SACKETS HARBOR — A two-person dramatic production on Saturday will explore the topic of slavery in New York state, which was legal here from the 1600s to 1827.
The fact that New York was a slave state for so long is a surprise to many people, said Cordell Reaves, Historic Interpretation and Preservation Analyst at the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation.
“We don’t think of ourselves as a state founded, in many ways, on the wealth of enslaving people,” Mr. Reaves said in a phone interview. “It’s a very boring concept here in New York, especially in upstate New York.”
The Sackets Harbor Battlefield State Historic Site will present the program “To Be So Confin’d: Complexities of Slavery in 18th Century New York.” It will explore slavery in New York state prior to the Revolutionary War and begins at 1 p.m. Saturday in the Navy Yard at the end of Main Street, or if raining, in the site’s barn off Hill Street.
“New York was one of the largest slave-holding states in the union,” Mr. Reaves said. “At one point, we were only second to South Carolina.”
“To Be So Confin’d” was developed by the state’s Bureau of Historic Sites. Mr. Reaves said that it was written mainly by Michelle Mavigliano, interpretive programs assistant at Schuyler Mansion, Albany.
“We were looking for ways to talk about the lives of enslaved people in a way that would be respectful and meaningful and convey how complicated an issue colonial-era slavery is,” Mr. Reaves said.
The drama, set is 1784, is a dialogue between two enslaved men, played by Frederick Jones and Donald Hyman.
“One is an older man who has lived his entire life as an enslaved person,” Mr. Reaves said. “The other is a much younger man, who was captured into slavery in the Caribbean and sold and resold points north until he made his way into service in the Schuyler household.”
Schuyler Mansion was home to Philip J. Schuyler, the renowned Revolutionary War general who in 1775 led the initial Continental Army invasion of the British Province Quebec. He was also a U.S. Senator and business entrepreneur. The mansion is located on a bluff overlooking the Hudson River and is now a state historic site. The wedding of daughter Elizabeth Schuyler to Alexander Hamilton took place in the house in 1780.
Many of the issues raised in the play are a dramatic retelling based on facts, Mr. Reaves said.
“We know bits and pieces about the enslaved people who lived in bondage in the Schuyler estate, but we obviously don’t have a full retelling of their lives,” he said. “We know that one young man in particular was working there, held in bondage, and tried to make his escape. We don’t know what happened to him.”
In the play, the two enslaved men discuss a dilemma. The older man is a master cooper who has never known freedom. The younger man is his apprentice, who yearns for freedom and constantly thinks of ways to escape.
“This is not a simple situation,” Mr. Reaves said. “It’s flooded with all sorts of issues, obstacles and problems regardless of what you do.”
One problem is where an escaped slave in colonial-era New York could escape to. “Free” territory in Vermont is mentioned in the play. The younger man also says that they should have sided and left with the British when they had the chance. The British, in the Revolutionary War, offered freedom to slaves in return for military service.
“In the Colonial era, your options were very limited,” Mr. Reaves said. “If you’re in Upstate New York, most of upstate at that point was frontier, held by the Iroquois Confederacy. Are you going to go there and hope for the best, perhaps join a nation or are you going to head further north into Canada?”
Slavery in the state, Mr. Reaves said, existed under the Dutch, the transition to British power and then transitioned to Americans.
According to the state Historical Society, New York passed a Gradual Emancipation act in 1799 that freed slave children born after July 4, 1799, but indentured them until they were young adults. In 1817 a new law passed that would free slaves born before 1799 but not until 1827.
After the production, guests will hear Anthony Gero tell about the military role African-Americans played during the War of 1812. They served in crews on board U.S. Navy ships at Sackets Harbor, in the U.S. Army and in the New York State militia.
Mr. Gero, a retired teacher, has a master’s degree in history from SUNY Cortland. He authored the book “Black Soldiers of New York: A Proud Legacy.”
After that talk, guests can tour the historic site’s navy commandant’s house where the Georgia-born commandant, Joshia Tattnall, lived in 1860 and discover what happened when he learned fellow Southern Navy officers were resigning to fight for the Confederacy. His dilemma placed in jeopardy the lives of his household members and his long Navy career.
The presentation and talk are free.
Commandant’s house tours are $3 for adults, $2 for senior citizens and members of the military and children under 12 years of age will be admitted free.