Say My Name



It's hard to credit the fact that even in the wake of the Civil Rights movement in this country, so much ignorance persists of the people Woody Holton, an American history professor and writer, calls “forced founders.” While it is true that, finally, large-scale research projects have been done at the plantations owned by our Southern presidents—Washington, Jefferson, and Madison—to exhume the names and identities of the enslaved people there who were indispensable in building the estates of the founding fathers, similar research in other parts of the country has been slower to appear. That is especially true in the Northeast, where an attitude of naïveté has prevailed: Who, us?

Here in East Hampton, David Rattray, the editor of The East Hampton Star, with research elbow grease supplied by a team of teenagers—including his daughter Adelia Rattray, his niece Bryley Williams, and a young friend, Mercy Bauer—aims to uncover as many names as possible of the enslaved Americans who once lived right here in East Hampton, as well as of the indentured servants and Native Americans who also were pressed into labor for the settlers. 

Contrary to the received wisdom, people were enslaved not just by ruling-class families like the Gardiners of Gardiner’s Island, but by all the relatively prosperous families of Main Street. This was true in East Hampton and across the South Fork.

You may have heard of “citizen scientists,” regular folks who make it a hobby to document, say, the migration patterns of birds or fluctuating temperatures in a neighborhood pond, adding to the data available to actual, professional scientists. This unfolding project is the brainchild of “citizen historians.” It was sparked by the restoration of an 1817 gravesite on Morris Park Lane, East Hampton, belonging to a “negro manservant” named Ned, in 2016. Ned was a freeman, or “free black,” at the time of his death, but slavery was still going strong here during his lifetime. 

Ned’s was the first name to be resurrected from the obscurity of East Hampton’s own willful historical amnesia.  

The effort picked up steam in 2017, when Bryley Williams, then 16, spent a few weeks of her summer vacation digging into the surviving primary sources. 

 “When people think of slavery, they don’t usually think of East Hampton, even though there was a large number of enslaved people in the town and in New York more generally,” Williams said recently. “[Last summer], we compiled a list of over 200 names of enslaved and formerly enslaved people. Where did they go? And where did their stories go?

With three teenagers now onboard, the team has been working hard and has so far managed to trace the continuous presence of slavery in East Hampton from 1685—when a white man, Peter Benson, was paid two shillings for the work of his unnamed “negro” at mending highways—up through 1829, when a 14-year-old black girl named Tamer was sold by David Baker Jr. to John Hedges with the proviso that she be enslaved until the age of 18. 

Last month, Adelia Rattray, 17, identified the earliest name of an enslaved East Hampton resident yet recovered, when she was examining the will of Josiah Hobart: He left a child named Flora to his wife in 1707. 

As of press time, the list of East Hampton’s enslaved residents numbered 320, and counting.

Sarah Luisa Parker, née Joseph, was born in East Hampton in 1837—a “free person of color,” according to sources. She married a minister from Virginia named John W. Parker, and they raised a family in Eastville. This 19th-century tintype, now in the collection of the Eastville Historical Society, is one of the earliest images of an African-American resident of East Hampton. Given the ratio of African-Americans who were enslaved versus those who were free in her parents’ generation, it is very highly likely that Parker was the child or grandchild of an enslaved parent. Perhaps the East Hampton project will soon  be able to shed light on that question.

The North has always had a bit of a superior attitude vis-à-vis the South when it comes to our American history of racism. Many Northerners prefer to believe that slavery really existed only in the South, and that while Northern merchants may have profited, most Northerners were righteous abolitionists. But slavery was an everyday reality of colonial life in the North, too. Everyone was involved.

It has been estimated that more than 40,000 men, women, and children were enslaved in the port cities and family farms of the colonial North in the 18th century. One of every five people living in New York City in 1740 was owned by another New Yorker. Ten years later, there were 11,014 enslaved individuals in the Colony of New York alone.

The aim of the East Hampton project is to bring slavery into the present-day conversation, so that, together as a community, we can better understand the country we have become.

The Deep South, of course, was mainly agrarian, and slavery there—at least on the large cotton and sugar plantations near the coast or along the Mississippi—was generally on a mightier and more all-encompassing scale. Nearly 4 million Americans were held in bondage in the South in 1860. This is where we get our preconceived notions about what slavery was like: the fetid cabins, the grotesque public auctions, the overseer with his whip. . . . 

Slavery here in the North remains more difficult to envision. Some of the people enslaved on Long Island worked as farmhands, but others did daily chores in small households or worked alongside their so-called “master,” who might be, say, an artisan wheelwright, sailmaker, or cobbler. Instead of living among hundreds of others in a row of sweltering plantation cabins, East Hampton’s enslaved residents were more likely to have slept in the eaves and attics of modest saltbox houses like those you see still standing at Mulford Farm and Home, Sweet Home Museum.

