In 1991, workers discovered an African burial ground in lower Manhattan. This discovery confronted New Yorkers with the city's history of slavery, and renewed conversations about slavery and African American culture in the region. Remnants that were found at this burial ground also helped reconstruct the history of slavery and African cultural influences in seventeenth- and especially eighteenth-century New York. Today, a monument at the African Burial Ground's location at 290 Broadway commemorates the city's enslaved population and the region's legacy of slavery.
Slavery in New York State officially came to an end in 1827, roughly 200 years after the first enslaved men arrived in the region. In neighboring New Jersey, the institution of slavery was not abolished until 1846. Although slavery continued in the region long after the Dutch colonial period, the Dutch legacy remained evident in many communities, thus affecting slavery and the lives of the enslaved. In fact, many Dutch Americans included enslaved people as part of their estates, and slavery was particularly prominent in the predominantly Dutch American communities of Kings County, Albany County, and Ulster County. In some of these communities, like eighteenth-century Flatbush in present-day Brooklyn, the enslaved population reached close to 50% of the total population. When New York legislators debated the abolition of slavery in the state in the late eighteenth century, several Dutch American slaveholders opposed emancipation, leading John Murray of the New York Manumission Society to claim that Dutch Americans were the main opponents to abolishing slavery in the state.
In the predominantly Dutch American communities, Dutch cultural influences affected African American culture and life. Here, African Americans often spoke the Dutch language, cooked Dutch American foods, and carried Dutch surnames, like De Vries or Van Donck. In some communities, African Americans joined the Dutch Reformed Church. The Dutch Reformed Church in Kingston, for example, welcomed Leonardus and Henry, both enslaved men, in 1732 and 1741. Descendants of Manhattan's free black community who had been married and baptized in the Dutch Reformed Church during the Dutch colonial period, continued to worship in this church for decades to come.
Enslaved African Americans in Dutch American households often learned Dutch as their first language, as is clear from the many runaway slave advertisements that searched for refugee slaves who spoke "good Dutch." Even in the early nineteenth century, Sojourner Truth, Ulster County native, famous abolitionist and women's rights activist, did not understand English when she was sold to an English-speaking master at the age of nine. She was one of many enslaved New Yorkers for whom Dutch was their first language.
African Americans in New York's Dutch communities also celebrated Dutch-originated holidays. In 1789, Alexander Coventry noted in his diary that his slave Cuff left to celebrate Pinkster, the Dutch version of Pentecost or Whitsuntide. Various late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century descriptions of Pinkster described how during this holiday African Americans would gather for several days of celebration. African originated dances were an intricate part of the celebration, and an African king, often referred to as King Charles (or Charley), was the master of ceremony. By the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, Pinkster had become a popular celebration among the enslaved populations of many of New York's Dutch communities. Sojourner Truth, for example, mentioned the festival in her autobiography as a time of great joy for African Americans.
The Dutch colonial period has left a lasting mark on the region, not just for Dutch but also for African descendants. The experience of the enslaved population was in large part influenced by the ways of life of their masters. Slavery and the enslaved population also influenced Dutch American life and culture in remarkable ways, as is evident with the Dutch holiday Pinkster, which became a predominantly African American celebration. But there is another important reason why we should acknowledge and attempt to better understand the history of slavery in New Netherland. This history reveals that enslaved Africans were part of the region's European settlement from the beginning. They helped build the colony and its main settlement of New Amsterdam--or New York City. If we really want to understand New York history, we need to acknowledge the important role they played in the making of the region.