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Feb 26, 2019 9:45 AMPublication: The Southampton Press

A History Of Slavery That's Hidden In Plain Sight

Dr. Georgette Grier-Key at “Hidden In Plain Sight,” a panel discussion on the subject of slavery on the East End Sunday afternoon, sponsored by the Sylvester Manor Educational Farm and the Eastville Community Historical Society.   KYRIL BROMLEY
Feb 26, 2019 12:58 PM
Slavery has a long, shameful and well-documented history in the southern United States. But, in truth, though considered a distinctly southern construct, the history of enslaved people extends to the earliest days of this country and was once a common occurrence throughout New England, New York and Long Island—including right here on the East End.

It’s a lesser-known story involving enslaved people whose names are largely lost to us today—which is why several individuals and local organizations are setting out to change the narrative by discovering as much as they can about the enslaved population that once lived on the East End.

On Sunday, February 24, Sylvester Manor Educational Farm presented its fifth annual Black History Month Celebration at the Bay Street Theater in Sag Harbor. Titled “Hidden in Plain Sight—Enslaved People on Eastern Long Island,” the event featured a panel discussion led by Dr. Georgette Grier-Key, executive director of the Eastville Community Historical Society in Sag Harbor, with panelists Donnamarie Barnes, curator and archivist of Sylvester Manor; David E. Rattray, owner and editor of The East Hampton Star and director of the East Hampton In Plain Sight Project; and Aileen Novick, project manager and site administrator of the Hempsted Houses in New London, Connecticut.

“When we talk about slavery on Long Island, there is a void,” said Dr. Grier-Key. “I think the most important thing we can talk about is where is the physical evidence of slavery? We don’t see it. A lot of this evidence has basically disappeared.

“How do we reconcile that? How do you tell a history that’s not tangible?” she asked.

The answer lies primarily in the paper trail of documentation. The story of Shelter Island’s Sylvester Manor is unique. It was founded in 1651 as a provisioning plantation by Nathaniel Sylvester for his Barbados sugar operations. Sylvester and his wife, Grisell, arrived on Shelter Island with a man named Jaquero, his wife, Hannah, and their daughter, Hope.

“They were the first Africans to set foot on the island. Their second daughter, Isabel, was the first African child born on Shelter Island,” explained Ms. Barnes. “Little is known of Nathaniel and his wife. He died in 1680 with 23 enslaved Africans, which he bequeathed to his kids, keeping couples together but dispersing children.”

Through historical documents, Ms. Barnes found evidence of other people of color at Sylvester Manor over the years, including William and Isaac Pharaoh, two young brothers of Montaukett and African-American heritage who, in 1828, were placed in indentured servitude by their mother.

Evidence of the boys’ presence still exists in a series of carved drawings of ships on the walls of the attic space that served as their quarters. Though they were contracted to stay at the manor until they were 21 years old, at the age of 19 William ran away to join the crew of a ship going to sea. But Isaac stayed at the manor for the rest of his life and is buried in the slave cemetery on the property.

At Sylvester Manor, while evidence of the enslaved and indentured exists in official documents, or in the carvings on the walls, for Ms. Barnes it is the very surroundings of the grounds themselves that evoke their presence.

“History is lacking … but memory is still around us, like a physical thing,” she said. “We walk the burying grounds, through the rooms where they lived, smell the water nearby and hear the call of the birds. Visitors often remark on the feeling.”

Mr. Rattray also is on the paper trail in terms of history. As the director of the East Hampton In Plain Sight Project, he’s on a mission to identify every enslaved, indentured and free person of color who lived in East Hampton between 1650 and the mid-19th century.

It’s a big undertaking, and Mr. Rattray explained that he enlists high school students with “sharp minds and good eyes” to go through town records in search of names of enslaved people. Though the records themselves may seem mundane, “account books crack open lives,” he said.

Among those lives is that of an African woman named Boose who, in February 1657, was present at an East Hampton home when the young Elizabeth Gardiner went into a delirium shortly after giving birth and accused a neighbor of witchcraft. Elizabeth died soon after, and in 1658, her accusation led to a witchcraft trial in Connecticut where Boose was mentioned by name in the court papers.

“We have an enslaved African woman named Boose who we can say something about,” said Mr. Rattray. “Her name is in the trial document. To think someone in 1657 spoke to her and wrote her name down.”

Through his research, Mr. Rattray has learned that it is in the mundane task of keeping stock of people, property, deeds and deaths that a vision of those who left little of their physical presence behind could be discerned.

“Three years ago, we pulled 320 names we suspected were slaves, indentured, or free blacks,” he said. “The records held locally are a treasure trove. Through wills and bills of sale, we now have 252 people we can name from Boose to 14-year-old Tamer, who, in 1829, was sold for $25 after emancipation in New York.

“The goal of the Plain Sight Project is to say who was here and what did they do and succeed in putting them back in the narrative,” he added.

For Ms. Novick, explaining to visitors to her New London museum that there were once enslaved people in the North is often the first challenge. “It was not hidden at the time, but it has become hidden,” she said. “People believe every town in the North was an abolitionist town, which was far from the truth.”

Dealing with the truth of the slave-owning family that occupied the Joshua Hempsted House, which dates back to 1678, is part of the narrative. Again, documents tell the story, particularly the diary of Joshua Hempsted, which he kept from 1711 to 1758. In the diary are details of Adam Jackson, whom Joshua purchased in 1727 for 85 pounds. The relationship between owner and slave is explored in Allegra di Bonaventura’s book “For Adam’s Sake.”

“There’s so much information on this case, we can find amazing resources on enslaved people,” she said, noting that slavery didn’t end in Connecticut until 1848, more than 20 years after New York. “It’s important for people to know the history. There was a different system in the North, but it wasn’t a better system.”

During the question-and-answer period that followed, issues of reparations for the ancestors of enslaved people were raised, as well as the notion of redlining, prison incarceration, and public schools financing that favors white and wealthy districts.

While there are no easy answers, for Ms. Barnes having students visit Sylvester Manor brings the history front and center and allows for the application of context.

“By doing more of this, having students come to visit Eastville and Sylvester Manor and embrace the facts, we won’t think of it as separate stories,” she said. “It will be one story … our history for the next generation.

“We need to start and have the conversation,” she added. “We are going to celebrate it, talk about it and give everyone we can a name.”

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"We need to start and have the conversation"


Then be honest, stop speaking in vague euphemisms about "conversations", and declare you are laying the groundwork for "reparations", ie the forced transfer of resources from those who have no responsibility whatsoever for slavery to those who never experienced it.
By NateNewtown (99), east on Mar 2, 19 2:42 PM
1 member liked this comment
Between the loony left's pushing policies like reparations and socialized medicine, we can all expect to experience life a la Venezuela.
By Babyboo (292), Hampton Bays on Mar 3, 19 7:42 AM
@ NateNewtown & Babyboo

A fairly straightforward article about understanding the history of slavery on Long Island is farcically misconstrued by true believers in order to provide themselves with an opportunity to express their nonsensical, unsupported (& unsupportABLE) opinions.

- - - And so the sun rises in the east.
By highhatsize (4182), East Quogue on Mar 3, 19 8:24 AM
American History is as rich and complex as that of any other place on this planet.
By themarlinspike (518), southampton on Mar 3, 19 9:35 AM
power tools, home improvements, building supplies, Eastern Long Island