TO BE FREE AND BLACK IN 19TH-CENTURY NEW YORK Black History Month at JHC

Most know that John Jay, one of America’s Founding Fathers, was a great man. Not only did he co-author the Treaty of Paris with Benjamin Franklin, but he also served two terms as New York’s second governor, and was the first Chief Justice of the United States.

A1 Jay
Published February 22, 2014 5:00 AM
6 min read

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A1 JayMost know that John Jay, one of America’s Founding Fathers, was a great man. Not only did he co-author the Treaty of Paris with Benjamin Franklin, but he also served two terms as New York’s second governor, and was the first Chief Justice of the United States.

By Margot Clark-Junkins

 

A1 JayMost know that John Jay, one of America’s Founding Fathers, was a great man. Not only did he co-author the Treaty of Paris with Benjamin Franklin, but he also served two terms as New York’s second governor, and was the first Chief Justice of the United States.

 

What you may not know is that Jay, who grew up in Rye, was, with his son Peter, at the forefront of the movement to abolish slavery.

 

In 1777 and again in 1785, Jay drafted abolition laws that did not pass. In 1785, he founded and presided over the New York Manumission Society. (Peter served as the society’s president in 1816.) In 1799, the Society helped to enact a law, which would gradually free all children of slaves after a period of indenture. The law was signed by John Jay while he was Governor.

 

Ironically, like many other landowners in New York State, John Jay owned slaves. His push for the abolition of slavery while owning slaves may seem paradoxical to us, but it was quite common in the north at that time. Rye resident Pam McGuire has just completed a major study of slavery in Rye for Johns Hopkins University Museum in conjunction with the Rye Historical Society. In “Hidden History: The Story of Slavery in Rye, New York,” McGuire shows how Rye families in the late 18th and early 19th centuries valued and transferred their slaves as “goods,” even while taking pains to provide these same slaves with (segregated) pews at Christ’s Church and allowing them to eat dinner with the family.

 

On February 8, Jay Heritage Center celebrated Black History Month by presenting two lectures examining the “free black experience” in New York during the early 19th century. In the bright yellow Visitors Center behind the Jay Mansion, President Suzanne Clary introduced David Pultz, who spoke about his documentary, “The Bones Speak: The Spring Street Story.” In 2006, a cemetery at the intersection of Varick and Spring Streets in lower Manhattan was uncovered while digging the foundation for yet another Trump project. The disturbed graves were those of 200 to 250 free African-Americans who had been members of an integrated, anti-slavery church known as Spring Street Church.

 

Pultz described the infamous anti-abolition riots of 1834, which nearly destroyed this church and many other buildings, and which caused widespread fear among abolitionists who were fighting to free the enslaved and to improve the lives of free blacks. Scientific evidence gleaned from the bodies exhumed from this site has revealed much about the nutrition of, and physical hardships endured by, the members of the church’s congregation. Research has also revealed the honorable intentions of the church’s founders, who were driven to provide a religious life and sense of community for a segment of society with little or no voice. It took fortitude to be black and live freely in “civilized” society; it took an uncommon resolve to run an integrated church in the face of so much opposition. 

 

The second lecture was equally eye opening. Dr. Myra Young Armstead, professor of history and Director of Africana Studies at Bard College, has written a book entitled “Freedom’s Gardener: James F. Brown, Horticulture and the Hudson Valley in Antebellum America.” Her subject, James Brown, began his life as a slave in Baltimore. Brown was permitted an education and he kept a diary for nearly four decades. Brown had been promised his freedom upon the death of his owner; when that promise was not honored, he fled north, promising in a letter to repay his new owner: “…what can a man do who has his hands bound and his feet fettered… I don’t take this step merely because I wish to be free, but because I want to do justice to myself and to others and also to procure a living for a family.”

 

Brown’s diary details his journey from Baltimore slave to master gardener for the Verplancks, a prominent Westchester family; the diary includes a tantalizing note in March 1832 that he had gone “to live with Peter A. Jay.” His connection to the Jay family, and his work with landscape designer A. J. Downing, is a fascinating discovery that is being further explored. It is interesting that the trajectories of former slave James Brown and the abolitionist Peter Jay eventually intersect; perhaps it reflects a shift in society. Viewed together, their lives spell out a story of national significance; slavery’s awful grip was slipping, however slowly. The elements of that story — suffering, success, cruelty, altruism, and economic pragmatism — are part of Rye’s history, too.

 

John Jay’s childhood home, “The Locusts,” which was built by his father in 1745, was conveyed to Peter Jay in 1838. He removed what was left of this structure and built the National Historic Landmark that we know today as the Jay Heritage Center. The magnificent Greek Revival building, with its white Corinthian columns, serves to remind all passersby, then and now, of America’s democratic ideals.

 

Jay Heritage Center offers an interactive theater program called “Striving For Freedom” which has been designed specifically for the middle school history curriculum. The Jay, 201 Boston Post Road, is one of 13 sites on Westchester County’s African-American Heritage Trail. Call 698-9275 to arrange a group tour.

 

“I know that you will be astonished and suprised when you becom acquainted with the unexspected course that I am now about to take, a step that I never had the most distant Idea of takeing, but what can a man do who has his hands bound and his feet fettered He will certainly try to get them loosened by fair and Honorable means and if not so he will ceartainly get them loosened in any way that he may think the most adviseable. I hope Sir that you will not think that I had any faoult to find of you or your family no sir I have none and I could of lived with you all the days of my life if my conditions could of been in any way bettered which I intreated with my mistress to do but it was all in vain She would not consent to any thing that would melorate my condition in any shape of measure So I shall go to sea in the first vesel that may ofer an oppertunity and as soon as I can acumulate a sum of money suficent I will Remit it to my mistress to prove to her and to [the] world that I dont mean to be dishonest but wish to pay her every cent that I think my servaces is worth I have served her 11 years faithfully …. but now as I have to Runaway like a crimnal I will pay her when I can …. I [have] taken the Last months wages to defray my exspenses but that money and the five dollars that you lent me the day before I left you I shall ceartainly Return before I ship for the sea. I dont supose that I shall ever be forgiven for this act but I hope to find forgiveness in that world that is to com. I dont take this step mearly because I wish to be free but because I want to do justice to myself and to others and also to procure a liveing for a family a thing that my mistress would not let me do though I humblely Requested her to let me do so …. I must now beg for your forgiveness and at the same time pray to god for your helth and happyness as well as that of your family I am Sir your most Obedient Servt &c”

 

 – James F. Brown*

 

*National Humanities Center Resource Toolbox, “The Making of African American Identity: Vol. I, 1500-1865”

 

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