Remembering and Interpreting Northern Slavery

September 25, 2014 Yale Gilder Lehrman Center Opinion 
Forced Labor, Academia

The perception that American slavery existed exclusively in the South persists even after decades of scholarship detailing slavery in the North. Several factors contribute to the perpetuation of the slavery as Southern myth. To be sure, the overwhelming majority of slaves in the antebellum United States lived and labored in the South. Southern slavery, and particularly its expansion, was at the heart of the sectional crisis and the Civil War. And that fierce and bloody conflict remains etched in American memory as North vs. South, Free vs. Unfree, shorn of most of its nuance. All of this reinforces the notion that slavery was a Southern institution, and it was on the eve of the Civil War.

But these facts cannot erase the history of slavery in all of the American colonies and early United States. Historians have done their part, even if their work has failed to overturn the popular narrative of slavery as Southern.[1] Slavery was an American institution, not strictly a Southern one, and must be remembered as such. Historic sites and museums throughout the North and New England recently have chosen to emphasize and interpret slavery in the North.

The Slow Death of Northern Slavery

Laws upheld slavery throughout New England before the American Revolution. Soon after, however, Northern states outlawed chattel slavery. Vermont’s constitution abolished slavery in 1777 and Massachusetts’ 1780 constitution declared that all men were born free and equal, which its courts interpreted as abolition in 1783. Other states followed suit with emancipation laws—Pennsylvania in 1780, Rhode Island and Connecticut in 1784, New York in 1799, and New Jersey in 1804. This wave of emancipation laws occurred quite early in the international age of abolition. It is essential to remember, however, as Joanne Pope Melish showed so well in Disowning Slavery, that most of these laws sanctioned gradual emancipation. Slavery survived until the 1860s in some parts of North.

Pennsylvania’s statute freed all children of slaves born after November 1, 1780 on their twenty-eighth birthday. The 1799 emancipation law in New York mirrored the “free womb” model employed in Pennsylvania (and other places later including Brazil and Cuba), with existing slaves becoming “indentured servants” to their master for the remainder of their lives, and men born to slaves after July 4, 1799 gaining freedom at age twenty-eight, women at twenty-five. In 1817, New York outlawed slavery for those born before July 4, 1799, effective in July 4, 1827. Gradual plans finally ended slavery in Rhode Island 1842 and 1848 in Connecticut. Slavery continued in New Jersey well into the Civil War, even after the Emancipation Proclamation, finally ending in 1864.

The Northern abolitionist tide rose quickly in the early national period, but emancipation actually occurred over decades. There were many, many fewer slaves in the North in the run up to the Civil War, the nature of their work differed in important ways (as it did across the South), but, crucially, arguments over slavery were not simply about the institution elsewhere. Slavery was not distant—temporally, geographically, legally, and socially. It was right there.

Abolition and emancipation in the North after the colonial period along with the Civil War reduced to and remembered as North vs. South and Freedom vs. Slavery, have had the collective effect of erasing Northern slavery.[2] These late 18th and 19th Century events, however, followed centuries of slavery in the Americas. Europeans brought slavery with them everywhere they settled in North America, including what became the abolitionist North.[3]

New York Rediscovers its Past

This is not an unknown history, of course, just an obscured one. And it is much less obscured than it once was. In the last 20 years or so, scholars and cultural institutions have worked separately and together to bring the prevalence and varied character of Northern slavery to the broader public. One episode in particular in New York raised public awareness.

African Burial Ground National Momument NYC skeleton

In 1991, while breaking ground to construct a federal office building in downtown Manhattan, workers encountered human burials. The African Burial Ground was a truly unexpected and remarkable discovery of a forgotten slavery past. Concerned African
descendants, clergy, historians, scientists, and politicians organized to ensure that the remains were treated respectfully and the site was properly excavated. Congress placed a temporary hold on construction and, over two years, the skeletal remains of 419 people were pulled from a full acre of the original 6.6-acre cemetery. Archeologists estimate that 15,000 Africans and descendants of Africans were buried on the site between 1626 and the late 1790s.

The numbers were a revelation to many, as was the public outcry and interest. Construction workers had not only unearthed a massive cemetery, one depicted on early maps of New York, they had also touched a nerve. Spurred on by community activists, the remains were sent to Howard University to be examined (they were returned to the site in 2003, placed in mahogany coffins from Ghana, and reinterred near where they were discovered 12 years earlier), plans for the federal building were altered, and space was set aside for a permanent memorial to New York’s African history and culture. The African Burial Ground National Monument, managed by the National Parks Service, was created in 2006 and dedicated on October 5, 2007.

