commander, insisted that this provision did not apply to slaves who had been promised their freedom.
The British had offered liberty to slaves for strategic reasons, not abolitionist sentiments. “Practice determined policy,” writes the historian Christopher Brown, but, he adds, “policy, over time, drifted toward becoming a matter of principle.” When Carleton met with George Washington in May 1783 to implement the peace treaty, the American commander asked about “obtaining the delivery of Negroes and other property.” Washington, in fact, hoped the British would keep a lookout for “some of my own slaves” who had run off during the war. He expressed surprise when Carleton replied that to deprive the slaves of the freedom they had been promised would be a “dishonourable violation of the public faith.”
On Carleton’s orders, when British ships sailed out of New York harbor in 1783, they carried not only tens of thousands of white soldiers, sailors, and loyalists, but over 3,000 blacks, most of whom had been freed in accordance with British proclamations. Carleton kept careful records of most of them and provided Washington with a “Book of Negroes,” listing 1,136 black men, 914 women, and 750 children who left New York City with his forces. The largest number originated in the South, but about 300 were from New York State. They ended up in Nova Scotia, England, and Sierra Leone, a colony established by British abolitionists on the west coast of Africa later in the decade. Thanks to Carleton, Boston King secured his freedom. So did Henry and Deborah Squash, a married couple who had been the property of George Washington. For years, the British decision to remove American slaves and their refusal to compensate the owners remained a sore point in Anglo-American relations.
The question of fugitive slaves also proved contentious within the new republic. During and after the War of Independence, several northern states launched the process of abolition. Vermont, at the time a self-proclaimed independent republic with few if any slaves, was first to act, in 1777 prohibiting slavery in its constitution. Massachusetts and New Hampshire, where slavery ended via court decisions, quickly followed, along with Pennsylvania, Connecticut, and Rhode Island, which enacted laws for gradual emancipation. These measures generally provided for the return of fugitive slaves, although Massachusetts offered them asylum.
The Articles of Confederation, the national frame of government from 1781 to 1789, contained no provision relating specifically to runaway slaves, although it did require the return of individuals charged with “treason, felony, or other high misdemeanor.” The first national law relating to fugitive slaves was the Northwest Ordinance of July 1787, which prohibited slavery in federal territories north of the Ohio River but also provided that slaves escaping to the region from places where the institution remained legal “may be lawfully reclaimed.” The following month, as the constitutional convention neared its conclusion, Pierce Butler and Charles C. Pinckney of South Carolina proposed a similar provision. With little discussion, the delegates unanimously approved what became Article IV, Section 2:
No person held to service or labour in one state, under the laws thereof, escaping into another, shall, in consequence of any law or regulation therein, be discharged from such service or labour, but shall be delivered up on claim of the party to whom such service may be due.
Along with the clause counting three-fifths of the slave population in apportioning congressional representation among the states and the one delaying the abolition of the international slave trade to the United States for at least twenty years, the fugitive slave clause exemplified how the Constitution protected the institution of slavery. As Pinckney boasted to the South Carolina House of Representatives during its debate on ratification, “We have obtained a right to recover our slaves in whatever part of America they may take refuge, which is a right we had not before.” A delegate to the Virginia ratifying convention agreed: the Constitution offered “better security than any that now exists.” This should be considered something of an exaggeration, as the return of fugitives across state lines was hardly unknown. Some critics charged that the purpose of the clause was to destroy the “asylum of Massachusetts.”
The fugitive slave clause represented a significant achievement for slaveowners. In the Somerset decision of 1772, Lord Mansfield, the chief justice of England, had freed a slave who sued for his liberty after being brought by his owner from Boston to London. The idea that slavery was “so odious” that a person automatically became free when he or she left a jurisdiction where local law recognized the institution quickly entered the English common law and was embraced by antislavery Americans as the “freedom principle.” But the U.S. Constitution established as a national rule that slaves did not gain their liberty by escaping to free locales, and assumed that the states would cooperate in their return. The fugitive slave clause strongly reinforced the “extraterritoriality” of state laws establishing slavery—their reach into states where the institution did not exist. Nonetheless, as the antebellum era would demonstrate, its ambiguous language left it open to multiple interpretations. On key questions the Constitution remained silent: whether the responsibility for “delivering up” runaway slaves rested with the state or federal governments, and what kind of legal procedures should be required for their rendition. A dispute over these questions soon ensued between Pennsylvania and Virginia, leading in 1793 to the passage of the first national law on the subject of fugitive slaves.
