Revisiting the End of Slavery in New York for Juneteenth

This month (June 2021), President Biden declared Juneteenth a federal holiday. Celebrated on June 19th, Juneteenth commemorates the end of slavery in the United States. The holiday originates in Galveston, Texas, where enslaved people were finally declared free on June 19, 1865, nearly three years after President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation.

According to the White House briefing entitled A Proclamation on Juneteenth Day of Observance, 2021“On Juneteenth, we recommit ourselves to the work of equity, equality, and justice. And, we celebrate the centuries of struggle, courage, and hope that have brought us to this time of progress and possibility. That work has been led throughout our history by abolitionists and educators, civil rights advocates and lawyers, courageous activists and trade unionists, public officials, and everyday Americans who have helped make real the ideals of our founding documents for all. There is still more work to do…Juneteenth not only commemorates the past. It calls us to action today.”

While some think of slavery as a southern institution, slavery existed in the north, including New York, well into the 19th century (see the previous Relearning Highlands History article on “People Not Property” to learn more about slavery in the Colonial North).

According to the Historical Society of the New York Courts: “Contrary to the popular narrative, the southern states were not alone in their adamant refusal to end slavery. New York also held on to that repressive institution until the free black community and the Manumission Society combined to persuade Governor Daniel D. Tompkins and the state legislature to end slavery within its boundaries.”

Due to a robust anti-slavery movement, slavery was officially abolished in New York in 1827, but the ending is far more complicated than a single date.

Passage of a 1799 “Gradual Emancipation” law in New York emancipated children born to enslaved mothers, but did not apply to the thousands of existing enslaved people. Then, in March 1817, the New York legislature passed a law abolishing slavery and set July 4, 1827 as the date of final emancipation. This made New York the first state to pass a law completely abolishing slavery.

However, multiple legal loopholes existed that meant people of certain ages remained enslaved or were forced to work as indentured servants for many years after the official date of emancipation. For example, enslavers visiting the state were allowed to enslave people for up to nine months after their arrival. Beyond the legal loopholes, New York led the illegal international slave trade in the mid-19th century, long after the official end of slavery in the state.

Even when emancipated, many free Black people experienced restrictions to their basic rights and freedoms. For example, many freed Black men were barred from voting by an 1821 ruling of New York Constitutional Convention unless they owned substantial property (see the previous Relearning Highlands History article “Color of Law” to learn more about obstructions to property ownership for Communities of Color). The passage of the Fifteenth Amendment in 1870 ended the legal discrimination against Black men voting in New York—but Black people continued to face obstacles to voting long after 1870.

To learn more about the history of slavery in New York:

Photo: Gravestone from the Poughkeepsie Rural Cemetery of John Bolding, who escaped slavery in South Carolina and settled in Poughkeepsie. Local abolitionists raised funds to pay for Bolding’s freedom in 1851, after he was seized in New York and sent back to slavery in the south. Photo courtesy of the Mid-Hudson Antislavery Project.