Negro Election Day

Negro Election Day was a festival in the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam whereby the African American community chose its unofficial leaders. Most early colonial settlement was located along lucrative seaports or large river valleys. This commonsense approach to establishing villages not only promoted much needed trade connections, but it also provided entranceways for European immigrants wanting to move to the New World. After the New England colonies had firmly planted roots, the move to settle began in what were known as the Middle colonies New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania and the most unique of these was New York.

New York only became an English colony in 1664, long after the Dutch had settled New Amsterdam (New York City) and New Netherland (New York). It began in 1609, when the Dutch East India Company, on a classic exploration search, sent Henry Hudson to the New World to find a Northwest Passage to the Orient. Sailing along the Atlantic coast, he took a side trip up a large river, but found it dwindled down to a stream. While Hudson failed to discover a route to the Orient, the river that now bears his name became a productive fur trading post, which the Dutch needed to show a profit from their exploration.

Even though this was the first non-English colony to be established in early America, it was New Netherland’s fundamental diversity that made it different from its neighboring English colonies. Although relatively few in number, its early settlers embraced immigrants from Holland, Sweden, France, and Germany and also most importantly from Africa. When the Dutch West India Company attempted to mimic the success of the earlier East India Company, it began not only importation but also the transportation of a new commodity blacks from Africa, who transplanted their unique customs and culture to New Netherland. Some of these people eventually won their freedom. This introduced a different type of hierarchy not seen in the other colonies. As New Amsterdam’s population increased, its culture became more diverse, allowing foreign traditions and customs to become an important part of the city’s daily life.

The lowest rung of a seaport’s social hierarchy contained free and bound workers. Free laborers were mainly young white men and women journeymen artisans, sailors, fishermen, domestic workers, seamstresses, and prostitutes. While the ranks of unfree workers included mostly apprentices and indentured servants doing menial labor in shops and on the docks, black men and women also made up a substantial part of the bound labor force. Although the vast majority of African slaves who were imported by the Dutch West India Company in New Netherland were sold to Southern plantations, some were bought by urban merchants and craftsmen. Laboring as porters at the docks, assistants in craft shops, or servants in wealthy households, colonial black residents made up almost 20 percent of New York City’s population. As the percentage of black residents of New York, as well as the 10 percent in the other Middle colonies increased, limitations on blacks were put into place, as white society feared the African traditions and did not understand the importance of maintaining them.

The character of slavery in Northern seaports changed decisively during the mid-eighteenth century. At that time, warfare in Europe required the service of many who might otherwise have become immigrants, thus limiting the supply of white indentured servants. The colonial cities therefore imported larger numbers of Africans. These newcomers brought to urban black culture not only a labor force but also a new awareness of a common West African past. This culture made an impact as African traditions were tolerated and appeared most vividly in annual festivals, likened to those held in West Africa. Initially, these festivals occurred only in New Amsterdam. Black men and women paraded in their masters’ clothes or mounted on their horses. A special, albeit unofficial, election followed, during which the participants chose their own black kings, governors, and judges, who then conducted a special court session to settle minor disputes among white and black members of the community.

“Negro Election Day,” with its temporary reversal of roles, was not intended to challenge the established racial order. This toleration and recognition of a different culture gave the black community of New Amsterdam a sense of importance, even if for only one day. This festival eventually spread to other colonial seaports, but it never became as important as it was in Dutch New Amsterdam and, later, English New York City. Penny M. Sonnenburg See also: African Americans; Free Blacks; Slave Communities and Culture; Slavery, African American. Bibliography Archdeacon, Thomas J. New York City, 1664–1710: Conquest and Change. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1976. Goodfriend, Joyce D. Before the Melting Pot: Society and Culture in Colonial New York City, 1664–1730. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1992. New Amsterdam Sharply contrasting the bustling metropolis that later emerged on Manhattan Island, New Amsterdam was a small, neglected outpost in the sprawling Dutch empire. From the 1620s through 1664, New Amsterdam served as the main town and trading post for the scattered Dutch settlements in New.

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