Pennsylvania’s gradual emancipation law of 1780 freed the children of slaves born after March 1 of that year and required owners to register living slaves or they would automatically become free. It also recognized the right of out-of-state owners to recover fugitives. A Pennsylvania slave named John Davis gained his freedom because his owner, a Virginian, failed to register him. Nonetheless, the owner brought Davis from Pennsylvania to Virginia. Davis escaped, and the owner hired three Virginians to pursue him. They seized Davis in Pennsylvania and removed him from the state. Thomas Mifflin, Pennsylvania’s governor, requested the extradition of the three men as kidnappers. Virginia’s governor refused, and Mifflin asked George Washington, now president, to have Congress clarify how fugitive slaves were to be recovered. The result was the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793, which remained the only federal law on the subject until 1850.
The brief 1793 enactment consisted of four sections, the first two of which dealt with fugitives from justice. The portion relating to slaves provided that an owner or his agent could seize a runaway and bring him or her before any judge or magistrate with “proof” (the nature unspecified—it could be a written document or simply the word of the claimant) of slave status, whereupon the official would issue a certificate of removal. Any person who interfered with the process became liable to a lawsuit by the owner.
The law made rendition essentially a private matter, identifying little role for the state or federal governments. It put the onus on the owner to track down and apprehend the fugitive, frequently a difficult and expensive process. On the other hand, it offered no procedural protections allowing free blacks to avoid being seized as slaves—there was no mention of the accused fugitive having the right to a lawyer or a jury trial, or even to speak on his own behalf. Nothing in its language, however, barred states from establishing their own, more equitable procedures to deal with accused fugitives, and as time went on, more and more northern states would do so. But the law firmly established slavery’s extraterritoriality. A state could abolish slavery but not its obligation to respect the laws of other states establishing the institution. Indeed, as Samuel Nelson, a justice of New York’s Supreme Court and later a member of the U.S. Supreme Court majority in the Dred Scott decision, noted in 1834, because of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793, “slavery may be said still to exist in a state” even after it had been abolished.
Meanwhile, as other northern states moved toward abolition, slavery in New York persisted. In 1777, when New York’s Provincial Congress drafted a state constitution, Gouverneur Morris, a patriot who would later be a signer of the federal Constitution and ambassador to France, proposed that the state document include a provision for gradual emancipation, “so that in future ages, every human being who breathes the air of this state, shall enjoy the privileges of a freeman.” Nothing came of the idea, but with the establishment of American independence, the issue became more pressing. Should slavery be strengthened, given the disruptions that had occurred, or should it be abolished? New York City’s Common Council embraced the former approach, enacting a law in 1784 “regulating Negro and mulatto slaves.” The following year, the question of slavery’s future came before the state legislature, where it became embroiled in a debate over the rights of free blacks. The House passed a bill for gradual abolition, coupled with a prohibition on free blacks voting, holding office, or serving on juries. The Senate at first refused to agree to these restrictions, which had no counterpart in the abolition laws of other northern states, but eventually accepted the ban on black suffrage. The state’s Council of Revision then vetoed the bill on the grounds that it violated the revolutionaries’ own principle of no taxation without representation.
Despite this impasse, antislavery sentiment had grown strong enough that the legislature in 1785 moved to loosen the laws regulating private manumission. In the colonial era, such measures had been meant to discourage the practice by demanding that the owner post a large monetary bond. The new law dropped this provision, simply requiring a certificate from the overseers of the poor that the slave was capable of supporting himself or herself (thus prohibiting owners from relieving themselves of responsibility for slaves who could not perform labor, such as small children and elderly and infirm adults). By the time slavery ended in New York, the majority of slaves who became free had done so via manumission.
