Confronting Slavery at Long Island’s Oldest Estates

Joseph McGill first unrolled bedding in a former slave cabin in 1999. He was participating in a documentary about Civil War re-enactors and the controversy over the Confederate battle flag, and the producers asked Mr. McGill — an African-American museum professional from South Carolina who dresses in the Union blue — if he could add some spice to a scene being filmed at a plantation near Charleston.

“The floor was very hard, and the bugs were terrible,” Mr. McGill, 54, recalled recently. “I woke up at about 3 a.m. to the sound of dogs barking in the distance. I’m not sure ‘spooky’ is the word, but the thought did run through my head of all those who had tried to escape.” The experience stuck with him, and in 2010 he formally began the Slave Dwelling Project, with the goal of filling what he calls “a void in preservation” at Southern plantations and beyond.

“We tend to save the iconic, architecturally significant buildings,” Mr. McGill said on a recent afternoon after leading a tour of restored slave cabins at Magnolia Plantation and Gardens in Charleston, where he works as a guide two days a week. “But what about these other buildings? They are part of the story, too.”

So far, Mr. McGill, whose ancestors were enslaved in Williamsburg County in South Carolina, has slept in more than 70 slave dwellings in 14 states, alone or in groups as large as 30, with the descendants of slaves sometimes lying alongside descendants of slave owners. This weekend, he is doing his first overnight stays in New York State, bedding down on three historic properties on eastern Long Island, in some of the region’s most beautiful (and expensive) resort areas.

If these are not places where slavery is the first — or 51st — thing to pop into visitors’ heads, it isn’t because it didn’t exist in them. In the mid-18th century, New York City’s slave market was second in size only to Charleston’s. Even after the Revolution, New York was the most significant slaveholding state north of the Mason-Dixon line. In 1790, nearly 40 percent of households in the area immediately around New York City owned slaves — a greater percentage than in any Southern state as a whole, according to one study.

In contrast to the image of large gangs working in cotton fields before retiring to a row of cabins, slaveholdings in New York State were small, with the enslaved often living singly or in small groups, working alongside and sleeping in the same houses as their owners. Privacy was scant, and in contrast to any notion of a less severe Northern slavery, the historical record is full of accounts of harsh punishments for misbehavior.

“Slavery in the North was different, but I don’t think it was any easier,” Mr. McGill said. “The enslaved were a lot more scrutinized in those places, a lot more restricted. That would have been very tough to endure.”

On his three previous trips to Northern states, Mr. McGill said, some people have wanted to connect his project to the Underground Railroad (slavery was legally abolished in New York State in 1827), or to the righteous cause of the Union Army.

“I get them out of that comfort zone,” he said. “It’s important to let them know that slavery was part of the Northern story, too.”

At each stop on Long Island, Mr. McGill will give a public talk about his project, which he says is aimed at making sure the perspective of slaves doesn’t fall out of history, even in places where the material traces of their existence may be scant.

“There’s more to the story than just glorifying the big house,” Mr. McGill said. “Why just tell the pretty parts of history? We’ve been doing that for far too long.”

Traces of Hard Lives

Today, Shelter Island, nestled between the two forks of Long Island, is known as a quietly affluent summer community. But in the 17th century, its 8,000 acres made up the vast estate of Nathaniel Sylvester, an Englishman who used the land as a provisioning farm for his family’s sugar plantations in Barbados, and who was the first to bring enslaved Africans to what is now Suffolk County.

When Sylvester died in 1680, his will named 23 pieces of human property, making Sylvester Manor one of the largest slaveholding sites on Long Island. It is also the most intact, thanks to nearly 360 years of continuous Sylvester family habitation, which ended several years ago when the main house, built in 1737, and 243 surrounding acres became a nonprofit educational farm.

“The house is a record of all the lives lived here,” Maura Doyle, the historic preservation coordinator, said recently during an informal tour of the manor’s elegantly ramshackle, antique-stuffed rooms, which look as if the owners had gone out for a walk and never returned. “In repairing it,” she said, “we want to be careful not to Disneyfy the historic record.”

On Friday, Mr. McGill and a small group will sleep — or try to sleep — in the house’s stifling attic, reachable up the steep, twisting “slave stairs,” as they are known in manor lore. Little is documented about slave living conditions, but Ms. Doyle, picking her way past dusty trunks and cabinets filled with ornate china chamber pots and other family relics, pointed out the subtle traces of the hard lives endured under the eaves.

Random bits of paneling and scrap wood suggest efforts to carve out private spaces. Graffiti on several walls shows the outlines of sailing ships, probably carved by a Montaukett Indian boy who went to the manor as an indentured servant in 1829.

A few years ago, a researcher found a carefully arranged cache of ritual objects — a brass button, the frame of a writing slate — hidden under the floorboards, a trace of enduring West African religious practices similar to those found at other sites. Today, it is kept in the house’s concrete-walled vault, alongside treasures like a 1639 christening gown and an oversize teacup used by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, a frequent visitor to the house.

The last slave at Sylvester Manor was freed in 1820, seven years before slavery was abolished in New York. But the complex story of African-Americans at Sylvester Manor does not end there.

Propped up on the lower part of the slave staircase is a photograph of Julia Johnson, a free black woman whose stepfather had saved enough money to buy land from his onetime Sylvester master. According to “The Manor” (2013), Mac Griswold’s history of the property, Johnson, who served three generations of Sylvesters as a housekeeper, eventually sold the waterfront parcel back to a Sylvester descendant at a bargain price.

Johnson, who died in 1907, was the last person buried in the small cemetery a few hundred yards from the house, where, Ms. Doyle said, more than 200 unmarked graves lie scattered in a grove of white pines, behind a large rock inscribed “Burying Ground of the Colored People of the Manor From 1651.”

“When we get even a scrap of a story about an individual, it’s so valuable,” Ms. Doyle said of the African-American side of the property’s history. “The record can be so silent.”

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