It’s Complicated: Identity And The Descendants Of Long Island’s Enslaved People

Jul 20, 2020

Long Island knows little about its history of slavery, let alone that Native Americans were also part of it.

At the Shinnecock reservation in Southampton, indigenous people work hard to preserve the history and culture that has faced many trials throughout the years. 

Shane Weeks is a proud member of the Shinnecock Nation and has learned a lot about his ancestry, including its ties to slavery. It’s complicated.

Shane has Native American, African American and Scottish ancestry. He can trace back his Long Island roots back nearly 12 generations.

“Here on Shinnecock, we were slaves back in 1600s, 1700s,” he said. “We were working on plantations, and some of us were shipped away. But for the most part, the ones that stayed here became more like indentured servants. But on paper it would say ‘employed’ but we would never make anything off of it.”

Because Native Americans and Blacks were often enslaved and freed together on Long Island, intermarriage was common. Racial identity became complicated.

“A lot of Blacks married Native Americans. They were not Native American themselves,” Joysetta Pearse, the director at The African American Museum of Nassau County, said.  

But the census did not necessarily reflect that. The United States conducted its first census in 1790. Only the head of the household was recorded and the number of persons in it was described by gender, color and either free or enslaved. 

By 1860, the census included an indication of “I” for Native American Indian. Pearse said that census takers were told to make the decision for themselves. 

“So, if you look darker than the white people they know, they’re gonna list you as a person of color in whatever category,” Mary Cascone, the Babylon town historian, said. 

For example, Cascone is having a tough time getting a historic marker for the old Colored School Number 6 building in North Amityville. She wants it made clear that both the children of freed Blacks and Native Americans went there.

“If we had been willing to just say ‘people of color,’ slam dunk,” she said. 

Again, it’s complicated. The term “colored” was used to describe Blacks and Native Americans but Cascone can’t find primary sources that specifically identify students at the school as Native Americans, even though their descendants have ties to the community. 

“And now these families that are trying to confirm their own Native American heritage and stuff like that are identified as African American. And it's very hard to separate them,” she said. 

The documentation of mixed race people is complicated. Lynda Day, a professor of Africana Studies at Brooklyn College, says what really matters is self-identification. 

“A person of color living on Long Island in the 1890s is more than likely mixed with Native American for sure,” she said. “And if the people living now want to say they were Native American, they want to claim the Native American part, that’s their right.”  

Shane Weeks is proud he is both Shinnecock and Black. Despite his mixed heritage, Weeks says Shinnecock is not just his lineage, it’s his nationality.

“We were once wanted to be wiped out, so to say that we’re Shinnecock and to be living here in Shinnecock, we always say that we’re this, that and the third, but we’re Shinnecock. Somebody asks who we were, we’re Shinnecock,” he said.  

It’s complicated. But what isn’t complicated is that the descendants of Long Island slaves who have remained on Long Island continue to search for information on who they are and where they came from.

This story was reported and written by Isabelle Desilier, Andrea Keckley and Megan Valle, as part of a series in collaboration between the Stony Brook University School of Journalism and WSHU.