SACKETS HARBOR — More than 70 pairs of eyes were glued to two actors playing slaves from 1784 as their characters debated the price of freedom Saturday at the Sackets Harbor Battlefield State Historic Site.
The performance, however, didn’t depict a dialogue held between slaves, one born into slavery, the other captured and forced into it, in southern states like North Carolina or Georgia. It depicted one held in New York state on a property near Saratoga owned by Philip J. Schuyler, a renowned Revolutionary War general.
Frederick Jones, playing the younger slave, Cuff, said he wanted to escape his forced servitude as an apprentice cooper, or tradesman who made pails and barrels, and return to his home in Bermuda, where he was captured. He said he loathed the work Gen. Schuyler forced him to perform, and should have joined the British in the Revolutionary War so he could have been free.
“Master Schuyler can’t be a very good, or honest man if he says that he fights for liberty, but then gives none to the people here. This shall not stand. I will run away as soon as I see my chance,” he said. “There are somewhere free black men in this land, and I will be one of them. You shall see.”
Donald Hyman, who played the older enslaved cooper, Peter, who was born into slavery, said Mr. Jones’s character should stop complaining, and be thankful he does not work in fields, where he could be beaten to death. The work, Mr. Hyman said as his character, has earned him a sense of value in Gen. Schuyler’s business, and provides him food for his family and a little money.
“Have some sense and realize your good fortune in this house,” he said. “Are you cheated, beaten or ill-treated? No! Master Schuyler gives you food. Clothing. Good work, much more than you deserve.”
The audience applauded the performance, called “To Be So Confin’d: Complexities of Slavery in 18th Century New York,” and a few members posed questions about slavery in the state. The presentation depicted the issues as a dramatic retelling based on facts, and its fictional characters were crafted using records of real accounts.
Cordell Reaves, historic interpretation and preservation analyst at the state Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, said slavery was legal in New York from 1626 to 1827, but some African Americans were forced to work for their former masters during weekends or certain seasons after the abolition. Large estates were built using slave labor or the proceeds of slave labor, he said. At one point in time, New York was the second largest slave state in the country, second only to South Carolina.
“There are some people who come to our sites who don’t realize New York was a slave state,” Mr. Reaves said.
The performance was followed by a lecture from Anthony F. Gero, author of the book “Black Soldiers of New York: A Proud Legacy,” describing the service of African American soldiers in the War of 1812.
Mr. Gero, a retired teacher with a master’s degree in history from SUNY Cortland, discussed African American soldiers fighting in the state’s detached militia. The Navy, which was stationed at Sackets Harbor during the war, was integrated, but he said he has yet to find specific records of African American soldiers in the village.
Some African Americans escaped to Canada and fought for the British in the battle of Queenston Heights, which took place in the province of Ontario, so they could be free.
“This story should be known and it should be out there,” he said. “The U.S. has always been multi-ethnic, and that’s something we should be proud of, despite what’s going on right now.”
After the two presentations, guests were then invited to tour the historic site’s navy commandant’s house where the Georgia-born commandant, Joshia Tattnall, lived in 1860.