At the same time, the first organized efforts to abolish slavery in New York made their appearance. In 1785, a group of eighteen leading citizens founded the New York Manumission Society. A majority were Quakers, but the society also included some of the city’s most prominent patriots of other denominations, including Governor George Clinton, Mayor James Duane, and Alexander Hamilton. John Jay served as the organization’s president until he left the city in 1789 to become chief justice of the United States. As suggested by its full name—the New York Society for Promoting the Manumission of Slaves, and Protecting Such of Them as Have Been or May be Liberated—the group assumed the role of guardian of the state’s slaves and freed blacks. Compared to later abolitionist organizations, the Manumission Society was genteel, conservative, and paternalistic. It denied membership to blacks and devoted considerable effort to warning them against “running into practices of immorality or sinking into habits of idleness,” such as hosting “fiddling, dancing,” and other “noisy entertainments” in their homes. Its constitution forthrightly condemned “the odious practice of enslaving our fellow-men.” But it claimed that because blacks were afflicted with poverty and “hostile prejudices,” and “habituated to submission,” abolition must come gradually and whites must take the lead in securing it: “the unhappy Africans are the least able to assert their rights.”
The Manumission Society eventually grew to a few hundred members, including merchants, bankers, shipowners, and lawyers. Many were themselves slaveholders, including half the signatories on the society’s first legislative petition, in 1786. John Jay himself owned five slaves while he headed the organization. (Jay later explained that he purchased slaves in order to free them, after “their faithful services shall have afforded a reasonable retribution.”) Nonetheless, the society’s members were the only whites actively campaigning for an end to slavery. They lobbied the legislature, but also did much more. Over the course of its life (it survived until 1848), the Manumission Society offered legal assistance to blacks seeking freedom, worked strenuously to oppose the kidnapping of free blacks and slave catching in the city, brought to court captains engaged illegally in the African slave trade, and sponsored antislavery lectures and literature. It encouraged individuals to manumit their slaves and monitored the fulfillment of promises to do so. It attempted, unsuccessfully, to persuade the city’s newspapers to stop printing advertisements for slave auctions and fugitive slaves, which promoted the image of blacks as property rather than persons. And as one of its first actions, it established the African Free School, which became the backbone of black education in the city. Eventually, seven such schools were created, from which emerged leading nineteenth-century black abolitionists, including James McCune Smith and Henry Highland Garnet.
The Manumission Society operated within the law. It did not countenance direct action against those seeking to retrieve fugitives in the city. Although it offered legal assistance to accused runaways, many members pledged to abide by the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793. Nonetheless, the society’s activities encountered strong resistance in a city where slavery remained widespread. For their part, blacks quickly realized that despite its elitism, the society was willing to listen to and act on their grievances. They did not hesitate to seek its help.
In 1788, the Manumission Society persuaded the legislature to enact a law barring the importation of slaves into the state and their removal for sale elsewhere. However, the first federal census, in 1790, revealed that although the Revolution had led to an increase in the free black population, slavery remained well entrenched in New York. Slaves still far outnumbered free African Americans. The state’s population of 340,000 included over 21,000 slaves, along with 4,600 free blacks. The city recorded a black population of 3,100, two-thirds of them slaves. Twenty percent of the city’s households, including merchants, shopkeepers, artisans, and sea captains, owned at least one slave. In the immediate rural hinterland, including today’s Brooklyn, the proportion of slaves to the overall population stood at four in ten—the same as in Virginia.
Even though New York City’s free black population more than tripled during the 1790s, reaching 3,500 by 1800, the number of slaves also grew, to nearly 2,900. The buying and selling of slaves continued—a majority of the slaveholders in 1800 had not owned a slave a decade earlier. Bills for abolition came before the legislature several times, but without result. Resistance was strongest among slaveholding Dutch farmers in Brooklyn and elsewhere. “The respect due to property,” a French visitor noted in 1796, constituted the greatest obstacle to abolition. In that year, following John Jay’s election as governor, a legislative committee proposed a plan for gradual emancipation, with owners to be compensated by the state. But most legislators did not wish to burden the government with this expense.
Meanwhile, slaves took matters into their own hands. Now that Pennsylvania and the New England states had provided for abolition, the number of free blacks in those states was increasing, providing more places of refuge. At the same time, the city’s growing population of free blacks, many of whom proved willing to harbor or otherwise assist runaways, made it an attractive destination for slaves from nearby rural areas. The number of fugitive slave ads in New York newspapers had declined sharply in the mid-1780s, possibly because slaves expected action to abolish the institution. When this was not forthcoming, the number rose dramatically. The growing frequency of running away during the 1790s helped to propel a reluctant legislature down the road to abolition. So did the declining economic importance of slavery as the white population expanded and employers of all kinds relied increasingly on free labor.
