Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Yankee Slavery: Yonkers, New York

DEVELOPER --  Yonkers, NY (BlackNews.com) - Black history is again bittersweet in this old Hudson River city.

On May 1, 1786, seventy-six years before the Emancipation Proclamation, the very first liberation law of its kind in America was passed. It freed a tiny number of slaves in an act of freedom of earthshattering importance.

Now, a further startling discovery has been made: The last piece of the long-lost formal lawn and garden where these slaves actually toiled - and then walked in freedom - has been found. Also discovered have been the names of the slaves themselves. Slaves Tom, Mary, Betty, Caesar, Wall, and Cato unknowingly blazed the trail of liberty for the millions more of their fellow African-Americans
remaining in bondage into the next century.

Philipse Manor House, Yonkers, 1682
Philipse Manor House, Yonkers, 1682

These Yonkers slaves belonged to the richest man and woman in old New York. The lawn they walked, both in slavery and in freedom, was trod by George Washington, John Jay, and other founding fathers of America. It was the actual entrance to the Philipse Manor Hall, and was an epicenter of both
white and African-American life in the New York City area. The house in which the slaves slept - in the attic rafters - was named a National Treasure by President Clinton.

And the thirteen old buildings ringing the old "liberation lawn," now a vacant overgrown lot, were recently landmarked.

The land's lure to fugitive slaves escaping to freedom, continued in the nineteenth century. It became an island of freedom, surrounded by a sea of slavery. Quakers owned local property, and the Underground Railroad operated here.

Documentation has been discovered that in 1859 - on the very site of Tom and Mary's legacy - the first Baptist church in Yonkers collected money for "securing the liberation of a brother and two sisters from slavery." But as the anniversary of Tom and Mary's freedom approaches, a developer is on track to obliterate this sacred land. The soil will be hauled away, including its archaeological contents, the pit filled with concrete footings, and a garage and high-rise glass condo will rise. Study of old maps shows numerous parts of the lot have never been built upon, since Indian times.

No other place in the United States has been found combining these documented roles in slavery and freedom spanning three centuries, including slaves freed by this first such law in America, with their names. Hidden in plain sight, in the fourth-largest city in New York, is this proud legacy of the African-American culture that literally built Yonkers, reaching back over three centuries.

A member of the Historical Society remarked, "It took 223 years to rediscover this 'ground zero' of African-American freedom. But the 'Liberation Lawn' is once again captive - no longer by a slave master, but by a developer and the City. Tom and Mary's freedom site - the first of its kind in America - probably will not be here on May 1, 2010, for its 224th birthday."

The Half Moon at Yonkers
Half Moon at Yonkers

Yonkers "planning" officials press ahead for decimation of the small piece of land. Few other places in Yonkers, indeed in America, recognize the presence of African-Americans.

Urgent action is needed now, to again free the Liberation Lawn, this time from the City of Yonkers, for the people of America. In the meantime, happy 223rd birthday.

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