The incredible discovery sparked renewed investigation and scholarship. The fantastic Slavery in New York exhibition at the New-York Historical Society combined academic inquiry and public desire. The exhibition opened in 2005 and occurred in two phases: “Slavery in New York,” which covered the colonial period through 1827 abolition; and “New York Divided: Slavery and the Civil War.” The phases map quite closely onto the “forgotten” period—the nearly 200 years of slavery in New York colony and state—and the “remembered” anti-slavery era in the few decades prior to and during the Civil War.

These spectacular exhibitions showed visitors stunning artifacts and vestiges of slavery’s prominence in New York—a coroner’s inquest into the murder during a 1712 slave revolt; the trading book of a ship that took food and rum to Europe, exchanged them for manufactured goods, which it then traded for slaves in Africa before returning to New York. The exhibition not only demonstrated the existence, importance, and resistance of slaves in New York life and labor (slaves comprised as much as ¼ of colonial New York’s labor force), but also slavery’s centrality to commerce and power in the growing city. Complete with a companion scholarly volume, Slavery and Public History, Slavery in New York brought the latest research to the public. Visitors were forced to rethink what they thought of the city, its history, and the institution of slavery.

Slavery in Local Museums and Historic Sites around New England

Now institutions are integrating similar tales more often. One of the most interesting and important developments in the public presentation of slavery in the North has been the uptick in historic houses and museums reinterpreting their stories.

The Royall House and Slave Quarters has evolved to include more programming and tours that highlight the only surviving slave quarters in all of the northern United States, along with the house and grounds of the wealthy family who were at one time the largest slaveholders in colonial Massachusetts. In Newton, Massachusetts, a recent exhibit entitled Confronting Our Legacy introduces slave-owner Edward Jackson, who died in 1681, and his great-great-great-grandson William who worked to free slaves in the antebellum era. And Crailo State Historic Site in Rensselaer, New York, now discusses slavery in New Amsterdam and the people owned by the van Rensselaer family.


Recently, in my own state, I visited the Hempsted Houses in New London, and learned that the historic houses is planning a large reinterpretation. The Joshua Hempsted House has stood on the site since 1678, making it one of the oldest surviving buildings in New England. Joshua lived in the house until his death in 1758, working as a farmer, gravestone cutter, shipwright, and judge along with other civic roles in the thriving port city. The house itself is historically important and interesting, but Connecticut Landmarks saw the opportunity to use the site to interpret slavery in the North. Joshua kept a detailed diary for 50 years of his life, and owned a slave man named Adam Jackson for the last 40.

The diary is well known to historians as one of the finest sources documenting life in colonial New England. A fascinating new book by Allegra di Bonaventura, For Adam’s Sake, uses the diary to explore the nature of slavery in colonial New England, and the relationships between Adam, Joshua and Hempsted family. Slave work and ownership was not uncommon in New London, home to industry, large farms and international trade. New London County had more slaves than any county in New England on the eve of the American Revolution. The combination of stunning primary sources, detailed and rich secondary sources, and a motivated historic site can bring these forgotten or obscured stories back to life.

These stories have always been there. The evidence may have been more difficult to find, even buried under tall buildings in the most densely populated area in the United States. The public may desire a specific colonial New England historic house experience, and it may expect to hear about a Northern past devoid of slavery. Or the public may hope to hear heroic tales of Northern abolitionists. And those stories exist, and must be told as well. But it is refreshing and important that our histories and historical sites are telling a more complete story—one with slavery in all parts of colonial America. Only then can we understand how central slavery was to empire, colonization, and modern capitalist economic development. Only then can we see integral it was to the American national project, the sectional crisis, and the Civil War. And only then can we grasp what it took and will take to eradicate it.

[1] There is a rich historiography of slavery and free blacks in the north, beginning with the essential Leon Litwack, North of Slavery: The Negro in the Free States, 1790-1860 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1961)

[2] It should be noted that it requires persistence and perpetual research and repetition to ensure that the public never forgets that was at the center of sectional conflict and the Civil War.

[3] Long traditions of slavery existed among native peoples in the Americas. For examples in North America, see Brett Rushforth, Bonds of Alliance: Indigenous & Atlantic Slaveries in New France (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press for the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture, 2012); and, Christina Snyder, Slavery in Indian Country: The Changing Face of Captivity in Early America (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2010).


Topics: Forced Labor, Academia

About the Author

Yale Gilder Lehrman Center

The Gilder Lehrman Center strives to make a vital contribution to the understanding of slavery and its role in the development of the modern world. While the Center's primary focus has been on scholarly research, it also seeks to bridge the divide between scholarship and public knowledge by opening channels of communication between the scholarly community and the wider public. In collaboration with secondary schools, museums, parks, historical societies, and other related institutions, the Center facilitates a locally rooted understanding of the global impact of slavery. Staff includes David W. Blight, David Brion Davis, David Spatz, Thomas Thurston and several visiting fellows.