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Erased from History? 10 Things You Didn’t Know About Slavery in the North

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.

What people are saying

43 thoughts on “Erased from History? 10 Things You Didn’t Know About Slavery in the North

  1. Teresa Tobin says:

    Fascinating! Thank you for the history lesson.

  2. AND jungle fever was born

  3. Keith Stokes says:

    The article fails to fully recognize the economic, civic & religious achievements of Africans in early New England.

  4. Tamara Digginditches Graham says:

    it doesn't. It wasn't for that purpose

  5. Lee John says:

    us against the world

  6. Alton Anthony Ramage says:

    Mr. Chiles , thank you for this article, and very well researched. It was a institutionalized American sin North and South. I dislike revised history, for political gain. History must be told the way it was, not people's fantasy land.

  7. Since 2010, I have spent a night in the slave dwellings at the Bush-Holley House House in Greenwich, Connecticut; Cliveden in Philadelphia; and The Royall House & Slave Quarters in Medford, Massachusetts. It is still a challenge convincing some that slavery existed in northern states.

  8. Bhrenda Drakeford says:

    Thank you Joseph. As I grew up in a historical section of Pennsylvania. Yes. We did not know anything about slaves in Pennsylvania. There is a African Historical Center in Philly which is where I got my information from. Never learned anything in public school. My father said they were made to read the book. Uncle Tom's Cabin out loud in elementary school in Pennsylvania.

  9. Ida Atkins says:

    I would like to thank Mr. Chiles for his article and bringing light to truths that have been buried for far too long! There is still much more that needs to be put out there but this is an artfully written piece that gives insight to all of the history instead of just what the North wanted people to know. Another piece of interest is that when the Emancipation Proclamation was given the slaves were not all immediately set free in the North. In fact some New England States did not actually remove the old slave laws from their books until after the turn of the Century. I believe it as in fact Massachusetts that was the last slave holding state to formally end slavery around the 1890's. I am not absolute on the date but know that it was many years after the war ended.

  10. Blake Hayner says:

    White men and women are invited to discuss with love our privilege and racist American history in a safe unconditional website.

    It is a gift when a person of color speaks about their experiences with racism and it is not their responsibility either. It is white peoples responsibility to know the facts and to own our racism through education of white supremacy in America then and now.

    Be the change!

  11. Levi Wilson says:

    It's no doubt the North tries to predent to be the less racist portion of the country but since moving to New York I have noticed more racist sentiment here and in New England than in all my years living in Kentucky.

  12. DC Morrison says:

    This helps to shed further light on our history. It should serve to whet ones appetite for more information, but continue to do research on your own. Blacks also owned slaves in this country!!

  13. Charles Neely says:

    Tamara Digginditches Graham wow so much i didnt know about the north

  14. Marc Wesley says:

    If I know people, I know this: Some people are going to take this as a vindication of the southern states. The southern states were no better at slavery than the northern ones. And, no matter what anyone might say, slavery was more firmly entrenched and heinous in the South than in the North, because it was centered, headquartered and practiced more ferociously in the southern states, who alienated themselves from the United States, primarily because they refused to give up practicing slavery. Even today, racism, which is the only way the practice of owning black people and working them to death without any compensation could have happened, is significantly more widespread in the grand old South.

  15. While it is true that some free blacks owned was because they bought relatives and spouses whom they did not have the power to free for a certain period of time..depending on the state law..

  16. Katherine Carter says:

    Everyone should watch Goodbye Uncle Tom

  17. Bridgette Alexander says:

    Nope, I tried. I don't know who made that movie but OMG! That was one movie I could not handle.

  18. Lamouria Boyd says:

    As a Midwestern native, I observed the same.

  19. Kiesha Marie McNeal says:

    Abraham Lincoln did not own slaves his family was to poor

  20. Rhonda Gilbert says:

    That topic is for a different article. This article's focus was limited to the existence of slavery in the north.

  21. Rhonda Gilbert says:

    Lois Stewart Nelson Not always the case in free blacks owning slaves. Some owned slaves for the same reasons that some whites owned slaves. There are some excellent books and articles on the subject (Henry Louis Gates wrote a great article on the subject).

