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Forgetting July 4, 1827

THE STATE OF NEW YORK HISTORY: Past, Present, and Future by Peter Feinman

In White Plains, near where I live, there is annual Juneteenth parade and festival to commemorate the legal end of slavery in the United States. It is a community effort in recognition of June 19th, 1865, when Union soldiers, led by Major General Gordon Granger, landed at Galveston, Texas with news that the war had ended and slavery was over. That date certainly has earned its own place in history but it was almost 40 years earlier on July 4, 1827, when slavery legally ended in New York based on a law passed in 1799. The home of John Jay, founder of the New-York Society for Promoting the Manumission of Slaves, was located in Rye near where the first slaves in Westchester landed. They were then transported across the county to the Philipsburg Manor to the area at the east end of the Tappan Zee Bridge. Undoubtedly that journey passed through White Plains near Main Street where the Juneteenth celebration was held.

There were slaves in New Amsterdam as early as 1626, scarcely after there was a New Amsterdam. This means that New Amsterdam/New York had about a two century history of slavery that is not commemorated. The Women’s Suffrage Centennial in 2017 in New York recognizes that women received the right to vote two years here prior to the national action. By contrast the earlier abolishment of slavery in the state versus the country passes almost unnoticed. This year, in part due to the initiation of the Lower Manhattan Historical Society (I am on the Board), there will be an interfaith and interracial ceremony on July 4 at the John Street Methodist Church commemorating the ending of slavery in New York just as that Church did on July 4, 1827, a day marked by a parade in celebration.

Two centuries of history are being lost in the shuffle admittedly in the shadow of spectacular fireworks, music, and barbecues. That history has not completely disappeared but locating it takes effort.

Perhaps the foremost example occurred with discovery of what is now the African Burial Ground National Monument which also conducts a Juneteenth commemoration. The over 6-acre site in use from the 1690s for about a century to 1794 was not lost but was thought destroyed. It was presumed that the perpetual construction in New York had obliterated the cemetery. Buildings at the site had basements to a depth of 20 feet. As it turns out, the ground level of Manhattan had increased even more so the constructions had not reached the burial ground until inadvertently and unexpectedly a new Federal project dug even deeper revealing it. The burial ground is now operated by the NPS but in part due to security restrictions in a working Federal office building, attendance beyond school groups, has not been what was hoped for.

These slaves in New Amsterdam helped build the famous wall at Wall Street just south of where the burial ground outside the city proper.

Speaking of Wall Street, it was at the east end of the street between Pearl and Water Streets that a slave market was established by a Common Council of the City of New York on November 30, 1711. It remained in use until 1762.  The City installed a marker there in 2015 in recognition of that part of its history. Recent discoveries have revealed slave burial grounds in Hunts Point Slave Burial Ground Project in the Bronx and the Harlem African Burial Ground of the Reformed Low Dutch Church of Harlem (now the Elmendorf Reformed Church) at 124th-127th Street when Haarlem was a settlement in its own right. For a long period of time the slave market and slave ownership in New York were second only to Charleston and South Carolina among the 13 colonies.

All was not quiet on the northern front either. When I brought teachers to Philipsburg Manor as part of my Teacherhostels/Historyhostels, we would be shown examples of ads for  runaway slaves in the North from colonial times long before the development of the Underground Railroad from the South. Recently Historic Hudson Valley which operates Philipsburg Manor received a 3-year NEH grant to develop exhibitions there interpreting the history of slavery in the North.

Along similar lines, Cornell University has initiated a project “Freedom on the Move” (FOTM), to compile all North American runaway slave advertisements, north and south, into a collaborative database of information. The project will allow partner institutions to add their own archives.

11.thumbnailAbout Peter Feinman: Peter Feinman is founder and president of the Institute of History, Archaeology, and Education, a non-profit organization which provides enrichment programs for schools, professional development program for teachers, public programs including leading Historyhostels and Teacherhostels to the historic sites in the state, promotes county history conferences, the development of Paths through History, and a Common Core Curriculum that includes local and state history.

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AJ Woodson is the Editor-In-Chief of Black Westchester and Co-Owner of Urban Soul Media Group, the parent company. AJ is a Father, Brother, Author, Writer, Journalism Fellow, Rapper, Radio Personality, Hip-Hop Historian and A Freelance Journalist whose byline has appeared in several print publications and online sites including The Source, Vibe, the Village Voice, Upscale, Sonicnet.com, Launch.com, Rolling Out Newspaper, Spiritual Minded Magazine and several others.
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