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Colonial New York Slave Codes: Law and Order

In this activity students read slave codes from colonial New York and respond to them from the perspective of one of four identities: Slave-owning white, Non-slave-owning white, Slave, or Free African American.


Objectives

  • Students will describe the fears of slave owners based on the laws they passed in colonial New York.

  • Students will determine the consequences of slave codes on the lives of enslaved and free African Americans in colonial New York.

  • Students will craft responses to the slave codes from the perspective of one of four colonial personas.  

Instructions

Step 1: Create a gallery walk in the classroom by placing each of seven colonial New York slave codes at different points around the room (see below).  In addition to the text of the law, there should be enough room for students to write their responses on the poster or sheet of paper.

Step 2: Assign each student one of four identities: Slave-owning white, Non-slave-owning white, Slave, or Free African American.  Ask students to imagine what it would be like to be the person of their identity in colonial New York, based on their readings and class discussion.  

Step 3: Have students proceed to each of the seven laws and write their reaction to each from the perspective of their assigned identity.  Students should tell whether the law seems necessary from their perspective and why or why not.  Students may also note what consequences the law will have for them. (The teacher may want to model the role play with one law.) Tell students that they will have to guess which type of person left which response, so their answers need to make sense!  

Step 4: After students have circulated to all the laws, choose several responses to each law and read them aloud. Can students determine which "identity" left which response?  If not, the teacher might ask students to compose better responses.  

Step 5: After reading through different responses, lead the class in a discussion of what they've learned: 

  • How did it feel to be in character? Did the laws seem fair? 

  • What fears did whites have about enslaved African Americans? How did their fears affect the lives of free and enslaved African Americans? 

  • Did laws get more or less severe over time? What historical events might have contributed to the changes? 

  • What did students begin to think about the "other" people?

(Teachers can vary this part of the lesson by asking students to respond in writing rather than in oral discussion.)  

Colonial New York Slave Codes

  • A) 1681-1683: Slaves are forbidden to leave their masters' houses without permission

  • B) 1681-1683: Slaves cannot own weapons

  • C) 1681-1683: Slaves cannot gather in groups larger than four

  • D) 1697: No person of African descent may be buried in the city's church graveyard 

  • E) 1702: Masters may punish their slaves for any misdeed, however they choose, short of killing them

  • F) 1712: No slave over the age of 14 may be out at night without a lantern

  • G) 1713: Black code-Any slave convicted of conspiring to revolt against masters or any whites will suffer a horrible death

See "Model Responses to Colonial New York Slave Codes Activity" for a chart of sample responses to each law.  

Source | American Social History Project/Center for Media and Learning, 2010.
Creator | American Social History Project/Center for Media and Learning
Rights | Copyright American Social History Project/Center for Media and Learning This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
Item Type | Teaching Activity
Cite This document | American Social History Project/Center for Media and Learning, “Colonial New York Slave Codes: Law and Order,” HERB: Resources for Teachers, accessed November 14, 2019, https://herb.ashp.cuny.edu/items/show/1297.

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