An African Voice among the River Folk of the Hudson River Valley: The Diary of an Ex-Slave, 1827-1866

Article excerpt

An African Voice Among the River Folk of the Hudson River Valley: The Diary of an Ex-slave, 1827-1866.

INTRODUCTION: THE ANTE-BELLUM PERIOD AND THE STRUGGLE FOR A BIRTH RIGHT IN THE STATE OF NEW YORK.

In the decades prior to the American Civil War, the African American in the State of New York was confronted with what appeared to be insurmountable obstacles to his/her total freedom and humanity. The nineteenth century began in New York with slavery still intact, but African children born of slave mothers were free as a result of the Gradual Emancipation Act of 1799, yet labor-bound to their owners: females until the age of 25, males until the age of 27.(2) It was not until July 4, 1827, ten years after Governor Thompson had directed the State Legislature in 1817 to outlaw the nefarious institution, that all Blacks in the state could lay claim to freedom.(3) But it was a freedom characterized by the removal of chains and the donning of restraining ropes. Economically, Blacks in New York were marginalized as hords of European immigrants successfully displaced African Americans from many of the skilled, semi-skilled, and even menial jobs they previously held.(4) White America stood by while its fraternal twin, Black America, was economically and socially ravaged by white foreigners. As argued elsewhere, it was as if "the newcomers from Europe had to be provided for even if it was to be at the expense of the indigenous colored American."(5)

Politically, a free Black male in New York felt the restraint of the "ropes of freedom" when he attempted to exercise the right to vote. As a result of the Constitutional Convention of 1821 Blacks were required to hold property valued at $250, and be a resident in the state for at least three years before they could exercise the vote. This was not required of white male voters.(6) It was not until 1870, with the passage of the Fifteenth Amendment to the Federal Constitution, that Black males in New York (and in other states) gained equal access to the franchise.

In addition to their socioeconomic and political marginalization in the State of New York, African Americans, like their brethren in other northern states, were, as free persons of color, confronted by the ramifications of the 1793 fugitive slave law, and even more so by its notorious cousin the 1850 fugitive slave act, which directed local, legal coercive bodies to apprehend suspected fugitives and return them to their owners. While many African Americans had to constantly prove their free status to avoid mistaken identity, others fled their homes in New York State to avoid kidnapers.(7) Ante-bellum New York, therefore, in spite of a "dying" legacy of slavery, was a state molded by white racism, out of which developed two distinct communities: one white, developed and affluent; the other Black, separate, unequal, and underdeveloped.

In the nineteenth century New York was caught up in the industrial revolution, and there is no better place to examine this economic phenomenon on a microscopic level than in the Hudson River Valley. River commerce, bolstered first by the sloops and schooners and later by steam vessels and the Hudson River rail service, was supplied by a copious, seemingly endless cornucopiate flow of agricultural and industrial products from the emporia of the Hudson Valley. In addition to the mechanical innovations in river commerce such as the sleek, swift sloops and schooners and later the powerful, though (at times) accident-prone steam boats, light and heavy industry mushroomed across the valley floor, giving rise to such economic miracles as the rail and canal networks, iron and textile mills, brickyards, breweries, munitions, lumber and many others.(8) European immigrants benefited from the economic miracle at the expense of African Americans. To avoid hiring Blacks during the 1830-1855 economic boom in Albany, Erastus Corning's New York Central Rail Company arranged for the hiring and transportation of Irish immigrants to Albany to work on the construction of its rail line. …