When Americans think of slavery, they probably have Souhern plantations in mind.
We are led to believe that slavery was a uniquely southern institution, occurring in the backwards, patriarchal societies of Virginia, Alabama and Georgia. Meanwhile, Northerners were thought of as better educated and more tolerant towards minorities. They were the great liberators, whose spilt blood during the Civil War emancipating millions of enslaved Africans.
However, this version of history is incomplete. Slavery was only abolished in New York in 1827. It was legal there for two centuries. On Long Island, enslaved people of African heritage lived and worked on the farms and homes of any family with means from the mid 1600s to 1827. Many of the streets and buildings in towns we enjoy today were built using slave labor.
The Plain Sight Project, founded by David Rattray of East Hampton and Donnamarie Barnes of Sag Harbor, hopes to educate the East End of Long Island on this forgotten past, as well as, “restore the stories of the enslaved and free people of color to their essential place in American history.” I sat down with Barnes, to discuss the project, the response to it and
Why is it called the Plain Sight Project?
When we started asking questions and uncovering the names of the enslaved, the answers were in fact in plain sight. They were in town records and testaments. I’ve been the curator and activist at Sylvester Manor since 2016, and before that I was a docent and volunteer historian. The mission at the manor has always been to cultivate, preserve and share the histories of all the people at the manor, and to be very transparent of its history and involvement in Northern Slavery. That was something we were already doing; telling the stories of the enslaved people to the extent that we know and always continuing to look for more information. Separately, David wrote an article in The East Hampton Star about the grave of a formerly enslaved man named Ned, who is buried in East Hampton. In the article, he wrote about the excavation of the grave and kind of generalized by saying that we will never know anything more about Ned. Local historians and other people wrote to the editor saying that’s not true. After doing his own research at the East Hampton Library, David discovered that they were right. He then came to the manor and showed me the information he had uncovered with the help of his daughter and niece. They had learned the names of close to 300 enslaved people, which was so exciting and amazing, that I bursted into tears. We have been partners in this ever since.
What year did the project start?
Can you explain the process of how you conduct research, and what would you say is the single most challenging aspect of it?
Well, we do it in two parts. David works in East Hampton and I work in Shelter Island at the manor. We donated up to 10,000 documents to the Fales Library Special Archive at New York University. They preserved and digitized many of the records. I find information by going on their finding guide and reading the documents. Within the manor house, there are thousands of documents, letters and mentions of slavery and I find information that way as well. East Hampton is the same process; looking through the town records. Last wills and testaments are always useful. Which in turn, is the hardest part. It is time consuming and sometimes difficult to interpret the handwriting. You do get a feel for it after doing it a while. And both David and I have full time jobs (laughs).
That makes it harder! You’ve said that the 500 enslaved individuals that you have identified so far probably only represents a third of the total enslaved on the East End of Long Island. How do you know this?
Well, the fact that our research so far only encompasses East Hampton, the manor and a little bit of Shelter Island. There are people doing similar work on the North Fork and they say that they have 500 names. We haven’t started the project in Southampton, Bridgehampton or Sag Harbor. There are other townships and villages on the East End that we have not really started to look at. That’s where we are now. We’d love to get schools involved because it would be a great student project, but that’s difficult because this is not really in their curriculum as of now and the pandemic only makes it harder. We aren’t able to go on site to look at documents right now. So yes, we have only scratched the surface because there are other places to explore.
What were some of the most common features of slavery in East Hampton? Did most people own slaves? What were common jobs for slaves?