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). The law sought to make abolition as orderly as possible. It applied to no living slave. It freed slave children born after July 4, 1799, but only after they had served “apprenticeships” of twenty-eight years for men and twenty-five for women (far longer than traditional apprenticeships, designed to teach a young person a craft), thus compensating owners for the future loss of their property. While the law guaranteed that slavery in New York would eventually come to an end, its death came slowly and not without efforts at evasion. For slaves alive when it was passed, hopes for freedom rested on their ability to escape—and running away soon became “epidemic”—or the voluntary actions of their owners. Immediately after its passage, the Manumission Society noted an alarming rise in the illegal export of blacks from the state. But after 1800, because of manumissions, the number of slaves in New York City fell precipitously. Nonetheless, 1,446 slaves remained in the city in 1810 and 518 as late as 1820.
In 1817, the legislature 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. But the 1817 law also allowed southern owners to bring slaves into the state for up to nine months without their becoming free. In 1841, the legislature repealed this provision and made it illegal to introduce a slave into the state. But many southern owners ignored the new law and local authorities did little to enforce it, so for years after abolition slaves could still be seen on the city’s streets.
While slavery no longer existed, New York City’s prosperity increasingly depended on its relations with the slave South. As the cotton kingdom flourished, so did its economic connections with New York. By the 1830s, cotton had emerged as the nation’s premier export crop, and New York merchants dominated the transatlantic trade in the “white gold.” Dozens of boat companies sprang up in the 1820s and 1830s, their vessels gathering southern cotton from Charleston, Savannah, Mobile, New Orleans, and other southern ports and bringing it to New York for shipment to Europe. New York banks helped to finance the crop as well as planters’ acquisition of land and slaves; New York insurance companies offered policies that compensated owners upon the death of a slave; New York clothing manufacturers such as Brooks Brothers provided garments to clothe the slaves. New York printers produced stylized images of fugitives for use in notices circulated in the South by owners of runaway slaves. On the eve of the Civil War, J. D. B. De Bow, editor of the era’s premier southern monthly, wrote that New York City was “almost as dependent upon Southern slavery as Charleston.” The city’s businessmen advertised in De Bow’s Review, which was actually published in New York. The economy of Brooklyn, which by mid-century had grown to become the nation’s third largest city, was also closely tied to slavery. Warehouses along its waterfront were filled with the products of slave labor—cotton, tobacco, and especially sugar from Louisiana and Cuba. In the 1850s, sugar refining was Brooklyn’s largest industry.
Southern businessmen and tourists became a ubiquitous presence in New York City. One journalist estimated that no fewer than 100,000 southerners, ranging from travelers seeking a cooler climate to planters and country merchants conducting business, visited New York City each summer. Local newspapers regularly praised southern society and carried advertisements by upscale shops directly addressed to southern visitors. Some companies, such as the investment bankers and merchants Brown Brothers and Co., which owned slave plantations in the South, emphasized that they had branches in southern cities. Major hotels, such as the Astor, Fifth Avenue, and Metropolitan, made special efforts to cater to southerners. Many owners brought slaves along on their visits. Hotels provided them with quarters, although they refused accommodations to free black guests.
It was not unknown for a fugitive who had taken up residence in New York to read in a newspaper of his owner’s arrival or even to encounter him on the street. Slave catchers from the South roamed the city; as late as 1840 a group of armed law enforcement officers from Virginia boarded a ship in New York harbor, searched it without a warrant, and removed a fugitive slave. The combination of what one abolitionist called the city’s “selfish and pro-slavery spirit” and the presence of a rapidly growing free black community ready to take to the streets to try to protect fugitive slaves would make New York a key battleground in the national struggle over slavery.
