Juneteenth commemorates the emancipation of enslaved African Americans. Although the holiday originated in Galveston, Texas, it’s important to remember that slavery wasn’t only a Southern sin. The history of Northern states has also been tainted by slavery, especially New York State, which had the largest slaveholding population of all the Northern states and was among the last ones to embrace emancipation. On top of that, New York City’s economy was so heavily dependent on Southern slavery that the city even flirted with the idea of seceding from the Union during the Civil War just so it could keep doing business with the South.
New York likes to bill itself as a bastion of diversity and tolerance, but it’s important to remember the times when that was the furtherest thing from the truth. So this Juneteenth, check out the following books on the NYC Juneteenth Reading List not only to inform yourself on New York’s history of slavery, but also to honor the memory of New York’s enslaved people and abolitionists to whom we owe so much.
Note: Not going to lie, some these books on the NYC Juneteenth Reading List are hard to read, partly because the stories that they tell are painful, but also because several of these books were written by academics for academics. (Calling all public historians: are there any of you out there who would be willing to take up the mantle and write a few more history books about slavery in New York for a general audience?)
Covering the arrival of the first enslaved Africans to New York in 1626 to the New York City Draft Riots in 1863 and everything in between, this book is a primer on New York’s history of slavery through the lenses of race, class, and freedom.
David Ruggles: A Radical Black Abolitionist and the Underground Railroad in New York City by Graham Russell Gao Hodges
David Ruggles was arguably the GOAT of Black abolitionists. Wait, before you get up arms, I’m not saying this to pit Black abolitionists against each other in comparison, but to point out how much this one man did to advance the cause of Black freedom. Ruggles penned hundreds of letters and articles against slavery, edited the first African American magazine, opened the first Black bookstore and reading room in NYC, and was crucial in helping Frederick Douglass and 600 other enslaved Black people escape bondage. And he did all this before dying at age 39 in 1849. Ruggles was well-known in his time but is rarely mentioned today. Read this biography and then share his story.
In this book, Gellman examines how New York’s prominent Jay family “embodied the contradictions of the revolutionary age,” from founding father John Jay’s oscillating views on slavery and how to end it to his son William Jay and grandson John Jay II’s more radical embrace of abolitionism and how that effected their standing in New York and the country at large. Not forgotten in this book are the enslaved people who worked for the Jays and who were directly affected by the Jays’ complicated views.
Back in 1741, several mysterious fires occurred across the small and highly flammable town of New York. Frightened white residents convinced themselves that this was the work of a massive slave uprising in the making. What happened next has been described as being akin to the Salem Witch Trials. This gripping book pieces together this unbelievable, but true, tale.
Written by a historian and educator who was fed up with the lack of information and resources for New York teachers regarding the history of slavery in New York, this book, for both general readers and teachers, not only gives an overview of this crucial history, but also guides teachers on how they can incorporate teaching it into their lesson plans.
Written primarily for adolescents ages 12 – 18, Riot tells the story of the 1863 New York City Draft Riots through the eyes of Claire Johnson, a 15-year-old Irish-Black girl who is suddenly forced to grapple with her identity. When reading this, you may find the book’s screenplay format to be unusual at first, but once you get used to it, it makes the book easy to read and quick to get into the story.
Published to accompany a New-York Historical Society exhibit, this book is a collection of essays centered on slavery in New York (obviously 😅). Essay topics range from slave codes in Dutch New Amsterdam and British New York to Black abolitionism to what it was like being Black in New York during the Civil War. This book is has striking illustrations, but the information may get a tad repetitive towards the end.
Does the name Henry Ward Beecher ring a bell? These days, it probably doesn’t. You’re more likely to be familiar with his sister Harriet Beecher Stowe, the author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. But back in the day—the nineteenth century specifically—Beecher was well-renowned as a passionate preacher and prominent abolitionist. This biography tells the story of his rise and downfall, and through it, you’ll get a glimpse of the nineteenth century abolitionist circle in Brooklyn.
John Strausbaugh has a gift for capturing New York City during wartimes. If you’re curious about what New York was like right before and during the Civil War, start here with City of Sedition. With a large cast of characters, from Fernando Wood to Horace Greeley to Walt Whitman, this book is the deepest, yet still most accessible, overview you’ll read on the subject.
Which of these books on the NYC Juneteenth Reading List have you already read? Are there any other books that you would add to the list? Share it in the comment section below.
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