New York State Readies Apology for Slavery

June 13, 2007

The state legislature in Albany is prepared to issue a formal apology for the
historic practice of slavery and will be the first northern state in the Union
to do so. Several states on the Confederate side of the Civil War have already
issued similar apologies. Albany lawmakers are pushing to pass the resolution
in time for "Juneteenth", which is an unofficial holiday celebrating
the June 19th arrival of federal troops in Texas to announce the final eradication
of slavery from the United States and its territories in 1865.

New York State actually outlawed slavery in 1827, but New York City was a reluctant
supporter of the Civil War, as its trade-based economy was heavily invested
in the slave-based production of cotton in the South. Even prior to state abolition
of the practice, New York City once had the highest concentration of slave ownership
among all American cities, except for Charleston, South Carolina. Much of early
lower Manhattan, including the original Trinity Church was built using slave
labor. The New York Historical Society presented a comprehensive review of New
York City’s involvement with slavery last year.

After the American Revolution, New York and New Jersey were alone among northern
states in not abolishing slavery. Then-Governor Morris and John Jay attempted
to insert a clause into the founding state constitution suggesting the eventual
elimination of slavery, but were rebuffed. Almost a decade later, a political
coalition including members of different parties, Gov. Clinton (owning eight
slaves), Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay (owning five slaves), along with prominent
abolitionists formed a group to urge state abolition of the institution of slavery
in New York. The practice of slavery became gradually restricted in following
years, but in 1788 the group pressed to have the deportation of New York slaves
to southern states outlawed, as many slaveholders worried about continued limitations
tried to unload their human inventory to southern plantation owners. The port
of New York, however, remained open to slave-trading ships. In 1786 40% of all
households within ten miles of New York were slave owners and more than two-thirds
of Brooklyn households owned slaves.

The state legislature is beating the City Council to the punch on an official
apology, as several Councilmembers proposed the same back in April. It’s probably
good to let the State take the lead, as farming-intensive counties like Kings,
Richmond, and Ulster, none of which were part of NYC at the time, were the biggest
opponents of abolition. It’s an ugly chapter in New York’s history. Juneteenth
certainly seems like one of the most celebration-worthy holidays that could
appear on the city’s calendar.