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Another Reason to Recognize July 4

Wed, 07/03/2024 - 08:32


Having recently celebrated Juneteenth, there is a date this month equally important to recognize, although few know about it. It is today, the Fourth of July, the day in 1827 that slavery officially ended in New York State.

For thousands of people of African heritage, freedom came painfully slowly in New York. A legislative act more than 20 years after the Declaration of Independence started the process, but New York stubbornly held on to slavery. Total legal emancipation was the goal, but it took the state — and its citizens — a generation before setting the final date.

Under the 1799 rule, which went into effect on July 4, enslaved people born before that date were to stay enslaved, but there was a slim measure of dispensation for children: Any child of an enslaved mother born before July 4, 1799, was to remain in enforced servitude until she was 25; men were enslaved all but in name, as well, until they were 28. After the 1799 law, children of enslaved mothers would be technically free, but they could remain property, in that they could be indentured until reaching well into adulthood. It was, in effect a death sentence for many Black New Yorkers. One often-cited reading of mid-19th-century census numbers set the average life expectancy for free and enslaved Blacks in the United States at just over 21, years fewer than whites. Indentures were little better than outright enslavement. Contracts could be bought and sold and people removed from their communities against their wishes.

We think of Drusilla and Rachel Crook, two girls of color, who were indentured to a white family in East Hampton as they respectively passed age 5. Only a few years later, in 1810, the family moved to a distant corner of Connecticut near the New York State line, and took Drusilla and Rachel with them.

We think of Boose, an enslaved woman at the side of Elizabeth Gardiner Howell’s deathbed in a house near Town Pond in 1657. We think of Tamer, age 14, sold for $25 in 1829 for a four-year term in East Hampton. At the end, she was to be given the clothes she had worn during her servitude and one set of new garments.

Current slavery researchers in the North are often asked where these people went. Some stayed on in the places they knew. Others sought opportunity in the cities. For many, there is no trace today. In one of our nation’s greatest tragedies, many free Blacks were kidnapped, bound together in grim coffles, and marched to the Deep South, to be sold to cotton planters or whoever had enough money. Facing the prospect of the loss of their labor, as gradual emancipation loomed, many Northerners would sell the enslaved in a brutal but legal trade.

Juneteenth represents the end of legal slavery in the U.S.; at least in the law books, July 4 marks slavery’s end in New York State. It is important that more of us know this fact.

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