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Reviews in American History 28.3 (2000) 367-373

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Strange Fruit

Jeanne Chase

Graham Russell Hodges. Root and Branch: African Americans in New York and East Jersey, 1613-1863. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1999, xi + 413 pp. Illustrations, maps, appendix, notes, bibliography, and index. $45.00 (cloth); $18.95 (paper).

The year 1980, Graham Hodges argues, represents a turning point in the approach to slavery in the north. In prior years, "studies focused on the economic and institutional aspects of northern slavery and on the ideological dimensions of white opposition to slavery. "Now historians are studying the world slaves and free blacks made themselves and the social and familial contexts of their lives" (p. 282). If 1980 does indeed represent such a sharp turning point, this is largely due to the appearance of Ira Berlin's "Time, Space and the Evolution of Afro-American Society on British Mainland North America" in the American Historical Review. The essay provides both a theoretical framework for the new approach and an object lesson in method for comparative study. As a result, the issue of slavery and freedom in the north has come out of the shadows, no longer a faint, ephemeral image of a southern institution.

Root and Branch exemplifies that transformation. it is a comprehensive history of New York's people of African heritage as they made their "pilgrimage to liberty" (p. 5). It stands in marked contrast to its sole counterpart, published in 1966. Edward McManus's A History of Negro Slavery in New York exemplifies the institutional approach, being a chronicle, derived largely from official documents and newspapers, of an apparently singular European-American experiment with slavery. Sources of this kind served McManus's purpose adequately. Hodges, on the other hand, had to tease his own story out of a large number of disparate documents containing partial, misleading, and sometimes false information. 1 His list of manuscript and primary printed materials alone requires twenty-five pages. He confronted an equally daunting task of synthesis with recent work. The thirty-page list of books, articles, and dissertations range from the minutia of census returns through overviews of African-American art, race as a historical construct, the roots of Pan-Africanism, and the formation of memory. 2 We are fortunate to [End Page 367] have such comprehensive lists, yet his yeoman service to scholarship upon occasion undermines the structure of Root and Branch.

Hodges' field of study centers on New York City and extends to nine counties. He took the very commendable decision to include East Jersey, thereby delineating the city's true hinterland. The field makes perfect sense from the late colonial period on. However, one might have hoped for the inclusion of northern counties in the earlier years when the New York-East Jersey-Albany connection was stronger for both Africans and Europeans. The tale unfolds chronologically, structured by "major dates and events key to the regional black history" (p. 3). The long duration, he argues, will allow connections among events and people to emerge in coherent form. His topics include "the political economy and legal structure of freedom and servitude, demography, work, secular culture and resistance" (p. 3). All of these subjects are indeed treated, yet it is here, one senses, that his mastery of sources sometimes overwhelms his larger purpose. Freedom as a contested terrain across two and a half centuries is his central tale and it unfolds through the lens of religion.

Hodges begins with an analysis of the making of a Dutch institution of slavery. The process was deeply influenced by religious doctrine, as were the potential routes to emancipation. The Council of Dordrecht (1618) made clear that religious conversion could lead to freedom and that manumission was a pious act. The decision to permit baptism, however, would depend solely on the household head. "The edict effectively created the personality of a pietistic, domineering slave master who fiercely regarded governance of slaves as family business " (p. 20). The province's official religious institution left doctrinal practice to individuals. A New Holland bondperson thus negotiated her potential liberation through conversion...


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