Northerners tend to believe that slavery was confined to the South and that the North was composed of "free" states. The truth is that slavery was practiced all over the early United States, including the Dutch colonial settlement of New Amsterdam, which later became New York. The Dutch established New Amsterdam in the early 1600's and immediately imported Africans to work on farms and public works like the fortress wall from which Wall Street gets its name. By the 18th century, New York had more enslaved Africans than any other city in the country, with the exception of Charleston, S.C. Slavery was abolished here only in 1827.
Many New Yorkers who know this history first heard it in 1991, when a construction crew uncovered a colonial-era African burial ground while digging the foundation of an office tower in lower Manhattan. Skeletons exhumed from the African Burial Ground have since told us a great deal about how enslaved New Yorkers died. But scholars are just beginning to understand how they lived. An archaeological team led by Prof. H. Arthur Bankoff of Brooklyn College has uncovered a clue at a 282-year-old Dutch farmhouse in Marine Park, a neighborhood in Brooklyn. Last winter, they stumbled upon evidence establishing the house as the first known slave dwelling in what would become New York City. Beneath the floorboards, the archaeologists found religious objects that establish a link between the spiritual practices of enslaved New Yorkers and those of Africans on plantations in the Deep South -- and ultimately in West Africa itself.
The peeling, 18-room farmhouse sprawls over an expansive lot and dwarfs the two-story row houses lining this predominantly blue-collar neighborhood. The house is named for Hendrick I. Lott (1760-1840), the scion of a Dutch farming family that once owned more than 200 acres in Marine Park. In 1719, the Lotts built a modest three-room farmhouse. In 1800, the family moved it to the current location -- 1940 East 36th Street -- and joined it to a larger house, resulting in the existing structure.
The Lotts were among the area's largest slaveholders. Legal documents from 1803 list 12 slaves. The "Negroman" Harry and the "Negrowoman" Mary are valued at just $25 each, suggesting that they were elderly and no longer suitable for field work. The documents also list five children -- three boys and two girls -- who range from $50 to $100. But most prized of these was a Negro man named Powel, listed at $200, followed by two Negro women, Moll and Cate, listed at $125 each.
Slaves began to decline in value after 1799, when New York enacted a gradual emancipation that ensured that enslaved Africans born after July 4 of that year would gain freedom if they served their masters until they were 28 (for men) and 25 (for women). Enslaved Africans became more difficult to hold as manumission became a certainty. Hendrick Lott freed all of his family's slaves, except one, during the first decade of the 1800's. But they were most likely hired back as paid workers.
Only a handful of the Dutch farmhouses that once dotted this city still stand. The Lott house survived in part because it was continuously occupied until 1989, when its last resident, Ella Suydam, died and the city made it a landmark. The building continued to deteriorate and would have been lost if not for the people of Marine Park. This community of cops, firemen and teachers fought to save the house. The cop across the street came out at night in his underwear to chase away vandals. Neighbors hosed down the roof during Fourth of July fireworks to keep the house's wood frame from catching fire. They periodically cleared away brush and repaired the white picket fence.
Christopher Ricciardi and Alyssa Loorya grew up in the neighborhood. As Ph.D. candidates, they studied the house for two years before happening upon a trapdoor in a closet ceiling. Scuttling up a ladder, they found a narrow passageway running between a pair of cramped, windowless rooms under the eaves, neither of which exceeded four feet in height. The room on the left was sooty from what had been a heating hole in the chimney, now patched with mortar. The passageway floor was speckled with candle drippings and led to a boarded-up door, which once led to a family bedroom. The two knew almost instantly that at least some of the slaves had lived and slept in these cramped, airless rooms, serving the family's needs day and night.
They pulled up the floorboards in the chimney room and found five corncobs arranged in what appeared to be a cross or star shape. New Yorkers renovating old houses may have encountered such things and discarded them. But to experienced eyes, they are more than just debris. The cross formed by cobs suggests a cosmogram, a symbol known to anthropologists as a West African depiction of the cosmos. One line represents the boundary between the living and the dead and the other the path of power that connects these worlds. Archaeologists studying slave quarters in the Deep South have typically found African ritual items buried near fireplaces, which slaves viewed as the way spirits entered or left the house. Cosmograms have been found on clay pots and bowls used by enslaved Africans. Cornstalks were also found in the room on the right, but had been scattered by rodents and so were no longer arranged in a recognizable pattern. But the team was excited to find a ritual collection of objects that included an oyster shell, half an animal pelvis bone and a cloth pouch tied with hemp. Slaves used them to manage spirits, which, if properly fed and handled, would carry out a range of acts. Scholars have typically argued that West African spiritual life was confined to the Deep South, where slave populations were large enough to sustain their rituals. But the Lott house shows that African religious practices survived, not just in the Deep South and in the border states, but here in New York City.
Brent Staples is an editorial writer for The Times.