The Battle over the Ex-Slave's Fortune: The Story of Cynthia Hesdra

By Martin, Lori L. | Afro-Americans in New York Life and History, January 2011 | Go to article overview

The Battle over the Ex-Slave's Fortune: The Story of Cynthia Hesdra


Martin, Lori L., Afro-Americans in New York Life and History


Few people are familiar with the name Cynthia Hesdra. She was born a slave in the North. During her lifetime though, she owned a successful laundry business and real estate in New York and New Jersey. She was also involved in the historic "underground railroad" station in Nyack, New York. She died at the age of 71 with a fortune estimated at around $100,000. By today's standards she was a millionaire. Her family fought over her estate in a series of trials, which included a precedent setting trial involving handwriting analysis. The story of Cynthia Hesdra provides insight into the economic contributions of blacks in the North prior to the twentieth century. This article examines the life and times of Cynthia Hesdra and other blacks during her lifetime, using historic census data, court records, historic newspaper articles, and other sources. Initially, Cynthia Hesdra's estate went to her husband, Edward, but the state would eventually take ownership of the ex-slave's fortune.

Fortune and slavery are two words that in some ways go hand and hand and in other ways seem worlds apart. For some, slavery in America brought about a great deal of fortune. (2) The number of slaves that a person owned was often an indicator of that person's overall net worth. At the same time, slavery was a condition of intense misfortune. People of the African Diaspora, whether free or enslaved, suffered many atrocities ranging from the disruption of their families to the continued threat of bodily harm or even death. (3) Nevertheless, there were people of African descent who amassed fortunes using skills that they brought with them to the U.S. or skills that they developed here.

Cynthia Hesdra was born a slave in Tappan, New York. Slavery officially ended in 1827 in the New York State, several decades before the historic Emancipation Proclamation. As an ex-slave, Cynthia amassed a fortune. Her assets at the time of her death in 1879 included a laundry business and real estate in Rockland County, New York; New York City; and Bergen County, New Jersey. Her story may be more the exception than the rule but nonetheless it is a story that must be told.

Cynthia Hesdra's life story and the battle for her fortune offers insight into the experiences of many people of African descent in 19th century New York. While many view enslavement as a largely southern phenomenon, slavery existed throughout the North, including in New York State. Investigations into the economic impact of people of the African Diaspora in New York have focused largely on New York City, however, slavery existed in areas north of the city too, including in Rockland County. (4) Less is known about the economic impact of people of African ancestry in the county during the antebellum period and beyond, despite the presence of black communities, especially along the Hudson River. These historic black communities can be found throughout the Nyacks, Piermont, Sparkill, Palisades, and Haverstraw.

This article explores the economic impact of people of the African Diaspora from the days when Rockland was part of neighboring Orange County to the late 19th century and beyond. The article will show that the experiences of people of African descent along the Hudson were by no means homogeneous. Rather, people of the African Diaspora lived as free people and as slaves. Some were of mixed ancestry and others were not. People of the African Diaspora in these areas worked as farm laborers, domestics, coachman, and even sailors, while others operated their own businesses. Some even owned land, and established houses of worship all the while facing discrimination, arson, the threat of violence, even bodily harm and death.

A review of historical census data, historical documents, old newspaper articles, among other items, helps to tell the story of a group of Americans who triumphed in the face of overwhelming obstacles to move from assets to owners, from unpaid laborers to domestics to business owners and so much more. …

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