While the enslavement of African people was undoubtedly one of the central features of the Southern economy for nearly two centuries, it shouldn’t be forgotten that slavery thrived in all of the original colonies. Enslaved people were auctioned openly in the Market House of Philadelphia, in the shadow of Congregational churches in Rhode Island, in Boston taverns and warehouses and weekly, sometimes daily, in Merchant’s Coffee House of New York. At some point in their lives, such American “heroes” as John Hancock, Benjamin Franklin, Abraham Lincoln (when he was a child his family enslaved people) and William Henry Seward — Lincoln’s anti-slavery secretary of state during the Civil War — owned Black people. These are some of the features of slavery in the North you probably didn’t know.
The Enslaved Population Had Northern Whites Frightened That They Were on the Verge of Insurrection
When the minutemen marched off to face the redcoats in Lexington, Massachusetts, in 1775, the wives, boys and old men they left behind in Framingham took up axes, clubs and pitchforks and barred themselves in their homes because of a widespread, and widely credited, rumor that the local enslaved population planned to rise up and massacre the white inhabitants while the militia was away.
Slavery Could Be Just as Brutal in the North
Practices such as the breeding of enslaved people like animals for market or the crime of enslaved mothers killing their infants testify that slavery’s brutalizing force was at work in New England.
Northerners Attempted to Erase Their Slavery from the History Books
It was possible to read American history textbooks at the high school level in the 1950s and never know that there was such a thing as a slave north of the Mason-Dixon Line.
Families Were Also Torn Apart in Northern Slavery
One Boston ad of 1732, for example, lists a 19-year-old woman and her 6-month-old infant to be sold either “together or apart.” Advertisements for runaways in New York and Philadelphia newspapers sometimes mention suspicions that they had gone off to try to find wives who had been sold to distant purchasers.
Northern Masters Often Differed in How They Treated Older Enslaved People
Colonies had to resort to laws to prevent masters from simply turning their enslaved men and women out in the streets when they grew old or infirm.
New Jersey Held Onto Its Enslaved Population Longer Than the Other Northern States
Though the Revolutionary War broke the Northern slave owners’ power and drained off much of the enslaved population, in New Jersey the population of enslaved people actually increased during the war. Slavery lingered there until the Civil War, with the state reporting 236 enslaved Black people in 1850 and 18 as late as 1860.