The Hunt for Evidence of Slavery in the North
This article first appeared in a slightly different form in Archaeology, Volume 58 Number 2, March/April 2005.
If you needed something shady in Stratford, Connecticut in 1795, Captain John Selby was your man. A master seaman, rogue, and scrounger, he lived by his wits and his cutlass in his tavern house hard by Stratford's thriving wharves. But in September of that year U.S. Customs collared him for smuggling and slapped him with an enormous fine. He had been on the Housatonic River in the dead of night, shifting contraband between two ships owned by a rich slave-trading neighbor. Documents say the cargoes were hogsheads of rum and, perhaps, slaves.
In Selby's waterfront neighborhood, almost every home had at least one slave. That wasn't unusual: At the time, 3.4 percent of Connecticut's population, nearly 6,500 people, were enslaved. In fact, the slave trade was rather commonplace throughout the Northeast, for it was one arm of the infamous Triangle Trade, in which Northern rum and guns were exchanged for captives on the African coast, who were traded in the Caribbean for molasses, which was shipped north to be turned into rum. Then the cycle began all over again.
In time, Selby fled to the Caribbean to try his luck as a pirate. And like him, over the years, Northern slavery has also done a disappearing act: by the dawn of the twentieth century, the accepted version of American history held that slavery above the Mason-Dixon line was almost nonexistent.
But that version of history is under siege. In recent years archaeologists have been uncovering more and more evidence of slavery in the North. In Rhode Island, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and New York, archival records and excavations have shown that Northern slavery was not only widespread but an economic boon to small farmers, merchants, and landed gentry alike. Archaeologists have found slave dwellings, graves, and shackles at the sites of former plantations that once had dozens of slaves toiling on thousands of acres. And not only did Northern slave holders use captive labor on their own farms, they sold supplies to slave plantations in the South and West Indies at a handsome profit.
At the head of the charge is an archaeology team from Central Connecticut State University, led by Warren Perry, who has made the school a center in the study of slavery in the North. Perry and his colleagues have found records of slavery in more than one hundred Connecticut towns, revealed evidence of long-lost Northern plantations, and helped uncover African ritual symbols concealed in historic homes.
Perry is unique among the archaeologists of Northern slavery. He has unearthed evidence of the African Diaspora for over two decades in both the Old World and the New, excavating slave skeletons in Manhattan, Zulu settlements in Swaziland, and a community of free Blacks on Staten Island that was founded in 1828.
At first glance you might mistake Perry for a musician or radical poet. His gray dreadlocks dangle past his beard to his chest, and he wears a gold earring, a cowrie shell anklet, and an African pendant. Perry, who laughingly says he's “older than 30, younger than 70,” is a rat-a-tat talker with a showman's flair. But beneath his smiles, stories, and effusive camaraderie burns an inner engine, driving him to right social injustice with the artifacts he pulls from the ground.
Equally devoted to setting history straight are Perry's graduate students at CCSU, especially Jerry Sawyer and Janet Woodruff. Woodruff, a sandy-haired, blue eyed, intensely focused historian pursuing her Master's degree, came to CCSU specifically to work with Perry after reading about him in a Hartford newspaper. Sawyer is a doctoral candidate in archaeology of the African Diaspora at the City University of New York who teaches part-time at CCSU. A former oceanographer and licensed sea captain (he looks the part, with his earrings, pony tail, and wiry build), Sawyer now owns Selby's house. Last summer he and Woodruff led a field school in his backyard, digging for, but not finding, evidence that Selby himself owned slaves.
The team's collective home is the archaeology lab in CCSU's Africana Center, devoted to researching both the continent and the slavery-driven Diaspora. They work as a team, less professor and students than colleagues who inspire each other. Microscopes, computers, and artifacts typically fill the lab, but what draws one's eye is the large map unrolled atop a bank of cabinets in the center of the room. It is the site plan of New York City's African Burial Ground Project, where Perry has been the associate director of archeology for 10 years. It shows hundreds of coffins crowded into a tiny plot of lower Manhattan, a silent community that seems to witness the team at work.
