As he sorted through years of research collected by scouring countless manuscripts and original newspapers, Bronx historian and author Lloyd Ultan made an unexpected discovery — he had accumulated a book’s worth of information about blacks in the colonial Bronx.
“I was doing research on the Bronx in general and I happened to come across these things,” said Mr. Ultan, a professor of history at Fairleigh Dickinson University and Lehman College who has been the borough’s historian since 1996. “I said, well, there’s a book in here.”
Representations of slavery and slave-owning culture in the American South abound in the media, but Mr. Ultan’s exploration of a lesser-known side of slavery’s history has yielded a new book, Blacks in the Colonial Bronx. Published by the Bronx County Historical Society, the collection of historical documents, each prefaced with an examination and overview by Mr. Ultan, provides a narrative about the black experience during what Mr. Ultan refers to as a “formative” period in the history of the borough.
A man named Antone —freed in 1698 — his wife Diana and their three sons were the first documented freed black people in the Bronx. Slavery was not officially abolished in New York until 1827 — Mr. Ultan reveals in his book that slavery existed in the Bronx for centuries before it was made illegal. He unearthed documentation of the practice’s existence in the Bronx in over 50 historical repositories scattered from Manhattan and the Bronx to Albany and New Brunswick, N.J.
“I wanted to give a narrative, give a story, about what the black experience was like and how they lived, what they did, what clothes they wore, what accomplishments they made and how they were treated, both good and ill,” said Mr. Ultan.
Most Bronxites, Mr. Ultan writes, owned one or two slaves who would sleep in the same house as the slave owners. But among the prominent slave owners in the Bronx were the Morris and the Van Cortlandt families, who gave their names to Van Cortlandt Park and Morrisania.