Liberty’s Chain: Slavery, Abolition, and the Jay Family of New York

For the December installment of its Curatorial Shorts series, the RBML hosted Robb Haberman, Associate Editor of the John Jay Papers, and David N. Gellman, Professor of History at DePaul University for a conversation about the Jay family’s fraught relationship with slavery and abolition. The focus of the talk was Liberty’s Chain: Slavery, Abolition, and the Jay Family of New York, Professor Gellman’s forthcoming monograph that draws on extensive archival research to tell a multigenerational narrative about this influential New York family and the members of the African American community who lived and worked for them in conditions of servitude and freedom. Beginning before American independence and concluding with Reconstruction, Professor Gellman’s study explores how the contradictions of freedom and slavery of the United States’ early years are reflected in the life and legacy of several generations of the Jay family. John Jay, his sons, and grandsons exemplify the imbrication of enslavement and abolitionism in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. These men profited from generations of slave ownership even as they became some of the most prominent abolitionists in the 19th century. Perhaps because of this duality, their anti-slavery efforts often fall short. For example, John Jay was a proponent of gradual manumission of enslaved people. But this is what makes such a study worthwhile. Professor Gellman introduced and concluded his presentation with an appeal to confront troubling legacies and take seriously how they might respond to the pressing questions of today.

Upcoming Curatorial Shorts:
Feb 7, 4 pm: Jennifer Lee, Columbia RBML, and Amy Dehan, Cincinnati Art Museum, Unlocking Art Deco with Joseph Urban

March 7, 4 pm: Lukas Moe, San Jose State English Department, “Columbia and the Poetry of ’68”

April 11, 4 pm: Jocelyn Wilk and Joanna Rios, Columbia RBML, “October 1897: Welcome to Morningside Heights!”

May 9, 4 pm: Andrew Gorin, NYU English Department, “Amiri Baraka’s Black Communications Project in the Archives”