Dominion of New York


September 6, 2012

NYC Congresswoman Thinks Brooklyn Had Slaves in 1898

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Written by: Kelly Virella


want to give Yvette Clarke the benefit of the doubt on this one, but I’m not sure I can. During an on camera interview with Stephen Colbert (at the 5 min mark in the video above), the 11th district congressional Democrat revealed that she believed Brooklyn had slaves in 1898.

It all started when Colbert asked her what she would say to Brooklynites if she could go back in a time machine to 1898, Clarke said “I would say to them, ‘Set me free.'” When he asked what she wanted them to be free from, she clarified that she meant “slavery.” Then it got worse. When he asked who the 1898 slaveholders were, she said “the Dutch.”

Now, a quick basic history lesson every black New Yorker should commit to memory: slavery was formally abolished in New York State in 1827. A  huge defiant parade ensued, but the law contained a provision that allowed non-residents entering the state with slaves to keep them for nine months. That law was finally repealed in 1841. Granted, Jim Crow picked up where slavery left off. Just like the south, New York had segregated schools, transit, etc. But slavery itself was long over in 1898, formally abolished nationwide by the 13th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution in 1865 We should commit that sweet law and the precise date of its ratification — December 6, 1865 — to memory. It says:

“Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”

So how did Clarke flub these milestones of black history? She reveals in her interview that her parents are from Jamaica. Might that play a role in her confusion about the abolition of slavery in New York? I’m not saying that Afro-Caribbeans don’t know U.S. history or can’t know it, just that Clarke’s parents might not have talked to her much about these milestones. Or is this a classic case of black folks — African-Americans included — not knowing our history? Somebody help me out here.

About the Author

Kelly Virella
Kelly Virella lives in an East Harlem walk-up with her husband, her bicycle and her books. She's worked as a journalist for 11 years and started this website during the summer of 2011. She fell in love with New York City during her first visit here as a 16-year-old and finally made good on her promise to move here in April 2010.


Official portrait from his tenure as US Secretary of Housing and Urban Development.