The Impact of Black Self-Emancipation on Slavery in Northern Colonial America

Friday, January 6, 2017: 1:30 PM
Centennial Ballroom A (Hyatt Regency Denver)
Graham Russell Gao Hodges, Colgate University
This paper employs regional and temporal approaches to historicize black self-emancipation in the northern Dutch, English and French colonies and Native Peoples regions from roughly 1610-1775. I examine colonial and imperial legislation, runaway notices, diaries and letters, use important secondary materials to analyze enslaved flight. By studying such personal characteristics as, age, sex, personalities, skills, and destinations, I construct the circumstances of how and why  indentured and enslaved people fled their masters and mistresses.  I trace examples of “interracialism,” or flight by blacks and whites, enabled by sympathetic whites and Native Peoples. Using Manisha Sinha’s argument of  “fugitive abolition,” and  by focusing intently on the self-emancipated, I illuminate the early history of the Underground Railroad, long before the abolitionist movement as currently understood.  In my argument, the self-emancipated shaped their own form of abolitionism.  Colonial laws in the seventeenth century Massachusetts and New Netherlands passed legislation barring black self-emancipation through escape and negotiated with each other to curb such flight. Slave codes constructed after 1676 in the north made chattel bondage the nearly universal status of blacks even as their economic roles differed from the south. The bulk of northern enslaved people worked on small farms, in towns, on ocean vessels and, in New France, in forests. Undeniably the numbers of enslaved peoples in the north jumped dramatically. Accordingly, there was a sizable increase in self-emancipation by flight. Other instances were the product of warfare.  I will tie self-emancipation to major events and patterns in colonial history.  Overall the paper historicizes how colonial self-emancipated people shaped the later debate over slavery.
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