Slavery ended in the North before it ended in the South; by 1804, all of the Northern states had passed laws abolishing it. But the emancipation process here was slow—slow by design. Connecticut, for instance, declared in 1784 that the children of enslaved parents would be granted their freedom once they turned 25.

According to Sarah L. H. Gronningsater, an assistant professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania who has done research at the East Hampton Library, New York State’s emancipation process was unique in that, with a law enacted in 1817, all enslaved people were promised freedom. “An 1810 New York law requiring that masters provide the children of slaves gradual emancipation with some rudimentary schooling was also unique,” she says.

According to Professor Gronningsater, whose main academic subjects are enslaved children and gradual emancipation, “although other towns and counties have in recent years made some serious efforts to uncover the lives of slaves and free black people in their locales,” those projects may not be to the scale of the ambitious East Hampton project spearheaded by Rattray and his teenage team.

Those working on it have one overriding goal: to “rewrite the narrative,” as young Williams puts it, to spark public conversation and engage residents of all races and ages in reconsidering our founding mythology and in acknowledging the contributions that the enslaved made here in East Hampton.

The project has gotten a big boost from Dennis Fabiszak, the director of the East Hampton Library, who has partner up on it. The library is applying for a private, discretionary grant from State Senator Kenneth LaValle, hoping to secure funds to finish the research. Andrea Meyer and Gina Piastuck of the library’s Long Island Collection have also pitched in, guiding the crew through the handling of ancient census documents, wills, and church records of baptisms and deaths. The research methods will be vetted by scholars. 

What happens next will be determined by the public. 

“We [will] seek consensus among community and religious leaders and public officials to determine an appropriate community response,” Adelia wrote in the grant proposal that’s being sent to Senator LaValle. 

What that response will look like—how the names will be honored and the memory of the enslaved inserted back into our shared history—will be up to residents and community leaders: a school curriculum? a memorial site? a public teach-in?

If all continues to go as planned, the East Hampton slavery project will eventually be used as a template, so that other towns—Southampton, Shelter Island, Greenport, and beyond—can borrow its methods to document the early presence and contribution of their enslaved founders, too. 

Although the context of East Hampton’s picturesquely humble Main Street homes of the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries is miles different from the southern Founding Fathers’ outwardly gracious—but inwardly violent and blood-stained—plantations, the East Hampton slavery project has a common purpose with that of a Virginia exhibition called “Lives Bound Together: Slavery at George Washington’s Mount Vernon,” which illuminates the daily experiences of all the plantation’s inhabitants and shows how entwined white and black lives were.

That point, according to Susan P. Schoelwer, Mount Vernon’s senior curator, was to humanize the people who were enslaved, to make them more than just abstract numbers. “We think of them as individual lives with human dignity,” Schoelwer says.

Shawn Costley, a descendant of Davy and Edy Jones, who were held in slavery at Mount Vernon, speaks potently in a documentary film made to coincide with the “Lives Bound Together” exhibit: “We helped build this place and make it what it is. We helped make the president who he was. We might not have had voting power and all that back then, but we made that man, we made George Washington. . . . ”

Considering the citizen-historian effort underway in East Hampton, Keith Arbour—a historian from Cambridge, Mass. who specializes in rare archival documents—traces a connection between the omission of early black settlers from our national narrative and the violence perpetrated against black men and boys today. What, after all, are we implying about African-Americans’ human worth when we erase their names from the collective memory of our very founding? 

“Today, most wholly white American families (if there be such things), of course, descend from later, 19th-century European immigrants,” Dr. Arbour says, “but most African-American families have been contributing to American prosperity, to American democracy, far longer than that. When we recognize that, when every American acknowledges that truth, what white American can continue to think of African-Americans as ‘the other’?” 

Dr. Arbour continues: “After all, African-Americans with their wonderfully mixed ancestry, with histories as interesting as the Israelites themselves, are the model every American really wants to claim for him- or herself—not in the details of the past that so-called ‘white families’ have inflicted upon them, but in the details of all African-American families’ triumphs against the odds for over three centuries.”

The youthful researchers, for their part, are gung-ho. They believe, as Arbour does, that our lives are indeed bound together, and that our country’s future can only become brighter when daylight has been shed on our ugly, but inextricably entwined, family history.

Isn’t it time to open our eyes and let that light in?  *

Mercy Bauer is one of the teenagers spending her summer doing research under the guidance of The Star's editor and the librarians at the East Hampton Library's Long Island Collection. She visited the South End Burying Ground to see the gravestone of "Peggy Negro, servant of Captain Abraham Gardiner." Zoe Bank photograph.
At top: Henry Dayton Stratton—descendant of a founding family on both sides—built this house at 93 Pantigo Road in 1715. This photograph, taken in the 1880s, shows the back door of the Stratton farmhouse, where a black servant poses with a butter churn. Was she the daughter or granddaughter of an enslaved person? That is unknown—but, again, highly likely. East Hampton Star archive.
Isabel Carmichael