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On this day in 1644


Feb. 11, 1644

New Amsterdam depicted in a cartoon, circa 1642 Credit: Public Domain

The first known legal protest by those of African descent in what became the United States took place when 11 Black Americans petitioned the Council for New Netherland (New York) for freedom, saying they had fulfilled their contracts to the Dutch West India Co. 

They had been brought to the colony just a few years after its 1624 founding. They won their fight, but they remained in legal limbo in what became known as “half-freedom.” They received property, but they still had to pay crops and cattle to the company each year. 

One of them, Manuel de Gerrit de Reus, was accused with eight others of killing a Black man. The company decided to execute only one of them, and de Reus drew the short straw. But when the officials tried to execute him, both nooses around his neck broke. At the behest of witnesses, they pardoned him instead. 

Five months later, eight Black Americans returned to court, demanding their full freedom. They cited the arrival of English soldiers, who might re-enslave them. Despite those fears, the Black Americans managed to keep their freedom and lived north of what is now Washington Square Park, creating New York City’s first free Black community.

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