Digging into the lives of slaves

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 Marine Park.

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 safely hide.

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.C., where scientists examined them for clues about how the slaves had lived. Among their discoveries: evidence of violent deaths and injuries from overwork.

"Their lives were very painful," says Warren Perry, a professor at Central Connecticut State University in New Britain, who led the examination. "The folks were being worked to death."

The remains, which were later reburied, also showed how slaves kept many of their African traditions. For instance, some had filed their teeth into the distinctive hourglass shapes still found in West and Southern Africa.

In one coffin, tacks formed the pattern of a heart. This was common in Ghanaian culture. (Ghana is a nation on Africa's West coast.) Another slave had been buried wearing an "ear bob" of pure silver. The jewelry was similar to those worn by native Americans. That suggests that slaves and native Americans may have lived together. Archaeologists found hundreds of other artifacts, including beads, pottery, and buttons.

Scientists are still unearthing other forgotten slave burial grounds. More recently, Professor Perry helped explore a recently discovered slave burial ground in Salem, Conn. That burial ground was the site of a plantation where as many as 100 slaves once lived. "It's the hidden history we're uncovering," Perry says.

Life in a 'free' Northern state didn't always feel free

Slaves who escaped to the North in pre-Civil War America were never truly free. State and federal laws regarding 'fugitive slaves' meant that they might be recaptured and returned to their former masters, regardless of their situation or how long they had lived in the North.

Harriet Jacobs was born a slave in Edenton, N.C., in 1813. She fled in 1835 from her owner, who threatened her and her children. Jacobs hid at the home of her grandmother for seven years before moving north to Philadelphia, Boston, and New York City.

Slavery had ended in New York in 1827. Jacobs found work as a nanny. In 1861, she published a book titled 'Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl.' Here's what she wrote about the cruel federal fugitive slave act passed in 1850:

Many families, who had lived in the city for 20 years, fled from it now.

Many a poor washerwoman, who, by hard labor, had made herself a comfortable home, was obliged to sacrifice her furniture, bid a hurried farewell to her friends, and seek her fortune among strangers in Canada. Many a wife discovered a secret she had never known before - that her husband was a fugitive, and must leave her to insure his own safety. Worse still, many a husband discovered that his wife had fled from slavery years ago, and as "the child follows the condition of its mother," the children of his love were liable to be seized and carried into slavery. Every where, in those humble homes, there was consternation and anguish. But what cared the legislators of the "dominant race" for the blood they were crushing out of trampled hearts? ... I seldom ventured into the streets; I went as much as possible through back streets and by-ways. What a disgrace to a city calling itself free that inhabitants, guiltless of offense, and seeking to perform their duties conscientiously, should be condemned to live in such incessant fear, and have nowhere to turn for protection!....

When I took the children out to breathe the air, I closely observed the countenances of all I met. I dreaded the approach of summer, when snakes and slaveholders make their appearance. I was, in fact, a slave in New York, as subject to slave laws, as I had been in a Slave State. Strange incongruity in a State called free!

• From 'Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl,' published in 'The Classic Slaves Narrative,' 1987, by Putnam-Penguin.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
QR Code to Digging into the lives of slaves
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today