How Religious Institutions Can Study and Redress Historical Enslavement

By Professors Ned Benton and Judy-Lynne Peters, March 12, 2019

In winter 2019, the NY Slavery Records Index joined with St. Mark’s Church in the Bowery to study historical enslavement associated with the church and its site. Our common view was that recognizing past injustice is not only an inherent moral obligation, but also a constructive step in understanding and redressing racism and injustice today.

We agreed that the project could also serve as pilot project and conceptual model for inquiries into slavery associated with all religious institutions. This essay summarizes what we have learned thus far about how religious institutions might go about such inquiries.

Dimensions of focus: The Organization, the Site, the Historical Congregations, and the Enslaved People

For a religious institution with historical roots in times when slavery was practiced, an inquiry can start with the question of whether the institution itself ever owned or traded slaves. Did the institution allow slaves or black people to be members of the congregation? How were they treated? Were they allowed to participate in services? Were they designated special places to worship segregated from the general congregation?

A second dimension of focus can be the site of the institution and related sites such as cemeteries developed and maintained by the institution. This is particularly relevant to religious institutions with sites and facilities that date back more than two centuries, because the current congregation may be acting as the custodian of historical assets that may or may not originally developed by the current institution occupying the site.

The question of memorialization becomes important. Are there memorials to persons who were slaveholders? What do these memorials reveal about the history of slavery at the site.

Another issue that can arise with respect to the site of the institution is that the site may have been occupied in the past by other religious, secular or private organizations, and how the current occupant of the site should recognize enslavement by prior occupants of the site.

A third dimension involves slavery practiced by members of the congregation. An obvious question involves the responsibility of a congregation for the practices of a few members, but the only way to explore that responsibility is to establish the prevalence of enslavement among all members of the congregation, raising questions about whether the religious organization and its members generally engaged in or tolerated a practice that, at the time, other religious organizations and congregations opposed and sought to abolish.

A fourth and most important dimension of inquiry involves the enslaved people themselves, as individuals who can sometimes be named, described, and remembered, but sometimes who can only be counted. There are many kinds of records that associate enslaved people with their slaveholders, and some of these are records, such as birth records or baptisms, that were developed by the religious institutions.

It is important that a primary focus of an inquiry, in the end, be on the enslaved people themselves, to recognize what happened to them, and to restore their individual identities when records make this possible. Identifying slave holders is a necessary step to locate many types of records that identify enslaved people.

Historical Context

Historical context is sometimes raised as an unfortunate excuse for the practice of slavery. However, in the context of a religious institution’s inquiry, different historical periods can also present different questions. For example, while slavery was practiced for almost three centuries in what we today know of as New York, sometimes, when slavery was being practiced, abolition movements developed and even flourished. While some congregation members practiced slavery, did other members of the congregations join or support the abolition movements? Did congregation members participate in the Underground Railroad?

There is an opportunity to identify and recognize congregation members who opposed slavery and who sought to facilitate the freedom of enslaved people. It is also possible that the organization itself officially adopted public statements and policies in opposition to slavery. There is an opportunity to reaffirm core beliefs and values of the congregation today.

Methods and Sources

Religious institutions may possess some records documenting enslavement, such as birth and marriage records, but most connections are established by associating slave-holding congregation members with public and private records from beyond the institution.

Within New York State this is one of the values of the NY Slavery Records Index. Once a congregation member is associated with one record, the index presents other records associated with the same person, many of which identify enslaved persons by name and describe important events in their lives. Records of enslavement in New York have many locations, forms and purposes, and even a minimally comprehensive search by a single organization would take considerable effort and time. Records include:

  • Census records from Dutch, Colonial and United States periods;
  • Slave trade and slave ship records;
  • Personal documents such as wills and letters;
  • Birth certifications and registrations:
  • Emancipation records;
  • Emigration records of enslave people who fought on the side of the British in the Revolutionary War and were entitled to emigrate to Canada;
  • Records of advertisements for fugitive slaves; and
  • Financial records.

Fortunately, the Slavery Index has identified 37,000 records and made them available online in a searchable format, and the project is discovering and indexing more records every day. This collective initiative advances the research effort for any one locality or organization. It also makes available records identified through a religious institutions inquiry, so that they are accessible to other organizations and people seeking the information, such as local historical societies.

Memorials Redressing Enslavement

Traditionally memorials take form from stone, stained-glass and bronze. This raises challenges involving expense and space. But memorialization can take many forms.

Another challenge is that the information about enslavement is expanding because of organized efforts to discover and preserve records, and because of the digitization of records that are known to exist but that are not easily accessed. What does a congregation do when additional enslaved people are identified?

One approach is that a religious institution might consider a temporary memorial, such as a framed document, that can be updated periodically as more information is acquired. Alternatively, a physical memorial might be developed that is more general in nature, with the actual records available online or in a document that can be regularly updated. Instant book-publishing services can create bound volumes that could provide explanations of enslavement, and list names. The book can be inexpensively republished as new information becomes available.

A memorial should have educational value. For example, if there was as space where enslaved people were segregated during service, a wall might be repurposed explaining the significance of the space, providing information about enslavement which can be routinely updated.

Another issue about memorization involves existing memorials for people who practiced enslavement. A useful essay is Yale University’s “Letter of the Committee to Establish Principles on Renaming” which is available on the Yale website.  It explains the factors that Yale took into consideration in reviewing memorialization of slaveholders and possibly renaming buildings and colleges.

In evaluating memorials associated with the site or related sites of a religious organization, several responses are possible:

  • It is conceivable that, once the facts and circumstances of the memorial are fully developed and analyzed, that the memorial is deemed to be so offensive that it warrants removal or relocation.
  • If such a memorial is relocated or substantially changed, it is important not to erase the site’s historical record of slavery altogether. The history of slavery and its consequences still needs to be remembered.
  • If a memorial has significant historical or cultural value, or if the person memorialized has other important and constructive accomplishments and social contributions, a new memorial might be located in such a way as to contextualize the older memorial, while not disturbing or replacing it.