Life in early 17th-century New Netherland offered hope to all of its inhabitants, even African-Americans.
“When they came over with the Dutch West India Company, they could petition for their freedom after 20 years,” said Donald Hyman, a teacher, historian and actor who will be talking about the black experience in the New World in a presentation titled “African-Americans in New Amsterdam — The Land of the Blacks,” Sunday at 3 p.m. at the Albany County Historical Association’s Ten Broeck mansion.
“Under the Dutch they could work, go to church, walk around. It was important for black people to have trades. In the South all they had to do was pick cotton. But in the North they were carpenters, tailors, coopers and blacksmiths.”
Hyman will specifically address the years in New Netherland between 1624-44, when blacks even had the opportunity to own land.
‘African-Americans in New Amsterdam — The Land of the Blacks’
WHAT: A presentation by Donald Hyman
WHERE: Albany County Historical Association at the Ten Broeck Mansion, 9 Ten Broeck Place, Albany
WHEN: 3-5 p.m. Sunday
HOW MUCH: Free
MORE INFO: 436-9826 or www.tenbroeckmansion.org
“I used to walk around Brooklyn, Greenwich Village and Washington Square Park when I was hanging out in my college and hippie days,” joked Hyman, “and never had any idea that the land I was walking on was once owned by Dutch African-Americans. It was black men who built the path that becomes Broadway, and they owned much of the land around Madison Square Garden and Penn Station.”
There were reasons why the Dutch were so benevolent, according to Hyman.
“A lot of it was related to how the Dutch were having problems with the Indians,” he said. “The land they gave to the African-Americans would act as a buffer between the Algonquins and the Dutch.”
While life for African-Americans in 17th century New Amsterdam may not have been as oppressive as it was for slaves in the South, it was certainly no picnic, and blacks who did earn their freedom didn’t necessarily earn the same right for their children.
“Blacks weren’t allowed to pass on their property to their children, some of them remained in bondage, and in the 1660s when the English took over it all changed anyway,” said Hyman. “At first, African-Americans were treated more like indentured servants, but later on the men in power realized they needed a constant source of labor. Then, when the English took over, they wanted to use New York City as a slave port, so it was necessary to keep blacks in bondage.”
Working on farms
There were 11 African-Americans that arrived in New Amsterdam in 1624, imported by the Dutch West India Company to work in upstate Hudson Valley farms. Most of the slaves in those early years belonged to the company as opposed to individual slaveholders and were referred to as “the company’s negroes.”
Hyman became interested in that history in 1998 while he was in graduate school at Long Island University and working for the federal court system in Brooklyn. Nearby was the Brooklyn Historical Society.
“I started looking at a lot of books and doing a lot of research,” he said. “Most of the time you don’t see that much about the presence of blacks in Manhattan, but the more you read and the more you dig the more you learn. Unfortunately, while blacks could do a lot between 1624 and ’44, that all changed, and by 1710 all their property had been taken away from them.”
While Hyman’s appearance on Sunday will be as a lecturer, he often presents history in a more theatrical manner. A member of the adjunct faculty at the College of Saint Rose, where he teaches American studies, Hyman has been a re-enactor and portrayed people like Frederick Douglass, Buck Leonard, Richard Wright and Claas, one of Philip Schuyler’s slaves.
He has also written, directed, produced and starred in full-fledged plays like “Freedom Summer” and “Blessed Blues,” the story of Billie Holiday.
“Sunday’s going to be more like a lecture, but I’m definitely developing something that I could stage for schools,” said Hyman, who has also taught in the Albany City School District and for the Adult Learning Center.
“All my research is going to help me take this to another level. If we’re going to teach New York history in our schools, we need to include the black history. All I learned back in school was that some guy named Peter Stuyvesant bought Manhattan from the Indians for $24. There’s so much more to learn, and doing things in a theatrical way is a great way to teach students.”