Freeing the Slaves: Civil War, Shelter Island Slave Cemetery and More

Stonewall Jackson statue
Stonewall Jackson statue, Photo:

Both Donald Trump and our local Republican Congressman Lee Zeldin can’t seem to tell the difference between George Washington and Robert E. Lee. George Washington was the Father of our Country. Robert E. Lee led the Armies of the Confederacy in a four-year fight to tear apart the United States of America. If he had won, slavery would be in the south today—and it might be another nation. Instead, he lost. The country was not split in two, although more than a half-million soldiers died to keep it that way. But bigotry continued.

Throughout the South today, Confederate flags still fly. Statues of Lee are there to remind the local African-Americans that the South could rise again. So they better know their place in the scheme of things. As a result, these statues are being removed.

It’s important not to go overboard with statue removal. Slavery, so awful, had been an acceptable part of life for thousands of years. It’s mentioned in the Bible, in Roman times, in the Renaissance and when Columbus arrived in what became America. A 50-foot statue of Queen Catherine of the Braganza was scheduled to face out to the United Nations nearly 20 years ago from a waterfront park in Queens. Queens was named after Queen Catherine. I recall that artist Audrey Flack of East Hampton had almost completed it. But then opponents announced that Catherine had been connected to the slave trade. Indeed, her royal families were involved, and although historians say she was not directly involved nor did she own slaves, that statue was cancelled.

Truth is that only until about 1700 did it begin to dawn on the developed countries of the world that the institution of slavery was morally indefensible. Soon the importing and exporting slaves between countries was banned by many nations and states. In New York State, a law for gradual abolition was passed in 1799, with the last slave freed by 1827. Had the South agreed to a phased ending of slavery, there would have been no Civil War. There were 3.9 million slaves in the South. Instead, the South tried to break away from America to preserve it.

Jefferson Davis Confederate monument
Jefferson Davis Confederate monument, Photo:

Issues of slavery and racism have not been relegated to the South. They have a history on the East End as well.

In 1730, the Sylvester family, which owned a sugar plantation in Barbados worked by about 200 black slaves, used the money they made to build Sylvester Manor on Shelter Island. The manor served as a warehouse for furniture, supplies and other materials available in England, which were sent on to the plantation as needed. The last slave worked on Shelter Island in 1830. There is a slave cemetery at the Manor, and it is open to the public.

In 1813, Pyrrus Concer was born a slave in Southampton. There’s a record of him being sold by Captain Nathan Cooper of Southampton to Elias Pelletreau II for $25 when Concer was 5 years old. There is also a record of him being freed in 1827 when New York totally ended slavery in the state. After that he went off as a mate on a whaling ship out of Sag Harbor, and in 1843 may have been the first African-American to visit Japan. Returning to Southampton as a free man, he ran a small sailboat that ferried summer people across Lake Agawam from Monument Square to the beach for many years. He lived to be 83, and thus was witness, until his death in 1897, to a number of the slave-related stories here that follow. Presently, an attempt is underway to rebuild the house he lived in by Lake Agawam.

In 1805, Judge Abraham Woodhull of Brookhaven registered the birth of his son David to a slave woman on August 8. “He should be kept as (my) property until he shall arrive to the age of 28 years.”

In 1834, records show that “a colored child at Mr. Van Scoy’s died in the town of East Hampton.”

In 1839, a group of 53 African slaves, led by a man named Cinque, cut their shackles in the hold of the small Spanish slave ship La Amistad in the Caribbean Sea near Cuba, killed the captain, the cook and other crew and demanded they be taken back to Africa. Since the slaves did not understand navigation, the crew took them east by day and north by night until the ship, a virtual wreck, was grounded and captured off the coast of Montauk. A U.S. Navy frigate towed La Amistad to New London, and the Spanish, who owned the ship, demanded that the slaves be prosecuted for mutiny. Also, as they were Spanish property, they argued, the slaves should be returned to Spain. President Martin Van Buren acquiesced to the request—not wanting to anger Spain—and a trial took place in New Haven where the slaves were defended by former President John Quincy Adams. The judge ruled against Spain and so, after the trial, the U.S. Navy hurriedly squirreled them back to Africa.

During the 1840s, many slaves fled the South to find shelter in the North. But they had to be hidden away. President Van Buren was continuing to enforce a federal law that said if a slave got north and a southern white plantation owner learned where he was, the north had to return the slave to the South, where whippings awaited. But northern states would have none of it. When slaves were brought into federal court for this expulsion, vigilante groups would make a “surprise” appearance and hustle the slaves away to safety while the judge looked the other way. Of course this enraged the South.

According to Bill Pickins, who is a local Sag Harbor historian knowledgeable about Eastville, that community was part of the Underground Railroad. Standing today in Eastville is a famous old church, St. David’s, where up on the floor of the altar there is a trap door which opens down to where as many as five runaway slaves could hide at a time. The rector of the church worked with, among others, Harriet Tubman of Philadelphia and Sojourner Truth of Hurley, New York, courageous women bringing out slaves from the South. After a time hidden in Eastville, the slaves would be transported to Greenport and then New London and then to Canada. This activity in Sag Harbor began around 1850 and continued on through Reconstruction after the war.

The South couldn’t stand the North telling them what to do. And so, in 1861, they declared themselves to be the Confederate States of America. Their soldiers attacked and took Fort Sumter, South Carolina. Jefferson Davis was named President and Robert E. Lee became the General of the Confederate Army.

After Lee’s armies fought their way north into Pennsylvania, President Lincoln declared all slaves in America, both North and South, freed. These slaves were welcome to fight for the North. Eventually over 170,000 did, in separate units, often heroically.

The Ku Klux Klan was founded in the South within a year after the South surrendered. For the rest of the century and through much of the 20th century, the Klan was actively burning crosses and hanging African-Americans, mostly in the South. There were facilities labeled “Colored Only” and other facilities for Whites. Statues went up throughout the South of many different southern heroes, most notably Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis.

In 1922, there were cross burnings in East Islip, in 1923, more crosses were burned in Freeport, Mineola, Bay Shore, Huntington, Sayville, Garden City, Riverhead and Hempstead. In 1937, the American Nazi party held a rally in Bayshore and that summer and next held a summer camp for German-Americans in Yaphank, where speakers praised Hitler for his policy of killing Jews.”

In 2014, Klan leaflets were spread around Hampton Bays. The act was repeated in 2016 and this year. With the election of Donald Trump, vandalism, rallies, anti-Semitism and Klan activities began to increase. It does not help that Trump blamed “both sides” for the violence that occurred in Charlottesville. And it didn’t help that our district’s congressman, from Brookhaven, agreed.

Zeldin, who is Jewish, has been asked by many to leave his post at the Holocaust Museum Council in Washington. He will be up for re-election next year.

Robert E. Lee statue
Robert E. Lee statue, Photo:

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