Pictured Above: An early contract for the sale of an enslaved woman named Sarah in Southold, on view at the Southold Historical Society.
It’s been four hundred years this August since the first Africans were brought ashore as slaves on the Virginia coast. It wouldn’t be until seven years later that 11 slaves were sold to the Dutch colonial government in Manhattan. In New York, the history of this peculiar and uniquely awful American institute has since been buried deeper than in the parts of this nation where the Civil War battle-dead are still occasionally unearthed.
The American pattern of enslavement, based on race, and forced upon successive generations of people, has no precedent in known world history. It was the labor of people forced into this work that made our young colony brash enough to claim its independence from England, and that ensured this country’s economic success for nearly a century after the revolution of 1776.
This is a fact few white people remember as they say the Pledge of Allegiance or down a hamburger on the Fourth of July. But it is a fact that is with the decendents of enslaved people, and, truly, with all of us, every day, even as we all hold our heads high and pledge liberty and justice for all. Those words have always been an aspiration, one that holds great personal meaning for those who know what it is like to not be deemed equal.
White northerners have long had a get-out-of-jail free card, brushing off slavery as a southern problem, one in which, as the victors in the Civil War, we believe we held the moral high ground. New York outlawed slavery in 1827 — a half century in the life of this young nation, but still less than a lifetime before the southern states were forced to follow suit.
New York slave owners had plenty of advance warning this would happen, and would often sell people to owners in states that had not yet outlawed slavery in order to protect their investment.
One of the largest slave-trading families in U.S. history was the DeWolf family of Rhode Island. A descendent of that family, Katrina Browne, shot a film tracing her family’s journey, “Traces of the Trade: A Story from the Deep North,” being screened at the Southampton Arts Center Sept. 1 in partnership with the Southampton African American Museum. It’s a good attempt to set the story right.
The northern history is revisionist history, and it is a history we need to tell truthfully. The wealth and industry of the north could never have been generated without the labor in the cotton fields of the south.
Early family homesteads on the North and South forks relied on the work of slaves. At the turn of the 19th Century there were 41 slaves living in Southold, and 518 in Suffolk County, according to figures generated by the Southold Historical Society for their current exhibition, “Slavery in Southold,” at the Society’s museum complex through Sept. 22.
Many enslaved people throughout the East End fled to the Shinnecock Nation for shelter and safety. It’s not uncommon for white East Enders to still, after all these years, grumble questions about the ethnic purity of members of the Shinnecock Nation. Not only is this no one’s business, but when you really think about this idea, it is a line of racist rhetoric that has no place outside of Nazi Germany.
Persecuted people need to stick together. We all need to stick together.
The anti-black racism that is unique to this country is a direct result of our justifications for slavery that are rooted in fear tactics that have now been ingrained in our DNA over 400 years.
The truth is that the north’s record since the Civil Rights Movement has not been as good as the south’s record. Our schools and neighborhoods here remain highly segregated, while, in the south, busing programs instituted after the 1971 Supreme Court decision Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education have since made southern schools among the most integrated in the country.
It’s a big fault of the media that we never tell you the success stories, but this is one of them, as difficult as it surely was for the young people who got on those first buses and headed out to strange communities where they didn’t know anyone. If you think this is ancient history, ask around. Chances are you know several people who experienced busing first-hand.
Long Island is the tenth most segregated metropolitan area in the country, according to the education and advocacy group ERASE Racism, which points out that 53 percent of arrests in Suffolk County in the past decade were of non-white people, who are also five times more likely to be arrested after a traffic stop here.
So where do we go from here? We start by believing that when we salute the flag, we are taking the words of our pledge to heart.