Manumission in New York

  • Prosperity
  • 1785

Kidnapping black residents (both free and slave) and selling them into bondage in other places was common enough in 1785 to inspire some of New York City’s most influential citizens and wealthiest donors to join together and fight back. Individuals like Alexander Hamilton, George Clinton, and John Jay organized not only to battle kidnappings but also to protect slaves generally, to preserve the rights of free blacks, and ultimately to “liberate” slaves and ban the ownership of one human by another. They eventually helped push through the 1799 law that established manumission across New York State, and sped the 1808 law that abolished the trade in slaves.

Prior to that, in 1787, the New York Manumission Society created the New York African Free School. Members donated and raised funds to pay for teachers, supplies, and a series of buildings. The school began with 40 students, many of them children of slaves. By 1820 there were 500 students enrolled, several teachers, and two substantial buildings, all paid for by donors.

The school day ran from 9 to 12, broke for lunch, then resumed from 2 to 5. Instruction was provided not only in academic subjects but also in practical occupational skills like mapmaking, ship navigation, and sewing. Both boys and girls could attend. Graduates became visible in a variety of fields. Alumnus Ira Aldridge became one of the most famous African-American actors of the nineteenth century, known for his Shakespearean roles and other performances. Another school product, James McCune Smith, was the first black American to earn a medical degree and to run a pharmacy.

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