A grand Long Island manor – inhabited by members of the same family since 1735 – offers a glimpse into the forgotten history of Northern slavery.
It’s an extraordinary trek that Mac Griswold guides the reader on, less of distance than through time, beginning in the infancy of the United States, before we were one nation, when our ancestors – white, black, and Native American – were defined as much by who they weren’t as by who they were.Skip to next paragraph
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The trip begins in a rowboat mirroring the coast of Shelter Island, an idyll nestled between Orient and Montauk points on Long Island’s east end. It is here, in 1984, that the author and her main character, a grand 18th-century manor, meet: “The reflection of the house in the glassy water doesn’t tremble. No wind. I hold my breath, too, as if the building would disappear if the water moved…. This place isn’t self-consciously ‘historic;’ it’s not restored in any sense. It has simply been here, waiting for time to pass. Waiting for me.”
No one is home that day, but Griswold writes the owners several times, finally gets an answer, and returns to the house to meet Alice and Andy Fiske, he being the fifteenth member of the founding family to live on the property stretching back to 1652.
They are a nice couple, the kind that dress up to go to the Post Office, but on the manor tour a sordid piece of family laundry is aired: Andy points matter of factly to the “slave staircase,” narrowing winding steps that lead to a cramped, drafty attic long since closed off. He had been talking about the “servants” who had built his circa 1735 house, and it is now clear that the term is an egregious euphemism.
At that moment The Manor: Three Centuries as a Slave Plantation on Long Island is conceived, but the gestation period is long. The author of several books on gardening and plants, Griswold also has written for newspapers such as The New York Times. With Alice Fiske’s generous support (Andy had passed away) Griswold returns in 1996 to research the manor and grounds. The project would continue off and on for a decade.
She is a landscape historian and engages archaeologists, architectural historians, local history buffs, and even a dowser to help her unlock the past: where the buildings tumbled down and where the Indians lived before and after the whites took over; forgotten cemeteries; and onetime gardens and fields – where slaves had tended crops and animals to be shipped to the West Indies to fed fellow slaves there.
Northern slave culture was distinct in many ways from its counterparts elsewhere by nature of the land, climate, and agriculture. Farms tended to be smaller and more diverse in what they produced than sprawling Southern and Caribbean plantations, and their workers needed to master various skills or trades to be productive. They were, therefore, not as expendable or as numerous, but they were slaves just the same; America’s “peculiar institution” was not particular to the South.