New-York Historical Society

Black History Month – 18th Century

The position of African-Americans during the American Revolution was complicated by the incongruous conceptions of freedom held by American colonists. Fears about what arming African-Americans and promises of freedom might do to the institution of slavery meant limited interest in attracting blacks to actively contribute to the cause. This reticence gave ample opportunity to the British to foment slave unrest in the colonies, and to attract larger numbers of slaves and free blacks to their ranks. As a result, many runaway slaves flocked to British-held New York seeking a chance at freedom. A large number of those who made it served non-combat roles as drivers and laborers as shown in the image below.

Minutes of the British Board of General Officers, New York, 1781.

Still, while not always officially encouraged to enlist, blacks served on the American side throughout the war, albeit in smaller numbers than on the British side. On March 20, 1781, the New York State General Assembly passed a bill (documented in the assembly journal below) which included in its sixth article a provision to entice slave owners to contribute male slaves to continental regiments, entitling the owners to a land grant as remuneration.

Journal of the New York State General Assembly, 20 March 1781.

Under the provision, the slaves themselves who served out their three years, or were discharged, would be rewarded with their freedom. Below is the published text of the complete bill, showing article VI.

Laws of the State of New-York, 20 March 1781, volume 1, 1st – 15th sessions.

If you are interested in examining other material relating to the history of African-Americans in New York, we strongly suggest visiting the recently-completed Slavery Digital Project. The site contains digital images of fourteen N-YHS manuscript collections that relate to slavery.

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