  22. BigfishCasino Henn says:

    The past is terrible, but please let us also realise that slavery is still here. Nowadays there are still an estimated 30 million slaves!

  23. John Lindsay says:

    The following story about the DeWulf family in Bristol, Rhode Island, appeared on the CBS Morning News about 6 or so years ago.
    Two descendants of the family, one Black and one White, also were on the show.

    "James DeWolf of Bristol, Rhode Island (1764-1837) was a United States senator and a wealthy merchant who, at the time of his death, was reported to be the second richest person in the country.

    He was also the leading slave trader in the history of the United States.

    Over fifty years and three generations, from 1769 to 1820, James DeWolf and his extended family brought approximately 12,000 enslaved Africans across the Middle Passage, making the DeWolf family our nation’s most successful slave-trading family.

    In the 1790s and early 1800s, DeWolf and his brothers virtually built the economy of Bristol, Rhode Island: many of the buildings they funded still stand, and the stained glass windows at St. Michael’s Episcopal Church bear DeWolf names to this day. Across the generations, their family has included state legislators, philanthropists, writers, scholars, and Episcopal bishops and priests."

    For much more see:

    "The enslavement of Africans was business for more than just the DeWolf family.

    It was a cornerstone of Northern commercial life. The Triangle Trade drove the economy of many port cities (Rhode Island had the largest share in the trade of any state), and slavery itself existed in the North for over 200 years.

    Northern textile mills used slave-picked cotton from the South to fuel the Industrial Revolution, while banks and insurance companies played a key role throughout the period. While the DeWolfs were one of only a few “slaving” dynasties, the network of commercial activities that they were tied to involved an enormous portion of the Northern population.
    Many citizens, for example, would buy shares in slave ships in order to make a profit.

  24. John Lindsay says:

    The practice of PEONAGE re-enslaved many African Americans…and children as young as 6 years old…..lasting up to the 1940s…and in some places even longer.

    "Peonage, also called debt slavery or debt servitude, is a system where an employer compels a worker to pay off a debt with work. Legally, peonage was outlawed by Congress in 1867. However, after Reconstruction, many Southern black men were swept into peonage though different methods, and the system was not completely eradicated until the 1940s.

    In some cases, employers advanced workers some pay or initial transportation costs, and workers willingly agreed to work without pay in order to pay it off. Sometimes those debts were quickly paid off, and a fair wage worker/employer relationship established.

    In many more cases, however, workers became indebted to planters (through sharecropping loans), merchants (through credit), or company stores (through living expenses). Workers were often unable to re-pay the debt, and found themselves in a continuous work-without-pay cycle.

    But the most corrupt and abusive peonage occurred in concert with southern state and county government.

    In the south, many black men were picked up for minor crimes or on trumped-up charges, and, when faced with staggering fines and court fees, forced to work for a local employer would who pay their fines for them. Southern states also leased their convicts en mass to local industrialists. The paperwork and debt record of individual prisoners was often lost, and these men found themselves trapped in inescapable situations."
    For more see:

  25. John Lindsay says:

    "more racist sentiment here and in New England than in all my years living in Kentucky."

    JL: What?

    I live in Klantucky….and that's hard to believe.

  26. John Lindsay says:

    You're missing the point, Marc.

    The article didn't indicate anything about which region –north or south–was the worst or most pervasive in the practice of slavery.

    Just that….slavery existed in the North, TOO.

  27. John Lindsay says:

    "Interesting" comment for a member of the Facebook forum, Sons of Confederate Veterans.

  28. John Lindsay says:

    True….but….some poor Whites managed to save their money and "rented-an-enslaved-person-for-a-day."

  29. John Lindsay says:

    True, DC, and I have a book describing it.

    However, they were NOT whipped to within an inch of their lives; women/teen girls and even younger ones were NOT raped; not burned; lynched; etc.

  30. John Lindsay says:

    Around the world, J. Tucker.

    However, many people in the U.S. continue to inherit money from the days of slavery as well as many corporations.
    Heck, the Industrial Revolution was financed by the profits from slavery.

