New York Burning: Liberty, Slavery, Conspiracy in Eighteenth-Century Manhattan (Excerpt)

In the following passage, historian Jill Lepore carefully considers an enslaved man's walk through 1740s Manhattan. The slave, who was known as Pedro, described a Sunday walk through Manhattan as part of a confession that he gave during the investigations into the alleged slave conspiracy of 1741. Lepore notes both the breadth of slave codes in New York that sought to circumscribe black mobility and actions, as well as the daily violations of such laws by enslaved and free city residents.

Even if their trades and their unskilled labor and their errands didn't take them across the city, black men circulated on Sundays, when they visited friends, wives, and children. All day and into the night, black men walked the streets of the city.

Consider this walk described by Pedro, in a confession he made on June 29 [1741]:....

Even if Pedro made up everything he said about what happened at Hughson's (which he might have; he later recanted his confession), his walk there was so utterly ordinary a description of a slave's Sunday morning as to be entirely plausible, both to him and his interrogators.

Nonetheless, ordinary as Pedro's walk was, it violated several laws, including a 1730 act stipulating that 'it shall not hereafter be lawful for above three Slaves to meet together att any other time, nor att any other place, than when it shall happen they meet in some servile Imploym't for their Master's or Mistress's proffitt, and by their Master or Mistress consent, upon penalty of being whipt upon the naked back, at discretion of any Justice of the peace, not exceeding fforty Lashes.' Of Pedro and his four companions, only Jack (Sleydall) was 'in some servile Implym't': fetching water. If the sun wasn't yet up when Pedro left his house, and if he wasn't carrying 'A Lanthorn and lighted Candle in itt so as the light thereof may be plainly seen,' he was guilty of violating a municipal law prohibiting slaves from being in the streets in the dark without express permission. If, along the way, Pedro and his friends laughed too loudly, or hollered, or gambled for money, they would have violated another municipal law, passed in 1731, charging that 'No Negro, Mulatto or Indian slaves, above the Number of three, do Assemble or meet together on the Lords Day Called Sunday, and Sport, Play or make any Noise or Disturbance, or at any Other time at any place from their Masters service, within this City." If any of them was riding a horse, and rode it "Swiftly, Hastily, Precipately or disorderly, and Otherwise than softly Orderly Patiently without Pasing Swiftly, Trotting fast or Galloping," he would have been guilty of breaking a city law "for Punishing Slaves who Shall Ride Disorderly through the Streets." And if Pedro had met his friends on a market day and had tried to buy or sell fruit, they would have broken the law, passed in August 1740, "to prohibit Negroes and Other Slaves Vending Indian Corn Peaches or any other Fruit with this City...."

On Sundays, the only day of the week when markets were closed, black men and women went "frolicking in the Fields," especially in summer. The Fields, a wide swath of land, north of the Negroes Burial Ground, thinly populated by scattered farms, stretched from the Bowery, on the east, all the way to the road to Greenwich, on the west. There were very few free blacks in New York, especially as manumission was all but impossible. But almost all of that handful of freed men and women lived in the Fields.

Source | Jill Lepore, New York Burning: Liberty, Slavery, Conspiracy in Eighteenth-Century Manhattan (New York: Vintage, 2005), 152-154.
Creator | Jill Lepore
Rights | Used by permission of the author.
Item Type | Book (excerpt)
Cite This document | Jill Lepore, “New York Burning: Liberty, Slavery, Conspiracy in Eighteenth-Century Manhattan (Excerpt),” HERB: Resources for Teachers, accessed October 31, 2014, http://herb.ashp.cuny.edu/items/show/613.