Bay Ridge’s Forgotten Slaves

Escaped Slave in Yellow Hook
From the Long Island Star, July 1810.

The Long-Island Star, on July 5, 1810, advertised a “15 Dollars Reward.” The small item was by Jacob Cropsy, who listed his address as “Yellow-Hook”—the earliest newspaper mention I could find of that village, which would 43 years later be renamed Bay Ridge.

The reward was for the return of an escaped slave.

Ran away…the 17th [of April], a negroe man named Squy, aged 25 years, about five feet six-inches high, pretty dark complexion, has a scar about an inch above the left eye-brow occasioned by the kick of a horse. His body is pretty well set; but legs remarkably crooked, so that it occasions a tottering in his walk. He had on when he went away a tow linen trowsers [sic], white jacket and blue cloth coat. The above reward will be given to any person returning the said runaway, or securing him in jail so that the owner may get him again, and all reasonable charges paid.

N.B. All persons are forbid harbouring, trusting or employing the said slave, for they will be prosecuted as the law directs.

Particularly cruel methods were adopted in the Town of New Utrecht—which, until it joined the City of Brooklyn in 1894, consisted of areas such as Bay Ridge (Yellow Hook), Fort Hamilton, Dyker Meadows, Bath Beach and Bensonhurst—to prevent such attempts at freedom, according to Charlotte Bangs’s 1912 Reminiscences of Old New Utrecht and Gowanus.

Slaves were valuable properties. Lest these properties should escape, iron collars were made and sent to put on the neck of the slave, the collar often bearing the owner’s name, or initials. Each night the slaves were chained fast, whether it be in the slave kitchen, cellar, or out house. Pieces of these chains have been found when some of the old time farmhouses were being demolished.

As far as I can tell, slaves in the United States were not typically chained up at night.

As Northerners, we’ve been conditioned to consider slavery a Southern problem. And even when we’re reminded that New York City had a long, complicated and ugly relationship with the institution, it’s difficult psychically to place it in our own community—to think that slaves worked, died and were chained up at night where we ourselves live and play, in the fields and homesteads of Yellow Hook that have since become the streets and homes of Bay Ridge.

Slavery on Long Island, including New Utrecht, ended between 1824 and 1826—so, in the 1840s, when future Confederates Robert E. Lee and “Stonewall” Jackson were stationed at Fort Hamilton, where they now have streets named after them, they wouldn’t have encountered any slaves. (Slave auctions had ended in 1790, but those already slaves continued to be enslaved.) Bangs says abolition was foremost a matter of safety for slave owners—as murder plots had been “secretly arranged by some of the Spanish Negroes and other Negroes intriguing underhandedly with the wily Indians”—but she also generously credits the Dutch with finally coming to realize their moral wrong, guided by their religion.

The greater Bay Ridge area, however, was first settled in the 1640s, and slaves arrived in New Netherland starting in 1652, Bangs writes—which means there were slaves present in Bay Ridge for almost 175 years, working the farms of the early Dutch settlers. “Brooklyn was founded on the labor of unfree people,” Craig Wilder writes in his study of Brooklyn slavery, A Covenant with Color, and Bay Ridge—plus southwestern Brooklyn at large—was no exception.

In 1698, there were 259 people living in all of New Utrecht, 48 of whom were slaves, Bangs writes. Forty years later, the population had risen only to 282, but the slave population had comparatively skyrocketed to 119. (By 1755, the slave population had fallen to 67, the Brooklyn Eagle reported in 1900.)

Most if not all of the early farming families in what’s now Bay Ridge and the surrounding communities owned slaves—those who could afford to, anyway. At the time, among Dutch farmers, it was neither unusual nor problematic to do so, and I’ve found no mentions of anyone who refused to do so on principle, which surely would have been remembered as at least eccentric. “Every Dutch family had a large family of colored people in its kitchen,” the Eagle reported in 1932. “There was a bond of affection between the master and mistress and the slaves, and their services were invaluable to the heads of the families who were all good farmers.”

