Exploring the Rhetoric of Slave Bills of Sale before and after Gradual Manumission
Exploring the Rhetoric of Slave Bills of Sale before and after Gradual Manumission

Students conduct a close analysis of slave bills of sale and indentures to better understand the legal and social history of manumission in the north.

Students conduct a close analysis of slave bills of sale and indentures to better understand the legal and social history of manumission in the north.

Introduction

This exercise asks students to do close analysis of slave bills of sale and indentures in the context of the 1799 New York State Gradual Manumission Act. The law granted freedom to enslaved people born after July 4, 1799; however, they were mandated to remain in servitude until the age of 25 for females and 28 for males. Slave owners across New York state were critical of this law, perhaps none more than in agricultural Kings and Queens Counties. In 1790, 30% of Kings County residents were of African descent and the overwhelming majority of them were enslaved.

Students examine one bill of sale from before passage of the law, and an indenture from after 1799 (but before 1827 when slavery was abolished in the state). The language of these documents is brief and transactional whereas post-1799 indentures often recognize slavery as more temporary or conditional.

By asking students to transcribe the documents, this exercise forces them to read more slowly and carefully than they usually do. More importantly, it instills in students a sense of engagement and purpose that they do not often show in a first-year composition course.

The exercise allows students to see how the 1799 Act made a difference in the lives of the individuals named in the archival documents. The realization that the paper in their hands signified the sale of a human being produces a deeper appreciation for the experiences of enslaved people. They also understand that the documents they examine are probably the sole remaining record of the lives of these individuals.

Objectives

Students should be able to:

  • Accurately transcribe 18th- and early 19th-century manuscripts
  • Identify the individuals named in the documents and their roles, and analyze the power dynamics involved in their relationships
  • Articulate the relationship between archival documents and key legislation, including the New York State 1799 Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery

Context

Students read the introduction and chapter 1 of Marcus Rediker’s The Slave Ship: A Human History to learn about the transatlantic slave trade.

Before visiting the archives, students read the text of the 1799 Act as homework and discuss it in class.

We also provide students with a timeline which outlines key dates and events in the history of slavery in New York. They can refer to this before, during, and after the visit to the archives.

Teachers might also consider pairing this exercise with slave narratives such as Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass; federal legislation like the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments; or the writings of enlightenment thinkers like Voltaire and Rousseau.

Visit

Number of Visits: 1
Duration of Visit: 1 hour

Agenda

15 minutes


5 minutes
Short review


15 minutes
Small group work


25 minutes
Wrap up


After introductions, archives staff lead students in a review and analysis of the 1799 Act.

Students work in groups of 3 or 4 to study a pair of documents (one pre-1799, and one post) pre-selected by the professor. Students are guided through the exercise by a handout.

They begin by examining the physical attributes of the documents. They read the documents aloud and transcribe them (educators should encourage students to take turns so that everyone has a chance to read the handwriting). After the transcriptions are complete, students discuss and analyze the documents based on the pointed questions in the handout.

Wrap Up

The class reconvenes and each group informally shares their initial analyses based on the notes they took on their handout.

To ensure that all students understand the change in legal language about slavery, faculty then lead the whole class in an examination of a pair of pre- and post-1799 documents on a large screen (this can be done by either using a document camera or by including photographs of documents in a PowerPoint).

End Products

In-Class Presentations

In the subsequent class period, groups will have 30 minutes to prepare a more formal 10 minute in-class presentation based on their work in the archives.

Blog Posts

After visiting the archives, students post on the class blog. See prompts here.

Response Paper

Students are assigned a response paper. See prompt and rubric here.

Archival Materials Used

Group 1

Bill of sale for Jin, 1777; Hubbard family papers, 1974.044, box 1, folder 11; Brooklyn Historical Society. click for image

Bill of sale for Jin, 1782; Stoothoff family collection, ARC.150, box 1, folder 17; Brooklyn Historical Society. click for image

Indenture for Grace, 1816; Lefferts family papers, ARC.145, box 3, folder 9; Brooklyn Historical Society. click for image

*This group has three documents because we identified two pre-1799 bills of sale for the same person, a woman named Jin.

Group 2
Slave bill of sale for Anna, 1751; Lefferts family papers, ARC.145, box 3, folder 9; Brooklyn Historical Society.

Slave indenture for Mercy, 1814; Lefferts family papers, ARC.145, box 3, folder 9; Brooklyn Historical Society.

Group 3
Slave bill of sale for Pegg, 1797; Teunis G. Bergen collection of Van Brunt family genealogy papers, 1978.157, series 3, folder 11; Brooklyn Historical Society.

Slave indenture for Susan, 1819; Teunis G. Bergen collection of Van Brunt family genealogy papers, 1978.157, series 3, folder 11; Brooklyn Historical Society.

Further Reading

“An Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery.” In Jim Crow New York, A Documentary History of Race and Citizenship 1777-1877, eds. David N. Gellman and David Quigley, 52-55. New York: New York University Press, 2003.

The New York State Archives has a zoomable version of the original document online.

Katz, Robin M. and Julie Golia. “Finding Hidden Personal Stories in Legal and Financial Records.” In Teaching with Primary Sources: Hands On Instructional Exercises., eds. Anne Bahde, Heather Smeadberg, Mattie Taormina. Englewood, CO: Libraries Unlimited Forthcoming.

This exercise was based on an activity developed for the 2011 SAFA Summer Institute at Brooklyn Historical Society, and published in this book.

Rediker, Marcus. The Slave Ship: A Human History. New York: Viking Penguin, 2007.

Staples, Brent. “To Be a Slave in Brooklyn.” New York Times, 24 June 2001.

Our students read a short article which discusses how scholars use archeological evidence to learn about the experiences of enslaved people in Brooklyn.


To cite this page:
William Burgos, Sara Campbell, and Deborah Mutnick, “Exploring the Rhetoric of Slave Bills of Sale before and after Gradual Manumission,” TeachArchives.org, accessed [insert date here], http://wwww.teacharchives.org/exercises/gradual-manumission/.

Authors

William Burgos
Director of Writing Across the Curriculum
LIU Brooklyn
view author bio >
Sara Campbell
Adjunct Professor of English
LIU Brooklyn
view author bio >
Deborah Mutnick
Professor of English and Co-Director of Learning Communities
LIU Brooklyn
view author bio >

Used In

English 16C: Pathways to Freedom

An accelerated English composition class for first-year students who need help completing the requirement. We each teach a section in a learning community along with a world history course.

Adaptability

This can be adapted for use at the secondary school level and across several disciplines, including literature, history, and social studies.

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