Clip | The Woman in the Iron Coffin - African American History in New York City

The history of African American communities in New York City can be traced back to a time before the Civil War.


Secrets of the Dead: The Woman in the Iron Coffin Premieres Wednesday, October 3 at 10 p.m. on PBS (check local listings)

Streams October 4 via pbs.org/secrets and PBS apps

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New York was one of the last states in the North to abolish slavery.

It''s a somewhat complicated procedure.

In 1799 a gradual emancipation bill is passed which says that slaves born before July 4th 1799 are slaves for the rest of their lives, but people born into slavery after July 4, 1799 will be emancipated.

In 1817, another bill gets passed that declares that people even enslaved before 1799 will be freed on July 4th 1827.

Finally, on July 4th 1827, 28 years after the state''s first emancipation bill, New York''s African American community celebrated their liberation.

In all, about 10,000 people in New York state were set free.

The position of the African American community remains very vexed because you do have slave kidnappers coming from the South up North in pursuit of slaves who have escaped to the North and the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850 meant that they could indeed legitimately go and catch slaves and bring them back.

But the real problem is that the kidnappers would come up and were capable of seizing any black off the street and saying oh you are a slave, you are the slave of Mr Johnson whoever and we''re remanding you into slavery'' and that person could protest and say well no I''m free'' and I was born here free'' etcetera, but if you didn''t have your papers on you right then or you couldn''t prove it on you right then and there, you were kidnapped and sent into slavery.

And that was a process known as black birding.'' One great example is the case of Solomon Northup who was a free black and who was kidnapped and taken to the South, and was twelve years a slave, and lived to gain his freedom and to write that narrative.

After emancipation in New York, the abolition of slavery in New York, the black population was made up of free African Americans; it was also made up of people that had escaped slavery and had come to New York, as well as those who had been manumitted from slavery.

Throughout New York, free African Americans established their own communities.

Weeksville in Brooklyn and Seneca Village later cleared to make way for Central Park were among them.