In connection with the Presiding Bishop's unprecedented action announced in MOLC on September 29, 2007 please find herewith a copy of my colleague and friend, Rev. Deacon Geri Swanson's own account of delving into the roots of slavery in her own family and village, Staten Island, part of the incorporated City of New York. Thank you, Geri, for this honest, well written account of your familys dotted history.
Reflections on a flawed past
The Rev’d Deacon Geraldine A. Swanson
I recently received an invitation to attend a meeting of the Historical Society of the Episcopal Church at General Seminary in Manhattan. Ordinarily, I would have tossed it aside and not given a second glance, but the title intrigued me: “Traces of the Trade: A Journey of Reconciliation”. The evening would include a screening a documentary,” Traces of the Trade: A Story from the Deep North.” The film chronicles the emotional, spiritual and physical journey of Katrina Browne and nine of her cousins as they learned of and dug deeper into their own family history and its connection to the slave trade.
In her film, Browne traces the beginnings of the family wealth, the DeWolf’s of Rhode Island, back to the slave trade on Africa’s West Coast . The wealth amassed by the DeWolf’s was accumulated on the backs of African men and women held in bondage. The film was shown on PBS.
You may wonder why I called and reserved a spot to attend this dinner and discussion on a lovely late spring Friday evening. Well, it is because Katrina Browne’s story is parallel to my own.
Two years ago my remaining maternal uncle turned eighty. As a “gift” to him, I decided to do genealogy research of the family. Since we have an illustrious relation who served as Senator from New York during the Reconstruction, an Abolitionist and Radical Republican, Roscoe Conkling, I could use him as a natural “fulcrum” upon which to leverage my research. If they were related to Roscoe, they were related to me.
My personal mission was to find out who and what the Conkling’s were. I got more than I bargained for.
I traced the family back to Nottingham England in the late 1500’s. They were glass blowers and were what Americans refer to as “Puritans”.
Ananias Conkling, a glass blower, emigrated to North Salem/Massachusetts Bay colony around 1650. He migrated to the Eastern Shore of Long Island settling in Southold. At some point a branch of the family left and moved near Fort Orange in the Albany/Troy/Schenectady area from which my great-grandfather sprang.
It was documents I uncovered through the Shelter Island Historical Society’s website that caused me to take stock of my roots.
My family had been slave holders on Long Island. Any wealth they accumulated had been bought with the labor of people held in involuntary servitude. Records from wills indicated that the Conklings held slaves as early as 1706 when John Conkling left an unknown number of slaves to his sons. In 1755 Sarah Conkling left an unspecified number of enslaved people to her children
The document that brought the full understanding of how slavery was engrained in the Conkling family came to me with a shock. I found a bill of sale dated 1773 “...of a Negress”; she was a six year old child.
“Know all men by these present that I, Joseph Conkling of Queens Village in Queens County on Nassau Island in the Province of New York for and in Consideration of Twenty-five pounds current money of the province aforesaid, received to my full satisfaction of Joseph Lloyd & John Lloyd of said Queens Village on Nassau Island & County & Province aforesaid have Sold and do by these presents, bargain, sell and convey to the said Joseph and John Lloyd and their heirs and assigns one Certain Negro girl named Phebe of about Six Years of age during the term of her natural life…”
I began to think about our misconceptions of history. If my own family history bared the ugly head of slavery, how many other families and institutions would also yield hidden histories that had scabbed over.
Thus began my second quest.
Slavery was central to New York City from its formative years as a Dutch colony to the early days of the United States. During British rule, 40 percent of New York City households owned slaves, and slaves accounted for 20 percent of the city's population. There were more slaves in New York City than in any other city except Charleston, S.C. New Yorkers owned and traded slaves, rented out their slaves as day laborers and produced ships for slaving voyages. Landmarks in Manhattan that were built by slaves included the wall on Wall Street, Fort, Broadway, and the first and second Trinity Church buildings. So, if slave labor helped to erect the oldest and most venerated colonial church in Manhattan, how did it touch other colonial parishes?
The Church of Saint Andrew is the oldest Episcopal Church on Staten Island, established in 1708. It is called, “The Friendliest Church in the Valley” located near the Richmondtown Restoration.
Both the parish and the village have deep historic roots that have mingled in ying and yang of sacred and secular; they are linked, yet forced to remain apart, a divorce forced by our desire to separate church and state. Each rests on a history of human enslavement that is unexamined, unearthed, and unspoken for at least two hundred years.
St Andrew’s was established by the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts, an arm of the Church of England that was devoted to the conversion of the enslaved.
