Monday, September 2, 2019

The 1619 Project

by Rachel Dworkin, archivist

In August 1619, a ship carrying more than 20 enslaved Africans arrived at Point Comfort, Virginia. It would be the first of many to arrive in what would become the United States. Between 1619 and the end of the Civil War, some 12.5 million Africans were kidnapped from their homes and transported against their will to work in American farms, homes, and businesses. A recent issue of the New York Times Magazine launched the 1619 Project, a series of articles about the long-reaching effects of slavery on America’s history, culture, . A PDF of the article can be found here. I recommend you check it out.

When I was in school, we were taught that slavery was a uniquely Southern institution which our Northern forbearers had rightly put a stop to, but that’s not remotely accurate. The Dutch West India Company brought the first batch of eleven enslaved Africans to New Amsterdam in 1626. By 1703, roughly 46% of New York City households held slaves, a higher percentage than any other American city outside of Charleston, South Carolina. In 1799, New York began to gradually abolish slavery. Children born to enslaved mothers after July 4, 1799 would be born free, but were required to serve a period of indentured servitude until their 25th birthday (for girls) or their 28th (for boys). All slaves born before July 4, 1799 were freed on July 4, 1827, but the children of formerly enslaved mothers were still forced to provide their mothers’ former masters with their unpaid labor until as late 1855. See blog post "Strayed, Stolen or Run Away" for details.

New York’s slaves played an important role in its economy.  The first slaves were owned by the Dutch West India Company and were forced to clear the forests, lay the roads, and do other heavy labor to build the infrastructure of the budding colony. By the time the English took over the colony in 1664, enslaved Blacks were the primary laborers on farms up and down the Hudson River Valley. Under English rule, the importation and sale of slaves became big business, with a slave market established on Wall Street in 1711. Even after the abolition of slavery within the state, New York banks continued to invest heavily in the Southern slave trade.
New York Slave Market, 1730. Image courtesy of New York Public Library
While the vast majority of enslaved New Yorkers lived downstate, there were some right here in Chemung County. By 1810, there were thirteen slaves in eleven Elmira households, plus their children who were technically indentured servants. Jacob Lowman, for whom Lowman is named, owned an entire family of enslaved people, including a man called “Black Charley” Smith. Both Jacob Lowman and his son, Jacob Jr., made provisions for Smith’s family in their wills. It is unknown just what sort of labor the Smiths performed for the Lowmans, although the book The Lowmans of Chemung County insists that they were “almost exclusively domestic servants.” The book also tried to paint the Lowmans as especially benevolent masters, which is unsurprising considering it was written by one of their descendants.
Home of Jacob Lowman Sr., built 1819
As popular and pernicious as the myth of the good master is, the sad truth is that there were no good masters. The great Terry Pratchett once said that the root of all evil is treating people as things and that is exactly what slavery is. People as things: tools, financial assets, collateral, property. Even if a master never raised a hand to the people they enslaved, they were still relying on the threat of violence to compel labor. State and local laws restricted enslaved people’s ability to travel and runaways were hunted by the community and publically flogged upon capture as a matter of law.

Slavery has left an indelible mark on nearly every facet of our nation. New York State rose to financial prominence on the backs of enslaved peoples and that’s something we should be talking about.  


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