It’s important to remember that slaves were held in New York for nearly as long as white Europeans lived here. The Dutch brought the first slaves here in 1626, around a decade after first their first visit to New Amsterdam. The English expanded slavery, and the Hudson Valley was, for 200 years, as much a slave society as the South. There were more than 21,000 slaves in the state in 1790, more than any other northern state, according to the Mid-Hudson Antislavery History Project (at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie).
Toward the end of the 18th century, prominent New Yorkers like John Jay and Alexander Hamilton—who both owned slaves—were working to end what Hamilton called the “odious and immoral” practice, and they co-founded the New York Society for Promoting the Manumission of Slaves in 1785. In 1799, the state passed a law calling for gradual abolition, applying only to children born to enslaved mothers after July 4, 1799. These children were still bound to their mother’s masters until they reached 25 (for women) and 28 (men).
On March 31, 1817, another law freed the rest of the enslaved population, but again kept some of those freed slaves remained indentured to their masters until 1827. Therefore, July 4, 1827, is generally recognized as the date of final emancipation, making New York the first state to abolish slavery.
According to the Historical Society of the New York Courts, on that day “the Black community and its supporters held joyous celebrations and parades throughout the state.” There were about 4,600 enslaved people in New York at the time, roughly 11 percent of the state’s Black population. Nevertheless, the 1830 Census still counted 75 slaves in New York.
Although freed, the former slaves remained disenfranchised by the New York Constitutional Convention of 1821, which gave the vote only to free Black men who owned substantial property. This was the law until the passage of the Fifteenth Amendment, in 1870. “Sadly, the state had to be compelled to allow equal voting rights for New York’s African-Americans,” the Historical Society writes.
Many people don’t know that in the 1850s, of illegal, international slave trading. According to documentation from the New York Public Library, “New York benefited much from slavery and the slave trade: southern cotton and sugar sailed to Europe from its harbor. Banks, insurance companies—among them Aetna, JP Morgan Chase, and New York Life—and lawyers made a brisk business with slaveholders and slave ship owners.”
Slavery, of course, has ended, but race equality remains a work in progress.