“Land of the Blacks” and Sebastiaen de Britto

What histories do the city’s landscape hide from us?

When investigated closely, this single-family row house at 143 Allen Street (see above) reveals centuries-old experiences of Black New Yorkers, from before New York existed.

This land formed part of what was known in the mid-17th Century as ‘Land of the Blacks,’ a settlement of farms and homes owned by Black residents of Mannahatta, as it was known to the Lenape, or New Amsterdam, the name given by Dutch colonizers. The ‘Land of the Blacks’ was the first settlement of its kind in New York, where Black residents owned land. On March 26, 1647, a man listed as ‘Bastien Negro,’ listed in other documents as Sebastiaen de Britto of St. Domingo, was granted six acres of the land that includes 143 Allen Street, extending from “the Bowery and Rivington St eastward towards Allen St, and downward towards Broome St.” Seven months after receiving this land, he married a woman named Isabel Kisana, from Angola; their marriage was recorded in the Dutch Reformed Church.

In 1644, William Kieft, the Director-General of New Amsterdam, oversaw the transfer of thirty land grants to enslaved people who had petitioned the Dutch West India Company for their freedom. Instead of full freedom, the Company only agreed on “half freedom,” a status with more participation in the Dutch colonial legal system, but with the conditions that they could be recalled into labor for the Company at any point, that they owed an annual tax to the company, and devastatingly, that their children would remain enslaved. The land grants were included in the agreement of “half freedom,” but the land given sat a mile north of the city boundary at today’s Wall Street, a perceived buffer between the Dutch colonial settlements and the Lenape Native American settlements.

Diagram map of land owned by freed African landholders along Bowery and Houston Street in what was then known as New Amsterdam (now New York)
As seen in this map, the ‘Land of the Blacks’ included parts of modern-day Greenwich Village, Little Italy, Chinatown, and this section of the Lower East Side.

De Britto’s land would have bordered the properties of other Black residents, as well as farmland owned by white residents. In the ‘Land of the Blacks,’ people like Sebastiaen and Isabel would live with their families, farm the land, and form bonds with their neighbors across their cultural and ethnic differences. From the last names of people who received land grants, we learn that de Britto’s neighbors have connections, through birth or the forced migration of enslavement, to places as diverse as Angola, Congo, San Tomé, Spain, and Colombia. De Britto himself had ties to Santo Domingo, in the colony of Hispanola, today’s Dominican Republic.

All would have shared heritage in Africa, particularly West Africa, but many free and enslaved Black New Amsterdammers had already moved many times by the time they arrived in New Amsterdam. They spoke both European and African languages, had learned complex trades and cross-cultural negotiations; many had also converted to or had exposure to Christianity. Those who were given the new status of half-freedom remained connected to the enslaved population, retaining and deepening relationships across status.

By 1664, when the British took control of the colony, the settlements of Black residents covered about 130 acres, or about 100 city blocks. While a set of the land grants had been issued in perpetuity, by the 1680s, the British revoked the property rights of the African residents of the ‘Land of the Blacks,’ and by 1707 had prohibited people of African descent from owning property. The colony became a much more dangerous place for people like de Britto, and many Black residents of New Amsterdam chose to move if they could, rather than risk violence from the British.

The land changes hands over the next century, and eventually becomes a site of enslavement as James DeLancey’s farm, and later, as a row house built for cotton trader George Sutton, an example of New York’s reliance on the labor of enslaved people as the source of its economic growth as a port city.

The land holds these contradictions, of Black freedom, land ownership, and enslavement, and invites us to look closer at the stories revealed in reaching back four centuries.