In a run-down house in Brooklyn, N.Y., archaeologists recently
made an important discovery: a bunch of dried-up corncobs that had
lain undisturbed beneath some floorboards for two centuries.
The corncobs are the latest clues to how African-American slaves
may have lived in the northern United States.
Much more is known about how slaves fared on big farms called
plantations in the American South. Less attention has been given to
the lives of Northern slaves.
Most history books have focused instead on Northern abolitionists
who fought to end slavery in the South. But this house in Brooklyn -
as well as some recently discovered burial grounds - show that life
wasn't much easier for slaves who lived in the North.
Archaeologist H. Arthur Bankoff, co-director Christopher
Ricciardi, and students at Brooklyn College had no idea they would
discover one of the first slave quarters in the Northern US. They
were just trying to learn how a neighborhood changed from a rural
farming community called Flatlands to the city neighborhood of
The Lott House, which was built in the early 1700s and expanded
around 1800, is mostly the same as it was 200 years ago. So,
starting in 1998, students carefully began to dig outside. The group
also examined the inside of the house.
As the team searched a closet that had once been a staircase,
they found a trap door. Up three steps was a boarded-up door that
led to a windowless, cramped room. That's when they found the
corncobs underneath the floorboards. The cobs looked to be in a
starburst or cross shape. Corncobs in such patterns had been found
in slave quarters in the South.
No one is sure what the corncobs mean, but experts who study
Africa are familiar with them. Some experts think the cobs were used
in a religious ritual the slaves brought with them from West Africa.
Students also found an oyster shell and a cloth pouch, items that
slaves thought could be used to contact spirits.
The family that owned this 18-room home had as many as 12 slaves
in the early 1800s. Five of them were children.
African-American slaves first arrived in New York in the 1600s.
At the time, New York was a Dutch settlement called New Amsterdam.
Slaves worked on farms at the southern tip of Manhattan, where Wall
Street now stands. Later, they worked in the houses of merchants,
ministers, and doctors.
By the 1700s, one-fifth of New York's population were slaves. It
had more slaves than any other city in the country except
Charleston, S.C. Hendrick Lott freed his slaves between 1801 and
1805. And family legend has it that, after slavery was abolished in
New York by 1827, the Lott house was a stop on the Underground
Railroad, a series of houses where runaway Southern slaves could
Bankoff and his students found a small room hidden behind a
bedroom closet. The walls of the room were lined with newspapers
from the 1860s. Was it a place where runaways hid?
Slaves in the North probably lived in the same house as the white
owners, who worked alongside slaves in the field. Southern slaves
lived in separate quarters and were looked after by overseers.
But the fact that slaves in the North lived in the same house as
their owners doesn't mean that Northern slaves were treated as
equals. Some of the Lott family slaves probably had to live in the
narrow, windowless passageway where the corncobs were found.
"This gives us the first good picture of where slaves in the
rural part of New York would have lived," Bankoff says. Over the
past 10 years, other archaeologists have learned more about how
slaves in New York lived by excavating burial grounds. Construction
workers erecting an office building in Manhattan's financial
district found a burial ground for thousands of slaves.
Some 400 of the remains were sent to Howard University in
Washington, D. …