Yes, There Was Slavery in New York, and a NYC College Has Compiled a Free, Searchable Database From That Terrible Time

A property transaction form showing the sale of “Negro Girl Violet,” as seen as part of the “Slavery in New York” exhibition at the New-York Historical Society Oct. 6, 2005, in New York City. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

For those African Americans who are desperately trying to trace their lineage, or for those history buffs who want to explore this country’s vast legacy of slavery, there is now the first-ever index of those enslaved in New York state dating to as early as 1525 and ending around the Civil War.


The John Jay College of Criminal Justice, part of the City University of New York, has gathered 35,000 records of the enslaved and slave owners and put them in a publicly searchable database, meaning that the records are free and that anyone can access this trove of historical documents, including almost 200 records of people who escaped slavery through the Underground Railroad.

The index includes census records, slave-trade transactions, cemetery records, birth certificates, newspaper accounts and advertisements seeking the capture and return of enslaved New Yorkers, and 1,681 records of enslaved persons delivered by slave ships to the Port of New York from 1715 to 1765, including the names of the owners and investors, according to John Jay College.

As noted by historical website 6sqft, the Port of New York served as the capital of slavery in the United States for nearly 200 years. In fact, before the American Revolution, more enslaved Africans lived in New York City than any place in the Colonies except for South Carolina, with more than 40 percent of New York City’s households owning slaves.

Eventually, however, New York state became an epicenter for abolition efforts, as well as a destination for many of those enslaved who were looking to the North for freedom (including one Harriet Tubman, who escaped slavery in Maryland and eventually made her home in upstate Auburn, N.Y.)


Perhaps ironically, the Jay family, and John Jay specifically, came from a slaveholding family. 6sqft reports:

John Jay, the nation’s first Supreme Court justice and governor of New York for whom the college is named, has a deep-rooted family history of slavery. His grandfather, Augustus Jay, invested in 11 slave ships delivering a total of 108 slaves to the Port of New York between 1717 and 1732. John’s father, Peter, also invested in slave ships, bringing 46 slaves between 1730 and 1733. And although he was an advocate for the abolition of slavery, John owned at least 17 slaves, according to the college.


“The launch of this index marks a significant contribution to understanding and remembering the country’s history of slavery and advances the college’s mission of educating for justice,” said Karol V. Mason, president of John Jay College.

The index was developed and administered by John Jay professors Ned Benton and Judy-Lynne Peters, who were assisted by a team of graduate students in the Master of Public Administration program.


To access the database, including instructions on how to use it, visit its website.

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Angela Helm

Ms. Bronner Helm is a Contributing Editor at The Root. Mouthy Black Girl. Rosalynn Carter Mental Health Fellow. Shea Butter Feminist. Virgo Sun, Aries Moon.