It is an ignominious history that Long Islanders don’t like to remember or even recognize. For nearly 200 years, from the early 1600s to the early 1800s, Long Islanders owned slaves, according to “Slavery on Long Island,” a publication of the Hofstra University Special Collections at Axinn Library.
It all began in 1626, when Dutch West India Company officials purchased 11 African slaves to do manual labor on public works projects “in defense of the colony,” then known as New Amsterdam, “Slavery on Long Island” states.
In 1799, New York passed the Gradual Emancipation Act, which freed female slaves at age 25 and male slaves at 28.
It wasn’t until 1817 that the State Legislature finally passed a law freeing all slaves owned by New Yorkers. The measure, however, allowed “transients” passing through the state, or even staying for long periods of time, to keep their slaves. Not until 1841 was slavery entirely eradicated in New York –– and thus, on Long Island. Full emancipation came to New York only 20 years before the Civil War.
We pause in February, Black History Month, to remember our past and look to our future. We must not forget where we came from. It is an often-ugly history to recall, but it is our past. We must own it if we are to overcome it.
Today, relatively few Long Islanders are aware of the region’s long history of slavery. Until the mid-20th century, Long Island was a 112-mile-long farming and fishing community. In the 17th and 18th centuries, it depended on manual labor. Back then, most Long Island farmers and fishermen owned only a handful of slaves, and toiled alongside them on small farms and boats, according to “Slavery on Long Island.”
Long Island slaves were treated better than their counterparts in the South. They were allowed a degree of freedom to work for money in their scant off-hours. And they did not work in “gangs” on large-scale plantations, as they did in the South.
Nevertheless, they were slaves.