The Limits of Freedom in a Time of Gradual Abolition

The Limits of Freedom in a Time of Gradual Abolition 

African Americans living in the Hudson Valley in the era of the American Revolution and during the first decades of independence worked at a broad variety of tasks, and developed skills just as bound apprentices did. The line between slavery and freedom was not entirely clear for many individuals who were hired out for a term of years, or sold outright without being consulted or ever informed of the details after the fact.[13] The distinction between bondage and freedom, in terms of the day to day experience of nominally free blacks who remained in the same white households in which they had served as slaves during their transition to freedom, was in all likelihood meaningless [14].

At the same time, free black families who rented tenements and “went to housekeeping” together could see their independence disappear with a simple order from one of the Overseers of the Poor. These officials had broad authority under the law to order the removal of individuals, white or black, whom they deemed unable to care for themselves or their families, and whose morality, or status as ‘legally settled’ in a given place was called into question. African American freedom and citizenship, circumscribed as it was by local government officials, was tenuous and often contingent on sponsorship from local whites with whom they had an existing relationship from before their time as free people.

Robert Rutgers, in whose household Sarah Turner stayed for a week in the winter of 1807 to 1808, appeared before the Overseers on a Friday in August of 1809. He told them he “was formerly the slave of Col. Barber who sold him to Jacob Bush, by whom he was sold to Ebenezer Baldwin” for a term of years. “He understood he was manumitted by Bush, and that at present he lives in Poughkeepsie and has a family – and lives in a house of Mr. Boice.” It would be hard to conceive of the anxiety and frustration he must have felt as he set his mark to the page, and impossible to imagine the despair at hearing the judgment of the Overseers as they ordered him “to depart from this town immediately,” only to find a bitter relief in hearing that his previous owner: “Mr Bush says he holds himself liable to maintain [him] if he should be a pauper.”

[13] James Oliver Horton, Free People of Color: Inside the African American Community (Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1993); Shane White, Somewhat More Independent: The End of Slavery in New York City, 1770-1810 (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1991); Arthur Zilversmit, The First Emancipation: The Abolition of Slavery in the North (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1967).

[14] Albert James Williams-Myers, Long Hammering: Essays on the Forging of an African American Presence in the Hudson River Valley to the Early Twentieth Century (Trenton, N.J.: Africa World Press, 1994).

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