HAPA recipient Mary Freeman on her work bringing primary sources at the Columbia Rare Book and Manuscript Library to a broader public in New York City and beyond.
A Certificate of Manumisson
The image above (click to enlarge) is an example of the primary source materials I have been working with for my History in Action project. This source is especially interesting because it is one of only a few items in the Columbia Rare Book and Manuscript Library that directly documents the history of slavery in New York City. It is also unusual among the other items in the library’s collections because it is a manumission document, legally granting freedom to an enslaved man named George who was the property of Joseph Dehaney. Most of the other sources relating to slavery in the library’s collections are bills of sale, receipts, wills, estate inventories, and other legal documents that value slaves as property.
This document, dated 1817, marks a transitional moment in the history of slavery in New York. From 1799 to 1827, New York State underwent a period of gradual emancipation. The first gradual emancipation law in New York was passed in 1799. New York State was the second-to-last Northern state to pass an emancipation law, reflecting the enormous economic strength of slavery in New York in this time period. This law provisioned that all children born into slavery after July 4, 1799 in the state would be free when they turned 25 (for women) or 28 (for men). These age qualifications ensured that slaveholders would be compensated for their loss of property with the labor of their slaves’ most productive years. A further law, passed in 1817, granted eventual freedom to slaves born prior to 1799, but it delayed their emancipation for ten years. Slavery in New York State did not come to a complete legal end until July 4, 1827.
The intervening years between the first gradual emancipation law in 1799 and the abolition of slavery in New York in 1827 created an atmosphere of uncertainty surrounding slavery in the state. The manumission certificate pictured here is an example of how some slaveholders conceded to the inevitability of abolition, and emancipated their slaves prior to the 1827 deadline. From the bare-bones information given in this document, however, it is impossible to know the motivations of John Dehaney, the slaveholder, or the experiences of George, the manumitted slave. Nevertheless, by looking closely at this document, carefully analyzing the information it does provide, and using this information to formulate questions and conduct further research about this moment in history, it can serve as an avenue leading into the broader topic of American slavery.
What is a primary source? How do historians use primary sources to learn about the past?
Professional historians and graduate students in history are constantly immersed in primary source research. Members of the public are also often drawn to history by encounters with primary sources—think of a time when you were prompted to do further research about a historical topic after encountering a firsthand, eyewitness account of an individual, an event, or an idea. These individual stories can evoke people, places, and events from the past with an immediacy that is almost always lost in big-picture, textbook narratives. Encountering a primary source, however, is only a first step in the processes of historical research. Historians learn skills of close looking, analysis, and further research to weave individual sources into larger stories and arguments about the past. These investigative methods are applicable far beyond the requirements of scholarly writing.
The first stage of my project is a website, which I plan to launch later this fall, that makes use of primary sources from the Columbia RBML’s collections in an interactive exhibit that models the process of primary source research through questions and lesson plans. The focus of the website is the history of American slavery, examined through items documenting different aspects of slavery in the RBML’s collections. The target audience for the website is secondary school teachers and students. So far, the creation of this website has involved scanning about 200 items from the RBML for a total of about 500 high-quality images, creating metadata (information about the sources like date, creator, location, type of document, etc.) for these items, and uploading them to an Omeka website. Once the website launches, next steps for this project will be to invite local teachers for an evening workshop at the RBML and to set up classroom visits for area students to visit the library and interact with the sources in person.
An Uncertain Freedom
Thinking about how and why this manumission document was created opens a window into the experiences of free black people living in New York City in the early 1800s. George may have used this certificate as proof of his freedom at a time in New York City when the status of free black people was tenuous. Not only would George have faced racist discrimination in his daily life, but he, and other free black men, women, and children in New York City also lived under the constant threat of being kidnapped and sold into slavery. In fact, Richard Riker, one of the city officials who signed this document, was known as a member of the “Kidnapping Club.” This group was composed of city officials who sanctioned and supported the efforts of local gangs who kidnapped free black people in New York City and brought them to Southern states to be sold as slaves.
Closely examining the language of this document can reveal further details about the processes of slavery and manumission in New York City in this time period. It is telling, for example, that manumitted persons must appear to be under forty-five years old and “of sufficient ability to provide for him [or her] self.” Perhaps this language was meant as a paternalistic measure to prevent slaveholders from manumitting elderly or disabled slaves who, lacking any property or savings, would find themselves unemployed and impoverished. From the perspective of the city officials who created and signed this document, however, it is equally, if not more likely, that this language was present to foreclose the necessity of the city providing financially for such persons after they gained their freedom.
These are only a few points that stand out to me for further questions and analysis, but they are certainly not the only avenues for discussion. Please feel free to pose your own questions and suggestions for further research in the comments!