As the last enslaved people living in New York State were officially freed on July 4th, 1827, celebrations reigned.
According to the New-York Spectator, people packed the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church on the corner of Church and Leonard Streets in Manhattan. The major societies for the support and liberation of African American people were there. Banners and flags festooned the church. “Several hymns written for the occasion were sung.”
Portraits of John Jay, a founder of the Manumission Society who had himself owned five people until 1800, and Matthew Clarkson, who introduced a bill for the gradual end of slavery to the New York State Legislature, were hung near a bust of Daniel D. Tompkins, who as Governor of New York had proposed this date as the day for emancipation.
The orator, William Hamilton, a founding member of the A.M.E. Zion Church as well as Freedom’s Journal, the first African-American-owned newspaper in the United States, mounted the pulpit and began:
“LIBERTY! Oh Liberty! where thou art resisted and irritated, thou are terrible as the raging sea, and dreadful as a tornado. But where thou art listened to, and obeyed, thou art gentle as the purling stream that meanders through the mead. … Thou hast loosened the hard bound fetters by which we were held; and by a voice sweet as the music of heaven, yet strong and powerful, reaching to the extreme boundaries of the state of New-York, hath declared that we the people of color, the sons of Africa, are FREE! …
“This day the state of New-York regenerated herself — this day has she been cleansed of a most foul, poisonous and damnable stain. … Yes, my brethren, in this state we have been advertised, and bought and sold like any commodity. In this state we have suffered cruelly; suffered by imprisonment, by whipping, and by scourging. …
“My brethren. Our enemies have assumed various attitudes: sometimes they have worn a daring front, [saying] the Negros have no souls, they are not men. Sometimes, in more mild form they say they are a species inferior to white men. … It is hard breathing in their atmosphere.”
His address so described the moment that it was published in full later that year. One can’t help but hear the awful parallels to today’s struggle against racism and police brutality.
Echoes of Slavery
Last year, I wrote about the double-anniversary of the Fourth of July in New York State. At the time I asked “What is the Fourth of July to the unjustly incarcerated or the racially profiled or those targeted by a newly-assertive white-supremist movement? Can we celebrate and organize for social justice and win true equality for all? In order to understand our history we must take into consideration the echoes of slavery as well as present-day sins that still weigh heavily on the nation.”
This year, the murder by Minneapolis police officers of George Floyd who begged for his life and breath, has resulted in a national and international protest movement against racism that seeks to redefine how justice, law, and policing are carried out in society. The massive gatherings have expanded the Black Lives Matter movement which grew out of the 2013 protests against the acquittal of George Zimmerman for the 2012 killing of Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida. In 2014, the deaths at the hands of police of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri and Eric Garner in New York City led to large growth of the movement. Both Missouri and New York are former slave states. Militant street demonstrations and peaceful protests are one of the historical forces moving society forward.
On this July 4th, it’s time to demand that the United States live up to its own rhetoric that all are created equal. Can we make the words of William Hamilton come true? “Thou hast entwined and bound fast the cruel hand of oppression — thou hast by the powerful charm of reason, deprived the monster of his strength — he dies, he sinks to rise no more.”
Photos, from above: Mother A. M. E. Zion Church historical marker; map showing AME Zion Church on the southwest corner of Leonard and Church Streets; and the published oration by William Hamilton.
James S. Kaplan says
I was under the impression that the celebration and parade in honor of the end of slavery in New York City was actually held on July 5, 1827 deliberately not to endorse July 4.
James S. Kaplan
Lower Manhattan Historical Association
Deirdre Sinnott says
True! There was a huge event on the fifth. But this oration was on the fourth. Freedom’s Journal, Hamilton’s paper, seemed to come out against marching in the June 29th, 1827 issue. I think there was fear that any thing perceived as being slightly less than dignified might be used against the Black community. “LIBERTINUS” says: “Let no act be done to sully the sacred character of the day. The eyes of the world are upon us, our enemies watch us narrowly, to catch each little failing. Let us show them, that we are men, as well as they–let us show them, we have hearts capable of feeling gratitude for those, who have spent their lives and used their fortunes in the promotion of our welfare, which we shall best do, by abstaining from all riotous indulgence, from unbecoming mirth and extravagance.”
I thought so too, only I thought they did not want their celebrations interfering with the July 4th celebrations.
Deirdre Sinnott says
Yes! There was a huge march the following day. I get the feeling, though that there was some worry on the part of Hamilton and others about how any behavior that could be viewed as not dignified would be perceived by the people looking for an excuse to attack the free people of NYS. There was an article in Freedom’s Journal from June 29th, 1827 that mentions this worry. “LIBERTINUS” wrote, “Let no act be done to sully the sacred character of the day. The eyes of the world are upon us, our enemies watch us narrowly, to catch each little failing. Let us show them, that we are men, as well as they–let us show them, we have hearts capable of feeling gratitude for those, who have spent their lives and their fortunes in the promotion of our welfare, which we shall best do, by abstaining from all riotous indulgence, from unbecoming mirth and extravagance.”
This is such a magnificent and worthy read: renewing the senses of dignity, refocusing the lens of history, and revitalizing the names swooped by the winds of racial debauchery. Excellent work, Deirdre.
Lynne Barrett says
Deirdre, I had no idea what a wonderful writer, historian and activist you are! I will be looking for everything you’ve written. Thank you!
Deirdre Sinnott says
Thank you, Lynne! I’ve spent my spare time researching Oneida County abolition history and am presently working on a great project with a bunch of people who have made it fun. We went into a huge municipal records warehouse in Westmoreland filled with boxes and were dying to get back. That’s how addictive history is!
James S. Kaplan says
While the emancipation of former slaves in 1827, which resulted from the gradual emancipation provision of the New York State Constitution of 1799, was undoubtedly a
great forward step and cause for celebration, New York State”s record in this area was not completely unmixed. The New York State Constitution of 1821, which generally eliminated property qualifications for voting, and established the principle that all white men had the right to vote, contained a clause that limited the. vote for black men to only those owning $250 of property. This onerous provision directed at black men only effectively disenfranchised most African Americans in New York throughout the 19th Century. Black leaders such as Frederick Douglass bitterly opposed it but it was reaffirmed by New York State voters at the polls several times before the Civil War.
I believe it was not until after civil war and the Hell’s Kitchen riot of 1900, with the development of the Black/Jewish alliance that opened up Harlem to settlement of African Americans under men such as Phillip Payton and Isidor Kressel, and the formation of the NAACP in 1908 under Mary Ovington with black intellectuals and leader such as WEB Dubois that real progress on racial justice was made in this state.
Deirdre Sinnott says
Thank you! I was aware of the voting restrictions but not some of the other things you mentioned. Recently read Leon F. Litwack’s book, North of Slavery which describes the horrible conditions under which Free People of Color lived.