The fact of slavery in New Utrecht has not been much scrutinized, but it occasionally oozes out of the historical record. In August 1775, Jacques Denyse repaid outstanding debts to Nicholas Cowenhoven (both members of very prominent local families) with “One Negro female slave named ‘Dine,’” as well as furniture, horses, cows and a looking glass. “In 1755, Casper Cropsy owned slaves,” Bangs writes, “being accounted a well-to-do resident of the town.” (The Cropsys, or Cropseys, were early settlers in New Utrecht, with shore-fronting property south of today’s armybase, in Bath Beach, in the vicinity of today’s Cropsey Avenue. In fact, Cropsey descendants still seem to own land near Caesar’s Bay!)

Cropsey Homestead
Cropsey house, ca. 1915. Via BHS

The Benson family, much of whose land was later developed as Bensonhurst, had a house at Bay 24th and Benson Avenue that survived into modernity. “One portion of the cellar was strongly built,” Bangs writes, “which made it seem very likely that refractory [i.e., disobedient] slaves had sometimes been confined there. But it is in that homestead that family tradition has made George Washington once a guest of honor, when he had supper there.” In 1790, the Cortelyou family, whose patriarch Jacques was the first real settler of New Utrecht, owned 32 slaves, Wilder writes. In his 1806 will, Denyse Denyse left his wife “the choice of one of my negro Wenches to wait on her.”

In 1895, an Eagle writer visited “jolly old Wynant Bennett,” of the once-prominent Bennett family, who recalled life in Bay Ridge five or six decades earlier. “Used to raise flax then,” he says.

Pond is still up there where we put it to soak. Floss pond, you know. The flax was called floss. Slaves used to carry it up and put it in the pond. Yes, we had slaves, or leastwise they were slaves or too lazy to get work for themselves. Had to whip them to get anything out of them. But we used to think a deal of them. They used to fight as to who was to carry me pig-a-back.

Bangs twice in her book mentions a short and thin African–American named Tom Barlow, a fiddle-player in great demand, who provided the soundtrack to almost every dance in Bay Ridge in what seems to be the mid or late 19th century. “How he happened to own and play a fiddle when the white folks had none, Colonel Cropsey is unable to say,” she writes. “The fact did not impress itself at the time, but now the wonder is how and where Tom obtained his fiddle. He had been a slave; all the negroes had.”

There was at least one free black man in the Bay Ridge area prior to the Civil War: Swan von Tuane, or Swaen Van Luane, or Lowaanen, said to have arrived from Sierra Leone, possibly as a slave, possibly as a free man; in either case, he was at least eventually free, and bought a farm near 69th and Shore Road in the 17th century, a piece of which many years later became Henry C. Murphy’s Owl’s Head estate. Luane “became an accepted member of the community,” according to the 1976 Bay Ridge Chronicles, edited by Jerome Hoffman. “Two of his daughters were baptized in the Dutch Reformed Church.”

Slaves began to be freed in Kings County around 1797. During the subsequent three decades, people with the last names of prominent Bay Ridge families—and thus presumably Bay Ridge or at least New Utrecht residents—freed slaves, including Agnes Rappelyea and Adriance Van Brunt, as well as Couwenhovens and Bergens, according to Brooklyn Heights Blog. Still, “As late as the 1820s,” according to the Bay Ridge Chronicles, “slaves made up one-sixth of the population of the farming communities of Kings County.”

Surely one of the last of the old New Utrecht slaves was John Hicks, who had been owned by the Cortelyous; he died in 1896 and was buried in New Utrecht Cemetery. “It was his dying request that he be interred there,” the Eagle reported, “and his old friends and former masters at the fort came forward with liberal subscriptions to pay the funeral expenses.” The reverend “spoke of the useful life of the faithful old man.” Hicks’s widow, Dinah, was present.

Hicks was buried in the “that section [of the cemetery] set apart for colored people,” near the intersection today of Sixteenth Avenue and 84th Street.