Twenty years ago, African American community members complained to Perry about the word “slave.” “'Slave' has these connotations of playing a banjo, smiling, and singing,” says Perry. “What I came up with was `African captives.' Because what were they? Africans who were captured and brought here. They didn't say `Oh, can I go to the U.S?' No. They were forced to come and were killed and died and suffered.”
When we first met the term seemed an example of political correctness run amok. But as Perry says, “language is power.” When I said it myself I found “captive” is like dynamite -- use it and the ground shifts beneath your feet. In time, the phrase put me firmly on their turf.
The first captives in the mainland colonies arrived in Jamestown, Virginia in 1619; by 1760, ships from New York, Philadelphia, Newport, and Boston had brought 600,000 more to America's shores. Rhode Island slavers alone made almost a thousand voyages. By 1771, there were 20,000 blacks in New York, more than twelve percent of the population. But by 1860, one third of the South -- four million African Americans -- were in bondage. After the Civil War, victorious Northerners wrote memoirs that recalled how kindly they treated their black servants, and Northern historians often turned a blind eye to the beatings, killings, and slave rebellions of the antebellum days.
When Warren Perry was growing up in the Bronx in the 1950s, history had been forgotten, and his teachers were proud of what he calls “the sweet wonderful stories about the North.” More real to him were the lynchings and protests in the newspapers and the social disparities and segregation he saw wherever he looked. Though his mother tried to drum the importance of education into him, Perry -- smart, aware, and angry -- thought school was “all white folks, teaching me about white folks” and an institution that ignored accomplished blacks like his great-great grandfather, the founder of the Philadelphia Tribune, that city's first black paper.
Instead, he lived at the edges of the law on the bleak Bronx streets. Married with children while still in his teens, he hustled and stole to feed his family, and after his first wife, a heroin addict, went to prison for shooting and killing a drug dealer, the state put his children in a home.
Though Malcolm X, preaching on the city's street corners, inspired him -- “Malcolm could stand with folks who had been to Yale and Harvard and kick their asses intellectually,” he remembers proudly -- Perry had no desire to become Muslim. In 1960, at 18, he took the only out he could see: the Army.
But his politics brought him trouble. One day, while stationed in Germany, he refused to salute the flag, saying it didn't represent him. “I said, `I don't see any black folks in any position [of power], not only in this country, but in this military.'” Though at first he was threatened with court martial, eventually he was sent to a psychiatrist instead of the brig. Later, honorably discharged and on his way home by steamer, he chucked his uniform and military gear over the side.
Back in New York, he regained custody of his sons and went to college on the GI bill. The boys came to class with him. (“When I got stuff wrong, they'd be laughing and giggling at me,” he recalls.) He first became entranced by anthropology at NYU, and in 1980 he entered graduate school at Hunter College. It was a time when historical archaeology, which supplements excavations with archival research to investigate the more recent past, was feeling the influence of the social activism of the 1960s and 1970s. Scholars studied the impact of global colonial powers on peoples around the world, and what they read in the record was a process of domination and resistance. They looked for archaeological evidence of those whom history had ignored and how class, race, and gender affected their lives. They used artifacts to discern the fate of the forgotten, to speak out and press for social change.
Although he idolized some of his professors, Perry felt they saw the world through “lenses of whiteness,” he says. It was here he found his opportunity. “I saw the niche. I saw this was the discipline for me, because I could provide the black perspective.”
As a graduate student in the early 1980s Perry helped excavate Sandy Ground, a mid-nineteenth-century oystering community of free blacks on New York's Staten Island. For his dissertation, he spent three field seasons (supported in part by money raised in Harlem churches) in Swaziland in southeastern Africa in the mid-1980s, upsetting both accepted history and his openly racist white colleagues there. There he studied oral histories and genealogical lists and excavated late-eighteenth century ritual sites, royal residences, and settlements. Contrary to the conventional wisdom that Dutch and English colonial presence in the nineteenth century had quelled massacres of locals by Zulu armies, he found that it was actually the colonial invasions and slaving expeditions that drove the Zulu to take up arms. The way he ran his field team also incensed white Swazi archaeologists. He used native Swazis as advisors, and encouraged his student crew to tip the black Swazi laborers, make their own beds, and say `thank you.' The Director of Antiquities responded by denying him transportation, tools, and access to sites. Native Swazis, however, ceremonially feted him as a “son of Africa.” Perry returned home convinced that the African point of view was vital to unraveling the United States' past.
