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New Exhibit Opened at OBHS – Tracing Peg: Slavery in Oyster Bay

The Oyster Bay Historical Society held a reception for its latest exhibition, Tracing Peg: Slavery in Oyster Bay, on Oct. 24. The exhibit was curated by Danielle Apfelbaum as the Society’s contribution to Archives Month, celebrated each October. Ms. Apfelbaum, a master’s candidate in Library and Information Science at C.W. Post’s Palmer School, met with trustees, members, and other interested visitors to talk in detail about her role as curator and to answer questions about her exhibition.

Ms. Apfelbaum said she had been volunteering at the OBHS and cataloging items in their collection when she came upon information about Peg. “Though unrecorded in the town records, the 1721 sale of 22-year-old Peg and 2-year-old Bess to Nathaniel Coles and David Vallantine from Thomas Kirby resides today in the Oyster Bay Historical Society’s archives. It is, perhaps, the only trace of Peg and Bess that exists,” states an exhibit at the museum.

Using other original manuscripts from the Society’s archives, as well as reproductions of materials from Raynham Hall and the Town of Oyster Bay, the exhibition provides an overview of slavery’s evolution on Long Island, analyzing Long Islanders’ involvement with the slave trade, manumission, and emancipation.

“These are one-sided documents,” Ms. Apfelbaum indicated in her remarks. “They were written from the point of view of the slaveholder. The enslaved African and African American Islanders with whom they are concerned had no say in how they were represented.”

In the course of research for the exhibit, Oyster Bay Town Historian John Hammond found an abandonment document in town records and Ms. Apfelbaum uncovered a possible reason why that child was “abandoned” the same day it was legally registered by the slave owner as property.

Ms. Apfelbaum said, “This child was born to a Coles Wortman slave. The mother’s name was Ann and the child that was abandoned was Mary. The child was “abandoned” and given probably to the overseer of the poor and afterward, if Ann was able to care for the child, the child was probably returned to her and the owner, Coles Wortman. If he took on an abandoned child he probably received the $3.50 a month that was stated in the Emancipation Act. That was one of the interesting things we came across, that a child should be registered and abandoned the same day.”

Slavery on Long Island

In the exhibit, a section on Slavery on Long Island stated: “Enslaved African Islanders performed a variety of tasks in a variety of environments. They worked in skilled and unskilled occupations alongside indentured, apprenticed, and independent workers, as well as with those who held them in bondage.

“Enslaved female African Islanders were not strictly limited to domestic work. Although their duties included washing, cooking and child-care, they also worked in the fields helping to clear the land and harvest crops.

“Employed at every stage in the production of crops, enslaved male African Islanders cleared the land, planted, harvested, and processed agricultural products. Because farm work was often irregular, they were trained in all aspects of crafts and manufacturing as a means of reducing their non-productive agricultural time. They worked as coopers, tailors, bakers, tanners, goldsmiths, naval carpenters, weavers, bolters, sail-makers, millers, masons, candle-makers, tobacconists, caulkers, shoemakers, brush-makers, and glaziers.”

Dependence on Slave Labor

The exhibit also stated, “Throughout the slave era in the north, New Yorkers held more enslaved Africans than residents in the combined New England colonies or those in New Jersey or Pennsylvania. On average, Long Islanders held more enslaved Africans than other New York colonists, and by the end of the 17th century, these residents held half of the enslaved Africans in the colony. Also during this period, a comparatively large number of households on Long Island held enslaved Africans; during the 18th century, enslaved Africans accounted for as much as a fifth of the Island’s population.”

Family Tree

In the exhibit is a family tree created by Ms. Apfelbaum. It is sweetly done with the trunk of a tree; leaves with information on them; enveloped in a light green oval. “They listed children as property in the town records. There was no idea that they came from actual families. I wanted to show the mother and her children. In the case of Lizzie, she had four children. I wanted to pull them all together in a family tree,” said Ms. Apfelbaum. The tree assemblage is titled: Rereading the Archival Record: The Families Behind the Book of Births of Children Born to Slaves.

Tracing Peg will remain on view through Dec. 23. The Oyster Bay Historical Society encourages visitors to post any comments and questions regarding the exhibition on the Society’s collections blog at http://reposits.blogspot.com. In the future they are planning on making the complete exhibit available on their website.