Frank Craig
The boxer Frank Craig. Via Wikipedia

Newly freed slaves did not become equal members of New Utrecht society. Bigotry persisted in the area, as it did throughout the United States. The New York World recounts an ugly incident from 1894, in which the boxer Frank Craig, aka “The Harlem Coffee Cooler,” visited Fort Hamilton Village for a boxing match against Peter McGlone, on Shore Road, probably near its intersection with Fourth Avenue. (Race relations at the turn of the 20th century were especially tense in boxing, culminating in 1908 with the African–American Jack Johnson‘s world-heavyweight boxing championship.) After the first few fights, punctuated with musical performances, 80 minutes passed without Craig and the main event; the emcee appeared and announced the boxer’s clothes had been stolen.

Cries of “Fake!” and “The nigger is a duffer” were heard on all sides. This angered the colored pugilist. Coming from the dressing room and doffing his hat, he said: “My trunks were really stolen to-night. I propose to have the two men who [already fought] on the stage arrested.”

[Boxer Eddie] Alford called Craig a bad name, and in a minute every man in the place was on his feet. The audience was a surging mob. All were rushing towards the colored man. “He is a bluff,” “Throw the nigger out,” “Drop him off the pier,” “Hit him with a chair,” and many similar shouts went up.

The police calmed the crowd, and the fight eventually occurred—Craig beat the hell out of local boxer McGlone, who begged him several times to ease up.

After such violence, in the ring and especially out, the local police captain said he would not allow any more prizefights in Fort Hamilton. “Several policemen accompanied Craig and his friends to the Brooklyn City line [at 60th Street],” the paper reported. “This was done to avoid collision between the friends of the accused men and Craig’s party.”

There are less hysterical examples of fin-de-siècle racist behavior in the neighborhood. For instance, in 1906, Mr. and Mrs. Thomas H. Thomas gave a “Southern plantation dinner” at their home on Ridge Boulevard. “A genuine darky cook of the old school had been important for the occasion,” the lifestyle magazine Brooklyn Life reported. “Four darkies in plantation costumes waited upon guests.”

“As late as 1980, South[ern] Brooklyn neighborhoods like Bay Ridge…were more than 90 percent white,” Wilder writes. This wasn’t accidental; aside from to whom banks were willing to lend money, there was also the matter of to whom property owners were willing to rent and sell. As recently as 2013, the nonprofit Fair Housing Justice Center found a building on Ridge Boulevard, just a few blocks from where the Thomas’s plantation party was held a century earlier, telling prospective African–American tenants that there were no apartments available one day, and offering an apartment to a white applicant the next—a not uncommon tactic in the neighborhood, anecdotally, and the industry. Managers of outerborough Trump buildings in the 1970s also used to tell black applicants there were no vacancies in buildings where there were.

As of 2015 census estimates, 11209 is a little less white than it was 35 years ago—just  76 percent—probably because of an increase in the Asian population, which is now 12 percent. The black population is just two percent.

Most of us were not directly complicit in this history, ancient or recent, whether housing discrimination or human bondage. But most of us have done little to address it, either. Too many of us have become complicit by inaction, by silence, by willful ignorance and blind eyes. Just because Bay Ridge was a part of the Union, and is now a part of ostensibly liberal New York City, doesn’t mean that it’s exempt, or ever was, from having to deal with myriad forms of systemic racism. It’s why residents should want to be proactive in matters such as supporting the renaming of the streets that were named to honor Confederate generals—not to forget that history, but to atone as a community for the history we’ve already forgotten.

Prominent Bay Ridge historian Teunis G. Bergen discussed, in his 1877 “Address on the Annals of New Utrecht,” the first transfer of New Amsterdam to the English more than two hundred years earlier.

A squadron, under Col. Nicolls, on the 8th of December, 1664, made its appearance in the harbor, and, with the assistance of forces from New England and the English towns on the Island, in the name of the Duke of York conquered the colony. This shameful conquest was made at a time of peace between England and Holland, and resembles an act of piracy more than an honorable act of war.

Not satisfied with this, they crowned their iniquity by selling some of the Dutch soldiers who were taken prisoners, as slaves in Virginia. In this barbaric act our Puritan neighbors (who where in the habit of selling all captured Indians for slaves), may be said to have participated. Two hundred years ago, the ancestors of the men who had so holy a horror of negro slavery (which cannot be justified), sold not only negroes and Indians, but also white men.

If slavery is a deadly and unpardonable sin—as lately maintained by some—where are the souls of these ancestors now?

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