Monday, June 6, 2011

Race and Antebellum New York City: The New York Manumission Society

John Jay, Founding member of the New York Society for the Manumission of Slaves

"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.
Alexander Hamilton, Founding Member of New York's Manumission Society

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.

New York African Free School

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. (source: New York History)

The New York African Free School

This 1797 depiction of the Tontine Coffee House at Wall and Water streets is among the first images representing African Americans in New York City. (Francis Guy, The Tontine Coffee House (1797). New-York Historical Society)
Preparing young black students for freedom was a complicated task when the New York African Free School was first created in 1787, a time when many African American residents of the city were slaves. Creating and attending an institution dedicated to providing tools of empowerment to young black people was a daring proposition. The task of educating black students for something other than slavery in New York City did not grow any less complicated as the state moved towards abolishing slavery within the state by 1827. Quite simply, no one was sure what citizenship would look like for African Americans, and no one was sure of what path black New Yorkers would—or should—take to get there. Although slavery had been on the wane for decades before official manumission in 1827, removing slavery from the equation substantially shifted social boundaries in a city that was in the midst of tremendous growth and upheaval. New York in the early nineteenth century was awash in social changes, and delineations of class, race, and citizenship were in continual flux. It was a time of tremendous potential, and, for those wary of losing their own hold on power, a time of great anxiety. (source: New York History)


List of the Founding Members of the New York Manumission Society
  • George Clinton
  • Alexander Hamilton
  • William Shotwell
  • Lawrence Embree
  • Willet Seaman
  • John Keese
  • John Jay
  • John Murray
  • Melancton Smith
  • James Duane
  • James Cogswell


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