Learn About the Project
The Plain Sight Project is a joint effort of The East Hampton Star newspaper and the East Hampton Free Library.
In Colonial North America, slavery was a part of life. This was true on Long Island, N.Y. and across the Northeast. Enslaved people of African heritage were a presence in the farms and homes of nearly every European family of means, and not just on the estates of the very wealthy.
Starting with the East End of Long Island in the mid-17th century, the Plain Sight Project works to restore the stories of enslaved persons to their essential place in American history.
We want to be able to say something, however simple, about every single individual whose identity we find. We study account books, church birth and death records, wills and probate records, and a range of other primary sources to find individual enslaved persons and to be able to learn something about them. We teach other groups and individuals how they can conduct the same work in their communities.
From a starting point in 2016 with just two known individuals, our database of what we call "confirmed identities" has grown to more than 250 people 1657 (a woman named Boose) to 1829 (a girl named Tamer).
A black man called Shem cut timber in 1796 to build a grain windmill with a member of the celebrated Dominy family of craftsmen. Cato obtained or had soled six pairs of shoes from the town cobbler in 1785 -- why? What work did he do? In the Rev. Nathaniel Huntting's home inventory for 1734, Betty and Jimmy had the use of a "homemade bed, a bolster, three pillows of down, and three old blankets." Who were they? Where did they come from? And there is Jack, a free black man, building a house for himself in the East Hampton "street" in 1676 on land he could not sell nor leave to his children. What was his story?
Slavery in the North remains difficult to envision. Some of the people enslaved on Long Island worked as farm hands, but others did daily chores in small households or worked alongside their so-called "master," who might be a leather tanner, brickmaker, or weaver.
Instead of living among hundreds of others in a row of sweltering plantation cabins, as in the South, East Hamptons' enslaved residents are more likely to have slept in the eaves and attics of modest saltbox houses like those you see still standing on the Main Street.
Among the next steps for the Plain Sight Project is creating a template with which groups in other parts of the Upper Mid-Atlantic, New York State, and New England can comb their own communities' archives for enslaved persons, with a goal of creating a granular national database that can be searched by individuals and be used to understand the relative presence and location of enslaved persons in the region through time. And we seek to dovetail with other researchers who have been studying the black communities on Long Island of the 19th and 20th centuries.
We hope that the data and individual stories we amass will encourage the managers of historical properties, as well as public officials, to recognize the presence and contributions of enslaved persons in Eastern Long Island's colonial period, expanding outward as more groups begin to replicate our research. What the response will look like -- how the names will be honored and the memory of the enslaved inserted back into our shared history -- will be up to residents and community leaders.