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In the first three decades of the nineteenth century, as the institution of slavery in New York withered and died, the city witnessed the emergence of the North’s largest free black community, a development that made it easier for fugitive slaves to blend into the city. By 1820, nearly 11,000 free blacks lived in New York, and by 1830 nearly 14,000. Very quickly an infrastructure of black institutions emerged—fraternal societies, literary clubs, and ten black churches, representing the major Protestant denominations. New York City replaced Philadelphia as the “capital” of free black America. It was the site of the nation’s first newspaper owned and edited by African Americans, Freedom’s Journal, established in 1827. Others followed during the next fifteen years: The Rights of All, Weekly Advocate, and Colored American.
Despite this burgeoning community life, the living conditions of black New Yorkers deteriorated. Even as gradual abolition proceeded, racism became more entrenched in the city’s culture. Before 1821, non-racial property restrictions determined which men could vote. But in that year, while eliminating property qualifications for whites, the state’s constitutional convention imposed a prohibitive $250 requirement for blacks. By 1826, only sixteen black men in the city were able to cast a ballot. Blacks could not serve on juries or ride on the city’s streetcars. The ferries that carried passengers between New York and Brooklyn barred blacks from the comfortable “ladies” cabin (in which white men and women were allowed to travel). Black institutions became frequent targets of racial hostility. In 1815, a mysterious fire destroyed the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church at 158 Church Street, which housed the city’s largest black congregation. The parishioners quickly raised the money to rebuild.
There was no black “ghetto” in New York City before the Civil War. African Americans could be found living in every ward. But as real estate prices rose in the first decades of the nineteenth century, blacks became concentrated in small apartments in back alleys and basements in poor neighborhoods. Many lived near the docks or in the Five Points (just north of today’s City Hall), a multiethnic neighborhood notorious for crime, overcrowding, and poverty—so notorious, in fact, that it became a tourist destination, attracting visitors as diverse as Charles Dickens, Davy Crockett, and Abraham Lincoln. Black men and women found themselves confined to the lowest rungs of the economic ladder, working as domestic servants and unskilled laborers. Ironically, many of the occupations to which blacks were restricted—mariners, dock workers, cooks and waiters at hotels, servants in the homes of wealthy merchants—positioned them to assist fugitive slaves who arrived hidden on ships, or slaves who accompanied their owners on visits to New York and wished to claim their freedom.
Only a tiny number of black New Yorkers were able to achieve middle-class or professional status or launch independent businesses. These, in general, were the men who founded the educational and benevolent societies. Mostly ministers and small shopkeepers, the black elite constituted less a privileged economic class than a self-proclaimed “aristocracy of character,” eager to prove themselves and their people entitled to all the rights of American citizens. Given their tiny numbers and limited economic prospects, they had frequent contact with the far larger number of lower-class black New Yorkers. Nonetheless, the elite disdained the taverns, dance halls, and gambling establishments frequented by the lower classes of all racial and ethnic backgrounds, and promoted a strategy of racial uplift based on self-improvement, temperance, education, and mutual relief.
Members of the black elite shared the moral uplift outlook of the Manumission Society, and many worked closely with it. They campaigned incessantly for equal rights, but also felt that one way to achieve recognition from white society was for lower-class blacks to behave in ways that did not reinforce racial stereotypes. African Americans’ responses to the final end of slavery on July 4, 1827, reflected these tensions. A gathering that March decided to celebrate abolition on July 5 so as not to annoy “white citizens,” who had become accustomed to holding their own festivities on Independence Day. Another faction, however, insisted on blacks’ right to a share of public space. In the end, a low-key black event took place on July 4, followed by a black parade along Broadway the next day, with bands, banners, and a public dinner.
Although reliable statistics do not exist, it is clear that New York City in the 1820s remained a destination for fugitive slaves, or a way station as they traveled to upstate New York, New England, and Canada. In 1826, a local newspaper complained bitterly of the “increase of Negroes in this place,” lamenting that the city had become “the point of refuge to all the runaways in the Union.” Most fugitives arrived on their own, without any public recognition. On occasion, however, their exploits were dramatic enough to warrant coverage in the local press, such as in July 1829, when six black men and one woman leaped ashore from an arriving vessel and with “light hearts and nimble feet” disappeared into the city. Sometimes, free blacks took to the streets in spontaneous efforts, generally unsuccessful, to prevent the removal of slaves from the city or the recapture of fugitives. In 1801, twenty-three black New Yorkers were jailed for forcibly attempting to stop a white émigré from the revolution in Saint-Domingue from taking a group of slaves to Virginia. The Manumission Society, which had been seeking to prevent the removal, prohibited under the 1788 state law, condemned the riot. In 1819, 1826, and 1832, angry blacks tried to prevent the departure of fugitives seized by slave catchers. In 1833, a “large collection of blacks” rioted in the Five Points, having “taken umbrage at one of their own color” for providing information that led to the capture of fugitive slaves. Some of those involved in these events engaged in violent altercations with the police.
