Slavery in Old Albany

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Slavery has been called “America’s Original Sin”. Sadly, many people think it was a southern thing. It was very much a northern institution as well. Especially in Albany NY.
The first enslaved men were brought to Albany in 1626, only 2 years after it was first settled. Females arrived in what was then Fort Orange in 1630. They were the property of the Dutch West Indies Co., owner of the New Netherland Colony. Soon use of enslaved labor was seen a way to build the Colony since settlers were in short supply.
Rapidly slavery became a source of not only cheap labor, but as a source of capital itself. By the mid 1600s Dutch ships, which ruled the seas, were bringing thousands of men, women and children in chains to New Amsterdam from their colonies in Africa, and the West Indies. Many of enslaved were sold into the South, others were put to work building the cities of Beverwyck, Kingston (Wildwyck) and New York, and many ended up on the huge farms that came to dominate the Hudson Valley from Albany to the Atlantic.
When the British took the Colony in the 1660s the slave trade increased exponentially, and the English began developing more stringent rules governing those they had enslaved- forbidding gatherings of Africans, limits on how far they could travel, etc.
In 1714 the population of Albany was 1,128; of those about 10% (113) were enslaved.
And so it remained in New York until the Revolutionary War and beyond. Slaves were the economic engine of the State. There were thousands. And they were valuable. They were listed in household inventories on the death of their owners, along with horses, feather beds and the good silver. They were chattel. They were part of inheritances. If the second son didn’t inherit the land, he would often be left some enslaved people he could sell to raise money.
As in the South families were separated; husbands from wives and their families; mothers from children. And it’s clear from what little data that does exist, the fathers of many of these children were the slave owners.
The Federal census of 1790 identifies Albany County having 3,722 slaves (and 171 free blacks). That’s the largest number of slaves in any county in any state in the North. (There were were about 21,000 slaves in New York State.)
In 1799 NYS enacted gradual abolition, which emancipated some of those held in slavery, but full freedom for almost all would not come until 1827.
So in the 1800 census there were still 1,800 enslaved and about 350 free people of color in Albany County. In the city, there 5,349 residents; 526 enslaved and 157 free people of color.
Over the years more of those enslaved were freed, but that could be meaningless. Children could be freed, turned over to the town or county by their owners, and then the municipality might very well send the children back to the owner, paying the owner for their room and board in some bizarre foster care system. Adults once freed might have no where to go, so they stayed working for their owners for housing and less than subsistence wages.
I’ve come to think of the early part of the 19th century in Albany, before outright abolition in 1827, as utter chaos for African Americans in the city. Some free Black men were trying to establish a school for their children, while other men were enslaved. Families were still separated, with free men trying to earn enough to buy those members who were still enslaved. Free men sometimes married enslaved women if owners approved.
Stephen Van Rensselaer III, known as “the Good Patroon”, didn’t free Adam Blake Sr., who ran his household, until after after the War of 1812. (Blake was known as the “Beau Brummel” of Albany and for decades the master of ceremonies of Albany’s legendary Pinksterfest.)
I hear people sometimes say, well .. slavery wasn’t that bad in the North. Perhaps the whippings weren’t as bad, maybe you got better food, maybe the mistress of the house made sure your children learned to read the Bible.
But you were property, deprived of freedom and liberty. If you were a slave you were a commodity, as much as a cash crop of wheat or the horse that pulled the plow that planted the wheat.
Women had no agency over their bodies; they were routinely raped. By the 1850 Albany census, more often than not you can find the word “mulatto” (not Black) next to the names of persons of color -the legacy of unwilling unions.

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Copyright 2021 Julie O’Connor

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