Slavery in North Brooklyn

July 4 is the 193rd anniversary of the end of slavery in New York. Prior to 1827 Kings County – then a collection of 6 towns (Brooklyn, Bushwick, Flatbush, Flatlands, New Utrecht and Gravesend) – had the largest number of enslaved persons in the state.

In 1698, Kings County had a population of 2,015, 293 of whom (15%) were enslaved. The Town of Bushwick (comprising today’s Bushwick, Williamsburg (north of Division) and Greenpoint) had a population of 301 in 1698, 52 of whom (17%) were enslaved.

In 1738, the Town of Bushwick had a population of 325, 77 of whom (24%) were Black. The 1738 census doesn’t enumerate enslaved persons, but it is reasonable to assume that all or nearly all of the 77 Blacks were not free.

A 1755 “census of slaves” for New York State counted 41 enslaved persons in Bushwick. Total population was not recorded, and the count appears not to be complete.

In the 1790 US census (the first for the new country), the Town of Bushwick had a total population of 540, 171 of whom (32%) we enslaved persons. 5 people were recorded as “other free” (i.,e., not “white” and not “slave”). Likely some of those were Black.

In 1800, the Town of Bushwick had a total population of 666, 199 of whom (30%) were enslaved persons. 34 people were counted under “All other free persons”, and by this time it is likely that some were Black. It is possible that up to 1/3 of Bushwick was Black in 1800.

In 1810, the Town of Bushwick had a population of 800, 147 of whom (18%) were enslaved persons. Another 59 persons were counted as “other free persons”. Based on this, up to 1/4 of Bushwick was Black in 1810.

Why the decrease in enslaved persons? NY state laws already limited slavery, and the owning of slaves was already being looked upon as a cruel relic. But, significantly for Bushwick the western part of Bushwick was being developed as a village – Williamsburgh – starting the transition from agrarian to urban. The population was tiny (100 or 200?) in 1810 but the establishment of the village was already removing acres of farmland.

This trend continues in 1820, when the population of the Town of Bushwick had grown to 1,072, of whole 120 (11%) were enslaved persons and 63 (6%) were “free colored”. About 2/3 of the free Black were counted as part of white households (some of which also included enslaved persons). There were only three families of free Blacks in 1820, headed by Thomas Thompson, Jack Portland and George Rictas.

In 1830, the Town of Bushwick had a population of 1,520, of whom 164 (11%) were Black (all free, following emancipation in 1827). 20% of the Black population was enumerated as part of a white household. But over 100 Blacks, in 27 households, lived independently.

By this time, the Village of Williamsburgh had been incorporated (also in 1827), accounting for almost all the growth in the Town’s population. The Black population of Williamsburgh was 97 (about 2/3 the Bushwick total), and 21 of the Black families lived in Williamsburgh, indicative of a sizable Black population (10% of the village total). Up to the Civil War, Williamsburgh had a sizable Black population, active in the abolitionist movement. But that’s another story…