Slavery existed in Orleans County and NY
Albion historian shares about effort to honor 50 black pioneers
ALBION – Nearly 200 years after slavery was banned in New York State, people may think New York was always a land of freedom for black residents. But that is far from the truth, said Neil Johnson, the Albion village historian.
“A lot of people think New York didn’t have slavery,” Johnson said Wednesday during his monthly historical lecture at Hoag Library. “New York definitely did have slavery.”
New York City was actually a center for the slave trade. It had the second biggest slave presence in the country, behind only Charleston, South Carolina. In the colonial era, 41 percent of New York City households had slaves, far more than the 6 percent in Philadelphia and 2 percent in Boston.
Slaves in New York worked as servants in households, bringing in firewood, cooking and cleaning, and removing wastes. They were instrumental in building the nation’s largest city, putting in the heavy infrastructure, and roads, docks and many buildings of the early New York.
New York didn’t ban slavery outright until 1827, 50 years after Vermont outlawed slavery.
Johnson dug through old Census records to learn about early black residents in Orleans County. The Census in 1850 began to note the race of people in the Census. Johnson researched the issue in the late 1990s as part of effort to honor early black pioneers in the county.
He was able to document about 50 residents and families. Their names are carved on a monument at Mount Albion Cemetery. That marker was installed in 2000.
He spoke about Richard Gordineer, who was listed as being born in 1798, but Johnson said that date is unclear. Gordineer lived and worked in Shelby Center, which was a bustling commercial district before the Erie Canal. When the canal was opened in 1825, “it changed everything,” Johnson said.
Medina, Albion and other canal towns emerged after 1825 and became the new focus for commerce. Gordineer took a job in Medina working on canal boats, first as a cook and then as a drywasher. Gordineer lived to be approximately 92, and died at the Alms House, the Orleans County home.
Samuel Tomkins also died at the Orleans County Home, the former “Poor House” on West County House Road. He died in 1863, and Johnson said the superintendent of the Poor House estimated Tomkins was 127 years old. He was a hard worker with a friendly disposition, according to a newspaper report that said Tomkins “trod the shores of time for over a century.”
Johnson said many freed slaves moved north from the Confederate states following the Civil War. The freed slaves found work in the north as house servants and field workers.
Although slavery ended in the United States in 1865, Johnson said people in the country remain enslaved or trapped.
“Human trafficking is still a problem,” Johnson said.
The New York Historical Society in New York City in 2005 put together an exhibit on slavery in New York. The NY Historical Society has an on-line site devoted to the issue. Click here for more information.