A Gradual Emancipation (1783 – 1827)

The American Revolution birthed a paradox. As patriots championed their own freedom from the British they continued to enslave people of African descent. Brooklyn was the slaveholding capital of
New York State.
But anti-slavery sentiment grew in the early republic. Many enslaved people of African descent and white Quakers used the rhetoric of the Revolutionary War to demand civil rights and broaden the ideology of freedom. As a result, manumissions, anti-slavery societies and free black communities expanded across the North. The constitutions of Vermont (1777) and Massachusetts (1783) forbade slavery, and Pennsylvania (1780) Rhode Island (1784), and Connecticut (1784) all passed gradual emancipation laws.

This was not the case in Brooklyn or Kings County, NY, a slaveholding capital. Following the American Revolution, slavery actually strengthened in Kings County, unlike neighboring Manhattan, Philadelphia, and Boston. Enslaved labor was essential to the county’s growing agricultural economy and prosperity.

Finally, in 1799, New York State enacted a Gradual Emancipation Act. It was the second to last Northern state to begin the dismantling of slavery. The law stated that all children born to enslaved mothers after July 4, 1799 would be free at the age of 28 if male, and 25 if female. Slavery had no end date for those born prior to 1799. In 1817, a further act stipulated that slavery would come to an absolute end on July 4, 1827.

Gradual emancipation lasted 28 years and there was no guarantee of equality at its end. But as long as slavery existed so did the desire to be free and enslaved people found ways to resist their oppression. They were assisted by a small, but significant, free black community who resided in the town of Brooklyn. These pioneers represented the first wave of anti-slavery activists.