By Jenni Chiarello
One day in 1760, a slave named York in Woodbridge, N.J., suddenly “lost it” and lashed out against the white community he lived in.
He carried a pistol and a sword and approached the home of a white man, according to the records of a court that did not allow blacks to say a word unless they had evidence against another slave.
York started senselessly hitting things with the sword, apparently just to release pent-up anger and frustration. Three white men restrained him. The “court” in the end sent him home for unknown amounts of punishment.
“York’s behavior in this incident, which was both tragic and comical, underscores the anger, frustrations and alienation of enslaved males in 18th-Century New Jersey,” said Dr. Kenneth E. Marshall, a historian (and Rider alumnus) who gave the annual Levine Lecture on Oct. 3.
A typical thought about slavery in the United States often includes images of grandiose plantations and slaves picking cotton through the hot Southern summers. However, something a lot of people might not think about is that slavery not only existed in the North but was prevalent in New Jersey, he said.
“In the year 1800, New Jersey boasted the second largest slave population in the Northeastern United States with 12,422 total slaves, an all-time high for the state,” said Marshall, quoting a figure from the second U.S. census.
Mistreatment of slaves was the motivation for their rage-filled actions.
“They just lost it,” Marshall said.
“I’ve interpreted the phrase, ‘He lost it,’ to mean that the circumstances of life had pushed slaves over the edge, causing them to have little to no regard for the consequences for their actions, regardless of how they might have frightened the local whites,” he said.
Slaves like York were given names for dogs, biblical figures or owners’ origins and places of business. The slaves were suppressed — silenced as Marshall said. The lecture was about bringing to light the history of the silenced slaves, and making their issues, struggles, and strife known to a generation who knows little about the topic.
“Before going to the lecture I can honestly say that I never thought about New Jersey as having slaves before,” said senior psychology major, Tracy Mitchell. “After listening to [Marshall] tell stories about the slaves and everything that they had to go through, I feel like my eyes are opened a little bit more to the subject.”
Slaves in New Jersey had to deal with a multitude of issues every day, including poor treatment, health problems, family issues, suppression, and the lack of basic human rights.
“They were unprotected by the law,” Marshall said. “Hence, if a slave were a father, or a husband or both, he would have lived in constant peril of having his family taken away. The pressure of living under these harsh conditions may have been more that he could have possibly endured, thereby causing him to lash out at the whites in a reputed state of drunkenness.”
Marshall is a 1991 graduate of Rider, where he was active in student government. He said Rider was where he took his first black history class, which fueled his passion to become a history professor.
“I can honestly say that I was educated here, inspired here, nurtured here, and ultimately transformed here,” he said. “It is my sincere hope that Rider continues to be a place that values diversity at all levels –—students, faculty, and staff.”
Marshall earned his Ph.D. and M.A. at Michigan State University. Now an associate professor at SUNY-Oswego, he is the author of Manhood Enslaved: Bondmen in Eighteenth- and early Nineteenth–Century New Jersey, published by University of Rochester Press in 2011.
“It is important that we understand those who cannot speak for themselves,” he said.
Additional reporting by Sharnay Wood..