Well first off, we are not really taught the local history or about slavery in the North. It’s skimmed over, but never anything in depth. Many of the street names in East Hampton are named after founding families, such as Buell Lane, Dayton Lane, Gardiner Street, Osborne Lane and Payne Avenue. And this isn’t a flippant comment to make: If you had a street named after you, you owned slaves. That’s how common it was. If you owned any sized property, had a farm, owned a business, you used slaves. These aren’t huge numbers. We’re not talking “Gone with the Wind.” Not 600 enslaved people working the field. It was two at the blacksmith shop, three at the shoemakers, four at the butchers, two helping the master craftsman. It’s ones and twos and threes. But it’s every house. When you walk down historical Main Street in East Hampton, it’s bucolic and beautiful. It’s been named one of the nicest streets in America.The history jumps at you. But nowhere in that history is the evidence of the presence of African-descended people. After the abolition of slavery in New York in 1827, the fomer slaves started to leave the area mostly for economic reasons, but also for social ones. They left for New York City and Brooklyn. But from the 1640s to the 1820s, there were Black people here and they played a major part in constructing our communities. And that is a sentence that is not normally a part of the conversation. All this stuff we are uncovering is to educate people. Once we tell you this information, you can’t unlearn or unhear it. You cannot walk down Main Street in quite the same way.
Yes, after learning about slavery in East Hampton, it’s impossible to walk the streets and not acknowledge or even be ashamed of this dark aspect of our history that isn’t ever brought up.
It is interesting you say dark. It is a dark part because the people were brought here against their will and held in bondage. That’s the cruelty. That’s the horror. However, they survived. They are survivors. They built our towns. They built something that has a lasting legacy. And that’s not dark. That’s brilliant.
Right, and it’s important to recognize them for this work.
Exactly. It is a pride that we can all have. I say this all the time when it comes to Black history. It is not only Black history. It is all of our history. Black history is the history of Long Island and of America. We are not trying to make anyone feel ashamed or to place blame on people. We just want to include Black people in the story. This is a more complete picture, and one that we should celebrate.
I didn’t know anything about Native American slavery on Long Island before finding your project. Can you talk about this?
The project still has a lot to uncover about Native American servitude. Shelter Island, for example, was the indigenous home of the Manhanset people. The island was bought by European settlers, including Nathaniel Sylvester. They paid the Manhanset people to leave the island. We believe that as a part of the agreement, the Manhanset people that decided to stay on Shelter Island would be forced to work for the provisioning plantation, which was Sylvester Manor. It was a sort of coercion. It was not technically slavery, but it was conditional to living and working on the land. As far as we know right now, there is no evidence of ownership of a person. But Native Americans were certainly indentured servants, even after the abolition of slavery in New York in 1827.
I’ve heard Mr. Rattray and you say in lectures that many of the slave names you’ve uncovered were reused throughout generations. Does this have any significance, and does it make your research more difficult?
(Laughs) A little! The names were reused. We don’t know if it’s because names stayed in the same family or were just common names at the time. Many of the names have Biblical roots. For example, we’ll find someone named Japheth, and then we’ll find another Japeth, but there will be no connection between the two aside from the shared name. There are many named Sarah, Hannah, Abigail. Simone is a common name, and we believe it has African roots. Cato, Mingo and Comas are also names that keep coming up. You might think these names would be singular, but no.
What is one of the most interesting things you have learned since you started the project?
I think the most interesting thing we have encountered are the reactions from people when we tell them about this history. We’ve never gotten a negative response, really. People seem really thirsty for this information, knowledge and history. And that’s across the board. White and Black, young and old. It’s the kind of thing, as I said, now that you know, you can’t unknow. And learning how extensive the history of slavery on Long Island is was surprising and shocking. David grew up here and I grew up summering in Sag Harbor, and we had no idea of this history. The most satisfying part is finding the name of an enslaved person and then finding their name in another document. That person may disappear after that, but finding the name somewhere else makes their stories come alive.
Yeah, that must feel amazing. Have you been able to track any descendants of Long Island slaves?
Not yet. I think the more we talk about it, someone will come forward! Maybe the story has been passed down in their families or they know the names of their ancestors. Again, it is a slow process. Hopefully the descendant part comes because that will be extraordinary for everyone.