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Race and Antebellum New York City

The New York Manumission Society

"The New York Society for the Manumission of Slaves and the Protection of such of them as had been or wanted to be Liberated" was created in 1785 by some of New York's most wealthy and influential white citizens. Its members included luminaries such as John Jay and Alexander Hamilton. Their work on behalf of black New Yorkers began with protesting the widespread practice of kidnapping black New Yorkers (both slave and free) and selling them as slaves elsewhere. Later they lobbied to pass the 1799 law which granted gradual manumission to New York's slaves. The organization provided legal assistance to both free and enslaved blacks who were being abused.

Historians have sometimes been critical of the Manumission Society's often ambivalent stance towards the very New Yorkers they pledged to help. For instance, many members of the society were slaveholders when they joined the society, and some continued to be slaveholders throughout their tenure. The Society rejected Alexander Hamilton's suggested resolution that anyone who wanted to be a member had to manumit their slaves. The Society fought on behalf of the freedom, and eventual rights, of black New Yorkers, but often disapproved of how black New Yorkers chose to celebrate these victories. For instance, black New Yorkers claimed their right to the streets of New York by holding a lavish parade to celebrate the abolition of the slave trade in 1808. In 1809, the Manumission Society was concerned that "the method of celebrating the abolition of the Slave trade was improper" and worried that such demonstrations would "cause [detrimental] reflections to be made on this Society" demanded that such parades be discontinued.1 Black New Yorkers replied that they would do no such thing.

In line with the revolutionary beliefs of many of its founders, the New York Manumission Society felt that education was vital to creating citizens that would be capable of sustaining a democracy. The Society founded the New York African Free School two years after the Society itself formed. Members provided or raised funds for teachers' salaries, for supplies, and, eventually, for the creation of new buildings to accommodate a growing student population. In addition, members were responsible for checking in on the school periodically and reporting on the state of the school and the students.

1 Quoted in Shane White, Stories of Freedom in Black New York (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2002), 62.