The Manumission Society had a special committee that offered legal assistance to fugitives. Nonetheless, the situation of runaways in New York remained fraught with danger. A Virginia lawyer residing in the city, F. H. Pettis, in 1838 advertised his services for those seeking “to arrest and secure fugitive slaves,” promising “he or she will soon be had.” (Three years later, to the delight of the Colored American, Pettis found himself before a judge, charged with having “obtained $125 worth of eatables” at a restaurant run by a black New Yorker and not paying the bill.) “Forgetful that they are in a free state,” slaveowners entered black churches during Sabbath services looking for runaways, and broke into blacks’ homes and carried them off without any legal proceeding. Freedom’s Journal advised fugitive slaves to leave the city for “some sequestered country village” or Canada, as “there are many from the South now in daily search of them.” “When I arrived in New York,” Moses Roper, a fugitive from Florida who made his way to the city on a coastal vessel in 1834, later recalled, “I thought I was free; but I learned I was not and could be taken there.” Roper decided to leave for Albany, New England, and eventually London. In New York, the abolitionist Sarah Grimké wrote in 1837, fugitives were “hunted like a partridge on the mountain.”
But the situation of black New Yorkers legally entitled to freedom also proved precarious. As northern slavery ended, an epidemic followed of kidnapping of free blacks, especially children, for sale to the South. New York was hardly alone. Philadelphia, less than two dozen miles from the border with slavery, witnessed frequent abductions. An investigation in 1826 revealed the existence of an interracial gang based in Delaware that had lured nearly fifty black men, women, and children onto ships in Philadelphia and transported them to be sold in the South. As late as 1844, the abolitionist weekly Pennsylvania Freeman, in an article entitled “Kidnappers,” complained, “Our state is infested with them.” Even Boston, far from the South, was not immune to the kidnapping of black residents.
Kidnapping was a problem of long standing for black New Yorkers. In 1784, city authorities rescued a group of free blacks whom “man-stealers” had forced onto a ship, “destined either for Charleston or the Bay of Honduras.” The Manumission Society’s first statement of purposes, in 1785, mentioned prominently “the violent attempts lately made to seize and export for sale, several free Negroes” in the city. Due in part to pressure from the society, New York passed a stringent law against kidnapping in 1808. In 1821, the society expressed the hope that in the “not far distant” future the practice would be “unknown among us.” Instead, it seemed to increase, partly because the end of the slave trade from Africa in 1808 and the spread of cotton cultivation led to a rapid rise in the price of slaves. In the 1820s, a gang known as the Blackbirders operated in the Five Points, seizing both fugitives and free blacks living there. Freedom’s Journal regularly complained about the “acts of kidnapping, not less cruel than those committed on the Coast of Africa,” that took place in New York City.
The Fugitive Slave Act of 1793 established a procedure by which kidnappers could behave in an ostensibly legal manner, by obtaining certificates of removal from unscrupulous public officials. A group of Philadelphia free blacks in 1799 petitioned Congress to take action on the matter, but the committee to which the House referred the issue never submitted a report. Eventually, several northern states enacted laws to offer procedural protection to individuals claimed as fugitive slaves. Pennsylvania, the only northern state to border on three slave states, led the way in 1820 with An Act to Prevent Kidnapping, which limited the authority to issue certificates of removal to state judges, instead of local officials, and offered those accused of being fugitives the opportunity to prove their free status. The law also authorized a prison term of up to twenty-one years for removing a black person from the state without legal process. Six years later, in response to complaints from Maryland that the law had made the rendition of fugitives too difficult, Pennsylvania expanded the number of officials able to issue a certificate. But it also mandated that only a constable, not the owner, could seize an alleged runaway, and required proof in addition to the word of the claimant before a person was deemed a slave. However, the law denied the alleged fugitive the right to a trial by jury, for which blacks had been agitating.
