Hidden Heritage: Vestiges of Slavery through the Life of a Freed Slave in New York
When the word slavery is used in the context of American social history, the South is almost always the focal point of the discussion; but slavery was also a longstanding and essential institution in the northern United States. Even though the North abolished slavery early in the 19th century, freedom for all was a prolonged process and discrimination against manumitted slaves was rampant. Many vestiges of that discrimination exist even in contemporary America, where civil rights have been legally ensured for all for almost half a century. Studying the African Americans of the diaspora in the North is a difficult science. Their story is not a part of the “official” history and many records were lost, leaving those who followed to pick through disparate stories of individuals whose lives were disrupted, even after manumission, by residual, intense prejudice in the northern United States against the freed African American population. This paper presents the social impact of slavery on the antebellum northern United States after manumission and before the Civil War through the life of an individual freed slave whose attempts to live a normal life were thwarted by the white people around him, even those he loved and served. The Reverend James Murphy was born a slave on a large farm in the upstate New York county of Dutchess near the city of Poughkeepsie, 75 miles north of New York City. When he was a young boy, his “master,” David Johnston, stipulated in his will that James would be freed at his death and that James’ mother, Jane, would be willed to David Johnston’s wife until her death, at which time, Jane would be freed. This was still a rare occurrence in New York in 1799, and David Johnston left his other 14 slaves in slavery in the will, singling out only James and his mother. James Murphy later surfaces in the 1820’s across the Hudson River in Ulster County, still in the region of his birth, as a man, the pastor of a Dutch Reformed Church with a white congregation. He has a family and is a highly respected preacher and leader. It appears that he has made a good life until there are rumblings among his congregation that he is not what he seems; that he is in fact the son of a slave. This man’s story, pieced together through church and court records of the time, has never been published. In this paper presentation, James Murphy’s particular story is told to illuminate the broader social context in New York and the northern United States after the abolishment of slavery by law, but before its vestiges could fade. This life exemplifies the struggle to survive in a hostile society ever ready to strike down those that society has explicitly and implicitly agreed to oppress.
Keywords: Slavery, United States, Discrimination
Dr. Rose Rudnitski
Associate Professor, Educational Administration, State University of New York
Archivist/Historian, Huguenot Historical Society