  31. Dania Bogle says:

    Black Americans time to stop acting like victims.

  32. John Bachman says:

    I certainly understand that the controlling race of this country had made some awful decisions regarding their minority populations. As a child of the 60's I was raised by two progressive parents who did not hide the injustices of the world form us. I was also aware of the history of slavery in the north though this moral equivalency argument does seem to fall flat when one considers the 110,000 Union combat fatalities and the additional 200,000 or so that were felled by disease and imprisonment. The blood price paid by Northern soldiers to advance the freedom of their fellow Black citizens was certainly not inconsequential and should be mentioned as well when one chooses to point out the sins of our fathers.

  33. Blake Hayner says:

    Pathologizing people of color is a white privilege. If white people like me and you were faced with violence everyday by people of color because of our whiteness we to would feel like victim. The truth is being white protects me from police violence everyday.

    I live in Chicago and I was driving in a black neighborhood in the cities West side the residents fearfully call their neighborhood "The Wild Wild West" because of all the shootings that occur everyday and night.

    It was night time I wasn't wearing my seat-belt and I had no proof of insurance two laws that are fiercely enforced by the Chicago Police. I ran a stop sign in front of a cop going 45 MPH in a 25 MPH zone. The police pulled me over immediately and scared I parked in front of a man and his wife about to pull out from the curb.

    The man and woman were black and they became angered and honked their horn at me to move. By then the two white police officers were standing by my car both with their guns drawn expecting a problem.

    The cop on the drivers side holstered his gun and politely asked me for my insurance card and my license not having my insurance card I gave him my license and promised him that I had insurance just no proof. The other cop had gone back to the car that I was blocking in and warned the man and woman to shut up and wait for them to finish with me.

    The other cop after running my license handed it back to me and cracked a joke about the couple I was blocking in saying, "those people don't care about being courteous their all like that."

    The cop's didn't even give me a warning and sent me on my way. As I pulled out I could hear one of the cops on the loudspeaker telling the couple to "Cool It!" I felt lucky at first and then it hit me that I was a white man and I got away because of my white privilege.

    If I were a person of color I would have most likely gone to jail or gotten at least three tickets if I survived at all. I know that because I am aware of the violence that faces people of color everyday. If I were black and looked to long at a cop I could become a target of bad cop with glory in his eyes.

    Dania, you too can help by becoming conscious of your white privilege.

  34. It makes no sense to fight the war, pay a blood price, then support segregation, jim crowism, lynchings.

  35. And do what Dania? Go to college, but get shot to death by police, for driving while black. Go, to work, and the bank to deposit your earnings, to only get savagely beaten by police, because you scared a white woman. The crime? Banking while black. Or, move into an up scale neighborhood, send the kids to the poo,l only to have weapons drawn upon them, and them brutalized by the police, for the crime of swimming while black. Stop supporting the victimizaton of blacks before you disparage them as victims.

  36. Interesting article – too bad there are no cites, references or backup to make it really really ring true!

  37. Tom Warnock says:

    So many folks don't want to learn any more about slavery in this country, they already have all the knowledge they need to be experts in the subject.

  38. Tom Warnock says:

    But Lincholn certainly didn't like black folks! Do some research.

  39. Zane Smith says:

    Where does your data on Lincoln's family come from? His father actually moved them from Kentucky to Indiana when he was forced to serve on SLave Patrols. I have studied Lincoln, his life and times, for going on 30 years and have never seen, nor read anything that supports the claim that his immediate family owned a slave at any point during HIS life. They were dirt-poor, hard-scrabble farmers, and as much as it cost to purchase a slave, I believe your evidence is flawed.

    US Grant, DID own a slave. He was willed the young man, by an uncle I think, but all contemporaniuos evidence indicates that he regraded the man as a friend and equal, even to the point of allowing him to call him by his first name, and he legally freed the man before the Civil War began.

  40. Is it more significant that Northern Colonies had Slaves, or that they stopped Slavery in the North for the most part and that Slavery was ended by the Civil War that had casualties of more than 100,000 lives?

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