Abolishing Slavery

The Battle Over Abolition


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After New York State abolished slavery in 1827, a small group of New York City abolitionists, such as David Ruggles and Abby Hopper Gibbons, continued to work for an end to slavery nationwide. Both black and white activists denounced New Yorkers who profited from slavery through investment and trade, and they aided escaped slaves making their way to freedom via a secret network of New York “stations” on the Underground Railroad.

New York was also home to vigorous defenders of slavery, who viewed African Americans as inferior and warned that abolition would hurt the nation’s economy. Both sides took advantage of New York’s role as center of publishing and the arts, using the city’s printing presses, theaters, and music halls to advocate for an end to slavery or for white supremacy. 

During the Civil War, tension in the city erupted in the Draft Riots of July 1863, which targeted African Americans and abolitionists and resulted in over 100 deaths and widespread destruction—the worst episode of mob violence in New York City history. Many African Americans fled New York during and after the riots, never to return.

With the defeat of the Confederacy and the end of the Civil War in 1865, New York’s abolitionists rejoiced over the end of slavery in the United States.

 Yet New York remained a divided “Jim Crow” city for decades, with racial segregation of most businesses, housing, and schools. It would fall to later generations of activists to continue to challenge racism and civil inequality in New York.

Key Events

Global  Year    Local

First enslaved Africans are brought to New Amsterdam


After Governor John Jay passed a law of gradual emancipation in 1799, slavery is abolished in New York State

Founding of the American Anti-Slavery Society and the New York Anti-Slavery Society 1833




Anti-abolitionist riot in Manhattan


New York Committee of Vigilance established with David Ruggles as secretary; becomes part of the Underground Railroad

  1850 Mass public meeting in New York supports the new Fugitive Slave Act
  1863 New draft law leads to riots in New York President Abraham Lincoln issues Emancipation Proclamation
  1864 New York raises its first African-American regiment to fight for the Union Army in the Civil War


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