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Race and Antebellum New York City

Slavery in New York

Custom House

Custom House, NYC, pen and ink with wash on paper by William Rollinson and William Rickarby Miller (c. 1796). This is another early image showing African Americans in New York.

New-York Historical Society

From the beginning, white New Yorkers prided themselves on having a more benevolent form of slavery than their Southern and Caribbean counterparts. Yet much of New York's bustling economy benefited directly from the brutal slave economies of the South and East. And there is ample evidence that slavery within New York itself was far from easy. Although New York had no sugar or rice plantations, there was plenty of backbreaking work for slaves throughout the state. Many households held only one or two slaves, which often meant arduous, lonely labor. Moreover, because of the cramped living spaces of New York City, it was extremely difficult to keep families together. It was not uncommon for owners to sell young mothers, because they did not want the noise and trouble of children in their small homes.

The American Revolution proved quite a blow to slavery in New York. Hoping to weaken American forces, in 1779 General Henry Clinton offered freedom to all slaves who fought for the British. By 1780, there were more than 10,000 blacks living in the city, many in makeshift tents. By 1785, the New York Manumission Society had been formed, and often referred to the ideals of the Revolution in their arguments on behalf of slaves. Yet of all the potent forces contributing to the demise of slavery in New York City, none were powerful than the slaves themselves. Black New Yorkers used a variety of means to secure their own freedom, ranging from violent resistance to canny negotiation.

In the 25 years after the Revolution, the population of blacks in New York tripled. By the 1810, the freed population of black New York outnumbered slaves three to one. Yet things were far from easy for black New Yorkers. Both slaves and freed people lived with the constant threat of abduction and subsequent sale in slave states. There are several accounts of the New York Manumission Society coming to the aid of kidnapping victims. There were, of course, countless more whose plights were never recorded.