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Uncovering the slavery mystery


The mention of slavery is merely a snippet of information in most pages of American history books, perhaps suppressed in part due to people’s moral discomfort with the topic. But a new tour at Raynham Hall Museum, “Standing Where They Stood: Slavery in Oyster Bay,” confronts slavery’s role in the region head on.

“What not many people realize is that New York in the 1700s enslaved more people than any colony north of Maryland,” said Claire Bellerjeau, the museum’s director of education. “New York’s economy really supported slave labor here in a way different than the other northern colonies.”

The tour at Raynham Hall Museum demonstrates that often history entails putting together disparate pieces of a puzzle. Census records from the Town of Oyster Bay show that between 1790 and 1810, 16 percent of residents were African-Americans. However, the details of their lives are spotty and must be gleaned from other historical sources.

Uncovering the mystery was the job of students from Oyster Bay High School on Friday afternoon. “We typically learn about slavery from a Southern perspective and don’t know what happened here in the North,” said Isabella Skvarla, president of the school’s Rho Kappa Social Studies Honor Society.

Eight students learned that the Townsend family, who had lived at the site of the present museum, enslaved at least 18 individuals between 1749 and 1813. Unlike the rest of the family, the son, Robert Townsend, best known as George Washington’s spy, believed slavery was wrong, and joined the New York Manumission Society in 1785. He later returned to Oyster Bay and worked toward freeing the Townsend family slaves.

Students then were presented with various primary sources to surmise how enslaved people in Oyster Bay had lived. Several documents were newspaper advertisements announcing a slave sale. Bellerjeau and Christopher Judge, an assistant at Raynham Hall Museum, took turns reading the descriptions and asking for an analysis of why the sale of slaves might be advertised using such language.

Another source type was announcements from a newspaper about runaway slaves that put a bounty on each person apprehended. Bellerjeau said that in her research, she found runaway notices as late as 1821, just a few years before slavery was outlawed in New York.

The physical analysis of a room, now interpreted as slave quarters at Raynham, also provided clues. Students were guided to a small space that represented the kind of room that would have housed the family’s slaves. “How does this room feel different from the other rooms of the house?” Judge asked.

A copy of a Townsend store ledger, used exclusively for purchases made by slaves, offered evidence of what they might have owned. One record shows that a young female slave bought a spelling book, so students guessed what that might mean. Bellerjeau also pointed out that the first published black author in America was an enslaved man named Jupiter Hammon of Lloyd Neck, Long Island, who wrote of his longing for religious salvation without the intermediary of his white masters. She said the Townsend’s daughter, Phebe, had made a copy of a 1770 Hammon poem, which was only recently discovered.

Bellerjeau explained that upon becoming the museum’s education director full-time this July, one of her first outreach tasks was to meet with Joseph Pesqueira, the supervisor for social studies at the Oyster Bay-East Norwich Central School District, and find out how the area’s students could learn about this history that is not well known.

“Slavery was right here in Oyster Bay, so I think it’s a good chance for our students to learn about it,” Pesqueira said. “Most school curriculums focus on African-Americans starting from the Civil War, but we’re missing the part that talks about the pre-Revolutionary period.” He is hopeful the fifth graders of the district will benefit from the addition to the social studies program.

Group tours are now also available to the public, and learning about slavery in New York might offer a social justice opportunity, according to Judge. “There is still a lot of slavery around the world, and by talking about slavery of historical times, this program raises greater awareness through these conversations,” he added.