Slave life in colonial N.Y. highlighted

Culinary historian Lavada Nahon explains the foods black slaves prepared during a program on African traditions in colonial New York Saturday at Johnson Hall Historic site in Johnstown. (The Leader-Herald/Eric Retzlaff)

JOHNSTOWN — Slavery has been so identified with the South, Northerners might not be aware of slavery in colonial New York.

For Northerners, a program on African traditions in colonial New York at Johnson Hall Historic Site Saturday was meant to illuminate that aspect of history–courtesy of the Children of Dahomey educational performance group from New York City.

The day began with Marcha Tracey telling stories from West Africa, the origin of the greatest numbers of slaves.

Later, Frederick Jones, who portrayed a slave with barrel-making skills, and Donald Hyman, who depicted the thoughts of a free man kidnapped into slavery in the Bahamas, presented a debate.

Jones said his character was treated well for his skill as a cooper since, in those days, “most merchandise had to be shipped in barrels.” Hyman portrayed a man who was once a free man and wants his freedom again. “He is young and impulsive,” Hyman said.

Jones’s character replies that if the young man “runs away, there’ll be a price on his head” and he might be captured and sold to be “worked to death” in the deep South. Jones notes that he, himself, is less inclined to run away because he has children.

Neil Clark then showed the visitors the types of common items slaves used to make music, such as wooden rods, cowbells, discarded barrels as drums, and the metal part of hoes. He then helped the visitors to fill bottles with beans, rice or lentils or a combination of these and showed them how they can be used to create a rhythm to which words can be applied.

Eight-year-old Claire Smith of Schenectady said, “I like the musical part” of the program.

“I put in three kinds of beans and the rice because it makes a bunch of different sounds to make nice sounds.”

“I’m learning what makes a percussion instrument and how they were homemade,” said Nikki Svolos of Johnstown.

While activities were occurring outside, culinary historian Lavada Nahon of Peekskill was preparing foods that slave cooks would prepare. She explained how middle-to-upper-income whites ate with varying degrees of opulence and how slaves ate.

Nahon said slave cooks were valued if they prepared good food but could be beaten if they burned food or served it late.

Clark’s instructions about how slaves made instruments were illustrated when the Children of Dahomey danced and sang to those instruments. It showed how slaves celebrated their days off, including the Dutch holiday Pinksterfest (the feast of Pentecost).