He soon put that perspective to work. In 1991, excavations for a new federal office building in lower Manhattan uncovered a small portion of the city's eighteenth century African Burial Ground, a six-acre plot with as many as 20,000 graves that once had been outside the old city walls. The government hurried to dig up more than 400 coffins and continue building, but black city residents stepped in. They charged that the government archaeologists knew little about Africa or African Americans, and that their work was rushed, incompetent, and damaged the bones, insulting both the living and the dead. History was repeating itself: Hundreds of years after they had died, captives were once more suffering cruel disregard.
In 1992 Howard University's Cobb Biological Anthropology Laboratory took over the research. Michael Blakey, the project's new director, asked Perry to oversee the excavations because of his field experience, his knowledge of African cultures, and his belief that archaeology can change the world for the better.
The Burial Ground has yielded 408 bodies, nearly half children who had been killed by malnutrition and disease. Sometimes families were buried together. Men and women alike suffered trauma from lifting and carrying too-heavy loads atop their heads: fractured spines, crippling neck arthritis, lesions where muscle fibers ripped from bones in their arm and thighs. In essence, most of the adults had been worked to death, used up and thrown away to be replaced from the steady supply of new captives on the local wharves.
The excavations also revealed unprecedented evidence of African culture. One coffin lid bore a carved Sankofa, a heart-shaped African symbol which calls for reverence for one's ancestors and the importance of learning from the past; a young woman wore beads meant to ease her passage to the afterlife; the teeth of many were filed in patterns distinctive to West and central Africa. Clearly, Old New York, where captives were at times one fifth of the city, was an outpost of Africa in the New World.
In 1993, Perry came to CCSU, and for the first time Connecticut had a resident archaeologist who could recognize African and African American ritual symbols, burial practices, structures, and pottery.
But one of the most startling findings came in a review of public documents. Scouring three hundred years of census records, Perry and his team discovered slaves in 169 Connecticut towns.
“Wherever we look in Connecticut we're finding evidence that links to African captivity,” Sawyer says. “This stuff is readily available, but nobody has put it together.” And these records likely undercount the true number. “An African captive was property. Property was taxed. And we all know what we do to avoid paying taxes, right?”
In 1997, amateur historian Abraham Abdul Haqq of Colchester, Connecticut, told Perry of a possible slave burial ground near Salem, a small town of 4,000 in southeast Connecticut. Perry and Sawyer investigated, and they found foundations, mounds, and a small cemetery of rough stone tombstones with crudely carved initials.
Perry urged Sawyer to make the site the subject of his doctoral thesis. Sawyer found it was once part of New Salem, a 13,000-acre plantation owned by Colonel Samuel Browne of Salem, Massachusetts. From 1718 to 1780 New Salem, as it was called then, held as many as sixty captives. It was one of the largest plantations in New England and would have ranked in the upper tier in the South as well -- barely one in eight of all southern farmers owned more than twenty captives in 1860. Sawyer thinks the cemetery holds nine slaves who lived in the plantation house during the Revolutionary War. Near the tombstones Sawyer found what may be the graves of more New Salem captives -- scores of low cairns resembling West African burial sites. They are dotted with ceramic sherds from the late 1700s and early 1800s; pottery and other objects prized by the deceased such as shells, beads, and drinking vessels are ritually placed on graves in Africa and were common at slave sites elsewhere in the Americas.
New Salem produced meat, wood, and grain for Caribbean sugar plantations, and in Connecticut it was not alone. Records show that Pomfret, a three-thousand acre plantation in Brooklyn, had more than 40 captives tending hundreds of cows, oxen, sheep, goats, and hogs. In Lebanon, one plantation had 28 African captives. The team is investigating a tract with a huge house and barn in Montville, where local families, who can trace their histories back 300 years, recount tales of slave markets.