New York followed in 1828 with a similar law prohibiting the private seizure of a fugitive and outlining a recovery process involving state or local courts. In a backdoor manner, it offered an alleged fugitive the opportunity to have his or her status determined by a jury. The accused fugitive could file a writ de homine replegiando (a writ to release a man from prison or from the custody of a private individual). Under this writ, unlike a writ of habeas corpus, a jury, not a judge, adjudicates the claim to freedom. But many officials refused to recognize the legitimacy of such a writ. Some actively conspired to send free blacks into slavery.
Most outrageous were the activities of Richard Riker, the city recorder, who presided over the Court of Special Sessions, New York City’s main criminal court. An attorney and important figure in the local Democratic party, Riker held the office, with brief interruptions, from 1815 until 1838. With a group of accomplices including city constable Tobias Boudinot and the “pimp for slaveholders” Daniel D. Nash, Riker played a pivotal role in what abolitionists called the Kidnapping Club. In accordance with the Fugitive Slave Act, members of the club would bring a black person before Riker, who would quickly issue a certificate of removal before the accused had a chance to bring witnesses to testify that he was actually free. Boudinot boasted that he could “arrest and send any black to the South.”
If kidnapping posed a threat to the freedom of individual black New Yorkers, the rise of the colonization movement placed in jeopardy the entire community’s status and future. The gradual abolition laws of the northern states, including New York’s, said nothing about removing free blacks from the country; it was assumed that they would remain in the United States as a laboring class. But the rapid growth of the free black population in the early republic alarmed believers in a white America. Founded in 1816, the American Colonization Society directed its efforts toward removing from the country blacks already free, but the long-term goal of many members was to abolish slavery and expel the entire black population. In the 1820s, most organized antislavery activity among white Americans took place under this rubric. Upper South planters and political leaders dominated the society, but advocates of colonization were also active in New York City.
The colonization movement made significant progress in the 1820s when it obtained funds from Congress and established Liberia on the west coast of Africa as a refuge for blacks from the United States. Some African Americans shared the society’s perspective. John Russwurm, for a time an editor of Freedom’s Journal, decided in 1829 to move from New York to Liberia, where he worked as a journalist and public official until his death in 1851. Russwurm and other black supporters of colonization believed that racism was so deeply embedded in American life that blacks could never enjoy genuine freedom except by emigrating.
Most black Americans, however, rejected both voluntary emigration and government-sponsored efforts to encourage or coerce them to leave the country. They viewed the rise of the colonization movement with alarm. Beginning with a mass meeting in Philadelphia in January 1817, a month after the founding of the American Colonization Society, northern blacks repudiated the idea. In New York, a new antislavery, anti-colonization black leadership emerged in the 1820s, led by three clergymen: Peter Williams Jr., the pastor of St. Philip’s Episcopal Church on Centre Street, not far from the Five Points; Samuel Cornish, minister of the First Colored (later Shiloh) Presbyterian Church; and Theodore S. Wright, who later succeeded Cornish in his pulpit. The fact that many members of the New York Manumission Society were attracted to colonization soured the organization’s relations with leading black New Yorkers. Freedom’s Journal was founded at a meeting of the city’s black leaders seeking a way to oppose the colonization movement. “Too long,” declared its opening editorial, “others have spoken for us”—a thinly veiled reference to the Manumission Society. The group later forced Russwurm to resign as editor when he embraced colonization.
Asserting their own Americanness, free blacks articulated a vision of the United States as a land of equality before the law, where rights did not depend on color, ancestry, or racial designation. “This Country is Our Only Home,” declared one editorial in the Colored American. “It is our duty and privilege to claim an equal place among the American people.” Through the attack on colonization, the modern idea of equality as something that knows no racial boundaries was born.
The black mobilization against colonization became a key catalyst for the rise of a new, militant abolitionism in the 1830s. Compared to previous antislavery organizations that promoted gradual emancipation and, frequently, colonization, the new abolitionism was different: it was immediatist, interracial, and committed to making the United States a biracial nation of equals.
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Excerpted from Gateway to Freedom: The Hidden History of the Underground Railroad, by Eric Foner. Copyright © 2015 by Eric Foner. With permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.