Louise Mirrer, James Oliver Horton and Richard Rabinowitz: Happy July 5th!
[Louise Mirrer, James Oliver Horton and Richard Rabinowitz are working on a forthcoming exhibition about slavery at the New-York Historical Society.]
STANDING before a gathering of the Ladies' Antislavery Society in Rochester, Frederick Douglass, newspaper editor and internationally known voice of abolition, moved his audience with the force of his argument. It was July 5, 1852, the day after the national celebration of American independence. This former slave confronted a hushed crowd and a nation with the stunning question:"What, to the American slave, is your Fourth of July?"
Douglass followed his question, an indictment of America's commitment to the value of human freedom in the decades before the Civil War, with an equally challenging reply:"A day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim."
In the wake of the new federal Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, which allowed bounty hunters to seize runaway slaves who had fled to states where slavery was illegal, Douglass spoke bitterly of the betrayal of American ideals. The law gave those accused of being fugitive slaves no right to a trial or even to speak in self-defense. It thus endangered the already precarious liberty of free black people everywhere in the country, including those in New York State, where slavery had officially ended a quarter century before in 1827.
Although most people today imagine slavery as a Southern institution, it existed in all of the original 13 British colonies. In New York, it was an important labor system for 200 years, beginning with the arrival of the first African slaves in New Amsterdam in 1627. Recent excavations in Lower Manhattan that uncovered the African Burial Ground have brought the city's connection to slavery to public attention. Still, most New Yorkers and Americans today have little sense of the city's and state's long involvement with slavery. Public schools teach little of the history of slavery that, as the historian Ira Berlin has recently remarked,"insinuated itself into every nook and cranny of life in New York City."
Slavery was central to New York's development from its formative years as a Dutch and British colony to the early days of the United States. During British rule, 40 percent of New York City households owned slaves, who accounted for 20 percent of the city's population. There were more slaves in New York City than in any other city in the British colonies except Charleston, S.C.
New Yorkers owned and traded in slaves, rented out their slaves as day laborers and produced ships and trading merchandise for slaving voyages. Landmarks in Manhattan that were built by slaves include the wall on Wall Street, Fort Amsterdam in what is now Battery Park, the road that became Broadway, the first and second Trinity Church buildings and the first city hall (the Dutch Stadt Huys on Pearl Street).
The story of New York's black population during slavery includes heroes like the poet Jupiter Hammon and the actor James Hewlett who resisted injustice even as they produced a rich cultural legacy in the face of adversity. And New Yorkers - both black and white - fought to erase slavery from the state. Several prominent New Yorkers, including Aaron Burr, John Jay and Alexander Hamilton, encouraged by Long Island's Quaker population, formed the New York Manumission Society, the state's first antislavery club, in 1785, and two years later established the African Free School in New York City to educate freed slaves.
New York antislavery forces pressured newspapers not to run slave-sale advertisements and auction houses not to hold slave sales. They also provided free legal council to slaves seeking to sue their masters for freedom.
These efforts bore fruit when the State Legislature enacted a gradual emancipation law that took effect on July 4, 1799. The law freed all children born to slave women after July 4, 1799, but only after at least two decades of forced indenture. Males became free at age 28, and females at age 25. Until then, they were tied to the service of the mother's master. Unrestricted freedom did not come to New York's slaves until a new emancipation law took effect 28 years later, on July 4, 1827. ...
As that date approached, there was considerable debate among New York's black residents over how to celebrate abolition of slavery. In March 1827, two New Yorkers, the Rev. Samuel Cornish and John Russwurm, established Freedom's Journal, the nation's first black-owned newspaper, and its early issues resound with this debate. Black New Yorkers worried, among other things, that a parade on Broadway on the Fourth of July to celebrate abolition would be disrupted; white revelers often attacked blacks on public holidays.
In the end, the day after was chosen for the commemoration. And on July 5, 1827, 4,000 blacks marched along Broadway, preceded by an honor guard on horseback and a grand marshal carrying a drawn sword.
comments powered by Disqus
bob mike maccray - 7/5/2006
Remember who started slavery! Who SOLD there own people to others? July 4th was the beginning of the idea of freedom for all. Throughout human history slaver has been present. The United States constitution is the vehicle for freedom for English, German, African, and all other races. Anyone who needs reperations for past injustices (ie. those 150 years ago) does not have faith in their own race to do what they need themselves. The US is not looking for reperations for the Stamp act, or anything else from England. Reperations only weaken a race, by not letting them build charicter for themselves.
- Raleigh Trevelyan, Chronicler of a Notable Family, Dies at 91
- Former spokesman of B.C. anti-immigration group wants UBC history prof fired
- Harvard's Steven Shapin Wins History of Science Award
- Middle East Studies Association Fights a Rising Tide of Critics
- Juan Cole says the postwar Middle East governments were modeled on the Soviet Union, though not communist (interview)