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THIS MONTH IN HISTORY

As I searched for the words to describe the historical moment when
Slavery was abolished in my home state, New York; I couldn’t have said
it better than this remarkable article published in the New York Times in 2005. Written by Louise Mirrer, James Oliver
Horton, and Richard Rabinowitz, this article describes the timeline of
events surrounding the abolition of slavery in New York. The original
article can be found here.

Enjoy! ❤️

__________________________________

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. The parade
wound through the downtown streets to the African Zion Church, where the
abolitionist leader William Hamilton declared, “This day we stand
redeemed from a bitter thralldom.” Celebrations were held around the
state. Even blacks in Boston and Philadelphia celebrated the news from
New York. Thus, both Douglass’s speech about the significance of
Independence Day to American slaves and the celebration of slavery’s end
in New York on July 4, 1827, took place on the fifth.

There
are no public celebrations of the fifth today, but as the history of
New York’s long involvement in slavery becomes better known to New
Yorkers through lectures, debates, exhibitions and in discussions about
the proper way to memorialize the African Burial Ground, it is fitting
to reclaim the powerful significance of July 4 and 5, 1827, as a holiday
of freedom for all New Yorkers.

By restoring this
historical meaning, we acknowledge the role our city and state played
in the institution of slavery. We also honor the African-Americans who
overcame its hardships and injustices to make important contributions to
New York City’s cultural life, as did other immigrants who came here
more willingly.

We are the heirs of July 4,
treasuring – as Douglass did – the vision of independence set forth in
Philadelphia in 1776. But we are also the heirs of July 5, which
recognizes the evolution of human freedom in our state.

Op-Ed
Contributors Louise Mirrer, James Oliver Horton and Richard Rabinowitz
are working on a forthcoming exhibition about slavery at the New-York
Historical Society.

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