The current church sits on a parcel of land given by William Tillyer, a local slave owner.
Ellias Duxbury was one of the men who vowed to financially and materially support the church. He died in 1718 leaving a large piece of property comprising most of present-day St. George, Stapleton, Rosebank and Clifton, an area of 340 acres more or less, to MacKenzie as minister of St Andrew’s, a way to insure the minister had a salary independent of the fortunes of the parish. MacKenzie was also executor of Duxbury’s estate. In addition to the property, Duxbury bequeathed “to the minister at St. Andrew’s…my negroes”, who became part of the minister’s inheritance.
The Duxbury Glebe, or farm, was eventually sold off piecemeal over the years by various vestries and wardens of St. Andrew’s. Its residual monies were rolled into an endowment fund from which the rector’s salary is still paid. Part of the endowment was based on involuntary servitude; the slaves who worked on Duxbury’s farm provided profit for the present endowment. This is both an uncomfortable yet potentially powerful legacy.
The second rector of the parish, the Reverend William Harrison, owned slaves. Upon his death, in 1739, he instructed his executors to “…sell all…my negroes.”
Several prominent parishioners were themselves slaveholders. Nathaniel Britton was one of the twelve original founders. He assisted in the construction of the building He was well respected and devote; and in his will dated June 1, 1729, he leaves his wife Elizabeth, “… a negro woman.”, .
Besides the Britton’s, the Crocheron’s, the Corson’s, the Cubberly’s, the Bedell’s, the LaTourette’s, the Mersereau’s, the Micheux’s, the Journey’s, the Poullion’s, the Prall’s, the Androvette’s, the Simonson’s, the Slaight’s, the Skinner’s, the Vanderbilt’s and the Winant’s, a veritable “Who’s Who” of prominent Staten Island families, whose names can be found on major roads and thoroughfares, held slaves passing them from one generation to another through wills.
The most famous, or infamous, slave connection on Staten Island has to be to the family of the Rev. Charlton who is remembered as the maternal grandfather of St. Elizabeth Bayley Seton, convert to Catholicism, and founder of the Sisters of Charity.
In 1747, the Reverend Richard Charleton became rector of St. Andrew’s. Charlton had been a Catechist for the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts, on the staff of Trinity Church/ Wall Street. His ministry was to the enslaved in New York . When he came to St. Andrew’s he began to record the christening of “…the Black Children”. From 1768 until 1773 he recorded eight baptisms of enslaved children .
Ironically, Charlton held in bondage one Bill Richmond . Bill was a skilled cabinetmaker with a flair for boxing, one of Charlton’s passions He worked at the craft of cabinet making for Charlton and the Church, and also made a name for himself as a boxer.
After Charleton’s death in 1777, Richmond was taken to England by General Earl Percy . When the ship arrived in England, Bill became a free man since slavery was illegal in England. There Bill Richmond became a journeyman cabinetmaker and a owner of an inn; he retained a reputation as a fighter through his fifties.
Perhaps Charleton meant to grant Richmond his freedom by allowing his departure to England where slavery had been abolished. This courtesy did not apply to other slaves held in his household. In his will he stated:
“To granddaughter MARY BAYLEY....,negro girl BETT…
to her two sisters (unnamed) ...., a negro boy , BRENNUS…
to grandson John C. Dongan ...., a Negro man, ADAM…
to son JOHN...., Negro boy, TITUS, Negro wench, PHEBE, Negroman, CARLOS (or remaining servants)
to ELIZABETH NICHOLLS..., my negro wench, NAN.
Last will; Proved 10 Oct. 1777”
So what does this discourse teach us? Perhaps we finally understand the intimate and intrinsic evil of slavery for the first time, and its continued impact on American society. Institutions that we respect, churches that we love, familial ties that cannot be denied or broken, are themselves refracted anew through the lens of an historic institutionalization of an unspeakable evil, which has suddenly become real to us in the light of the twenty-first century.
It is important to understand that slavery, that so-called “Peculiar Institution” had tendrils and tendons that continue to connect it to the North as well as the South, to New York City as well as New Orleans, to Staten Island as well as the Barrier Islands, to families we know; to family we love; to family we are, to our historic institutions, to our beloved churches, to our collective consciousness, to our very souls.. We need to acknowledge the past, to lament the hurt and pain it caused, to celebrate the accomplishment and heroic survival of those oppressed, and to vow to finally put an end to the inequalities that still exist in our present society. We owe it to those who struggled in the past, to those who live with its residue in the present and to those in the future who will applaud our courage in at last speaking out.