Scholars study slavery through Sylvester Manor archives at NYU

COURTESY PHOTO | Photo of Julia Dyd Havens Johnson taken at Sylvester Manor about 1885.

Author Mac Griswold, who is writing a history of slavery at Sylvester Manor called “Slaves in the Attic,” addressed a group of students and scholars in a talk at New York University last week that included some details about Julia Dyd — the woman after whom Dyd’s Creek is named. It is better known in recent years as Dodd’s Creek, a corruption of the original name.

The talk was one in a series given by NYU’s “Sylvester Manor Working Group,” which is studying the thousands of documents donated to NYU’s Fales Library by Eben Ostby, who inherited the manor from its last owner, Andrew Fiske, and is trying to preserve it with his nephew, Bennett Konesni, as a working farm. The manor was founded in the 17th century. In 1680, records show there were 23 slaves there, making it the largest slaveholding property in the New York colony.

Ms. Griswold said Julia Dyd was called “the last of the slaves at Sylvester Manor” by the Eben Horsford family, mid-19th century descendants of plantation founder Nathanial Sylvester. “She had no existence” for them “outside of the manor story,” Ms. Griswold argued. Julia was, in fact, born free and owned acreage on the creek she had inherited from her stepfather Jack Comus Fanning, a free black. He was the only black to own land on Shelter Island in those days, despite the abolition of slavery in New York.

Julia, the housekeeper at the manor house — relying on the advice of the Horsford family, Ms. Griswold believes — sold off her land from 1830 to 1860 until she was “landless and homeless,” Ms. Griswold said. She died in 1907 in Sag Harbor.

Cornelia Horsford wrote in a letter at the time that she would “put up a stone for Julia,” Ms. Griswold said, but none has ever been found in Sag Harbor or at the black cemetery at Sylvester Manor.

Also speaking at the event, which was held on Thursday, May 3, was Ben Davidson, an NYU American history student, who reviewed census records and documents from the manor archives to study the progress of manumission after the gradual abolition of slavery in New York State, beginning in the late 18th century and continuing into the early 19th century.  He found that only two slaves remained on Shelter Island by December 1821.

After emancipation, he argued, many freed slaves “remained tied to the land and in debt” to their former owners.

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