University of Massachusetts-Amherst archaeologist Robert Paynter says that scholars traditionally have dismissed captives' influence in the Northern economy because they formed a relatively small part of the population as a whole. But these plantations, with their large concentration of captives, reveal that the area's wealth “would not have been generated without these African people's knowledge and hard work.”
Although captives helped build the nation, physical traces of their culture were largely lost. Yet, over the last decade in the North and South, archaeologists have discovered telltale signs. Tucked into crannies of stone foundations, hidden beneath floorboards, and buried in basements are minkisi, sacred objects derived from ritual practices of the Bakongo peoples of West Africa. “Concealment was a big part of this,” says Woodruff, who directs minkisi research at CCSU.
Minkisi (singular: nkisi) are potent charms. Bundled in cloth or grouped in a pot, they summon spirits to heal, curse, or protect from harm. Minkisi can be objects of iron, a substance considered especially powerful, or incised stones, coins, nails, or buttons -- items so seemingly everyday that New England archaeologists long mistook them for trash.
Captives hid minkisi in or near chimneys or under doorways where spirits or their intended target would pass by. They cached them under the corners and the center of rooms to replicate the Bakongo cosmogram, a schematic drawing that depicts the world as a cross with the realm of the living above the cross's horizontal line, the realm of the dead below. At the center a smaller circle represents water that separates the two worlds. White pottery or shiny objects such as glass, quartz crystals, or even coal, can summon spirits to cross the shimmering water.
In 2002, the CCSU summer field school found an nkisi cache in the remains of The Treadway House, a large structure that once dominated a small hilltop settlement in Colchester, Connecticut. Buried in a shallow basement crawl space was a fist-sized chunk of quartz. Its four large crystal points pointed down to the center of the earth, and stacked above it were iron nails, a round iron wheel hub, and a horseshoe, open and facing west toward the setting sun.
Under the front parlor of a historic Stratford, Connecticut house, the team found a mass of pins, many severely bent into irregular loops or z-shapes, perhaps intended to cure arthritis. Beneath an adjoining room an overturned white cup covered an unusual concentration of glass and hand-wrought nails. Underneath the room's exact center lay a cache of small chunks of coal.
The team has enlisted renovation contractors and historical societies to help with their search. After hearing Perry speak, researcher Diane Cameron examined the cellar of the Silas Deane House in Wethersfield, Connecticut. Deane, a prosperous businessman, diplomat, member of the Continental Congress, was a slave owner until his death in 1789. Etched in the stone of his house's cellar wall, above a hidden cache of coal, she found a possible cosmogram ten inches wide.
The glimpses of captivity that Perry and his team have helped bring to light in Connecticut and New York -- the brutalized skeletons, the huge plantations that stoked the Triangle Trade, the hidden spiritual life of captives so long forgotten -- are erasing the region's self-delusion and will alter the way we see ourselves. Thanks to the work of Perry and his team, says the University of Massachusetts' Robert Paytner, “the next 20 years are going to see us understanding the colonial North in a very different way.”
Connecticut is a rich lode for Perry's team to mine, and the demand is accelerating. One day last summer at the lab, while Sawyer sorted artifacts gathered from the homestead of a Native and African American healer, Woodruff fielded an e-mail from Nick Bellantoni, the state archaeologist, asking them to inspect what may be a cosmogram in yet another historic house.
When Bellatoni's message about the possible cosmogram came in, Perry sat down heavily and sighed, wondering aloud how they'd ever find funding or time for it all. Currently he's on sabbatical, racing to finish a report on his findings at the African Burial Ground and The Archaeology of the African Northeast, a book he's writing with Robert Paynter. Now remarried, with another son in the family, he has found acceptance in a less hostile world. But Perry is certain to keep asking hard questions, seeking answers not just for himself, but “so you'll know, so that the world will know, and” he says, with a nod to the African Burial Ground map in the center of the room, so “that these folks in these coffins in New York will know that I tried to answer these questions for them. That's who I'm working for.”
Copyright © 2005 Tom Gidwitz