“But-hush-now Charles the King harangues,
A hundred fiddles cease their twangs….
"Let us, each woman, man and boy,
"Strive, who call freedom most enjoy;…
“Tho' torn from friends beyond the waves,
"Tho' fate has doom'd us to be slaves,
"Yet on this day, let's taste and see
"How sweet a thing is Liberty”
From: A Pinkster Ode, Absalom Aimwell, Esq., 1803.
Starting on the fiftieth day after Easter, Dutch and African New Yorkers celebrated Pinkster, a word taken from “Pinksteren,” the Dutch word for Pentecost. Known in English colonies as Whitsunday or Whitsuntide, Pentecost is a Christian holy day which marks the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the apostles, granting them the ability to speak in tongues and spread the Gospel throughout the world. In the Netherlands, Pinksteren was celebrated since the Medieval period as a combination of Christian religious holy day and a festival welcoming the return of spring. It was a time for religious services, baptisms, confirmations, and weddings, alongside more pagan celebrations of crowning a flower queen and dancing around a maypole. Neighbors visited each other, communities gathered to play games and sports, and children dyed eggs and ate gingerbread.
In the Dutch New Netherland colony, especially in New York and New Jersey, enslaved Africans combined the Christian traditions of Pentecost with elements of African celebrations to create the unique festival known as Pinkster. Despite its Dutch origins, by the early 1800s, Pinkster was considered a largely African-American holiday.
Pinkster celebrations flourished in the areas of heaviest Dutch settlement: the Hudson Valley, northern New Jersey, and western Long Island. These same areas also had significant populations of enslaved Africans from the 1600s until emancipation in New York in 1827. Unlike on Southern plantations, enslaved people in the North often lived in relative isolation from other African people. Tenant farmers and small farms usually enslaved only one or a few people. Wealthy households may have enslaved up to a dozen or more. Even extremely wealthy manor lords like the Philipses enslaved about a hundred people, many of them divided up over several properties. In addition, family separation was common. Children were separated from their parents to begin work as young as six years old. Husbands and wives were often sold away from each other or enslaved by different people. Although the early years of the New Netherland colony provided some freedom of movement within towns and cities, the passage of slave codes starting in 1702 in New York and 1704 in New Jersey began to severely restrict the movement and curtail the limited rights of enslaved people.
The year’s calendar offered enslaved Africans few holidays or breaks from tedious and often grueling work. For rural captives, who were often isolated from larger African communities, Pinkster became the most important break in the year.
Extended time-off was rare for the enslaved community and Pinkster provided a much-needed break from the day-to-day work of the entire enslaved community. The celebration could last up to four or five days. Enslaved people were allowed to travel to visit family and attend Pinkster celebrations, which were often held in more populous areas like Albany and New York City.
Out from under the watchful eyes and strict control of their enslavers, people could relax and express themselves using traditions from West and Central African cultures. Newspaper accounts describe the polyrhythms of African drumming, African languages being spoken, and traditional dances, games, and other entertainments. Enslaved people born in Africa were revered as culture-keepers, helping to preserve the traditions of dance, language, and other important cultural touchstones. For people isolated in rural areas, Pinkster might be the only time they heard their native languages spoken.
Pinkster also provided enslaved people a chance to earn money – selling items such as berries, herbs, sassafras (for spring tonic), beverages, and other spring foods like oysters, shad, and herring. Money earned at Pinkster could be spent there as well. Africans and Europeans alike enjoyed drinking, game-playing, dance, and music at these gatherings. Larger celebrations featured tents and temporary buildings for vendors, music, and more. Vendors adorned market stalls with greenery and flowers (azaleas are associated with Pinkster), and European vendors hired skillful African dancers to draw crowds to their booths. Sports, feats of strength, and dance competitions also marked the celebration. Dances such as the “jig,” “breakdown,” or “double shuffle” synthesized African and European elements with newly invented steps and were the forerunners of tap and break dancing.
In Albany, Pinkster took place on Pinkster Hill, the current location of the New York State Capitol. In the weeks prior to the holiday, temporary shelters woven from brush and clearly based on African forms, were set up on three sides of a square at the top of “Pinkster Hill.” Pinkster as an African-American creative expression reached its zenith in Albany during the period between 1790 and 1810.
During these years Pinkster was always presided over by King Charles, a figure of great local renown and preeminence within Albany’s African community. Charles, an Angola-born captive claimed by the Mayor of Albany, was tall, handsome, an athletic and tireless dancer, and a gifted speaker. As the Master of Ceremonies, he was responsible for directing the event and keeping up the spirits of participants during the long sessions of drumming and dancing that crowned the celebration. The style of dance and the complex layering of contrasting rhythms by the drummers and clappers attest to the survival and retention of West African traditions.
The crowning of the Pinkster King, like the election of generals or governors during other holidays celebrated by African people elsewhere in the northeast, invested respected members of the African community with symbolic power over the whole community and with distinction within their own community. Celebrations featuring this sort of inversion of rank can be traced both to West African and European antecedents. Pinkster is related in this way to more famous New World festivals such as Mardi Gras. In the 19thcentury, White commentators like James Fenimore Cooper compared Pinkster to Saturnalia – a Roman festival where master and slave temporarily switched roles.
Another significance of Pinkster was the opportunity for enslaved Africans to slyly mock their White captors through caricatures of European fashions and behavior, and to voice their own anguish through speeches, storytelling, and improvised call and response singing.
Although the Albany celebrations have the most robust documentation, Pinkster was also celebrated in New York City, Flatbush, Kingston, on Long Island and in Northern New Jersey. Pinkster allowed the enslaved community to gather in large numbers. Although most individuals probably commuted each day, the chance to visit with separated family and communicate with friends old and new allowed for much information to be exchanged.
Although Pinkster was, by all accounts, an event that was celebratory in nature, there were also undertones of a more serious nature for an enslaved community defined by law as property rather than people. Large scale gatherings like Pinkster offered those in attendance the opportunity to catch up on news and events, meet with separated family and loved ones, and forge new relationships.
More subversive activities were also present at these festivities. Pinkster can be understood as an act of reasserting one’s African identity. With the crowning of a king and the use of ritualized music and dance, Pinkster provided the enslaved community with a shared history and a reminder that the numerous African cultures from which they descended were, in fact, kingdoms and empires.
Pinkster gatherings also provided opportunities for enslaved people to organize. During the trials of the 1741 Conspiracy in New York City, time and again “Whitsuntide,” or Pinkster, was referenced as a day upon which enslaved people met to organize the planned uprising, including meeting at John Hughson’s tavern.
Pinkster gave some enslaved people the opportunity to self-emancipate as well. Several runaway slave advertisements cite enslaved people traveling to attend Pinkster celebrations and simply never coming back. The most famous example is Sojourner Truth (a name she chose on Pinkster Sunday) who self-emancipated on Pinkster to visit family from whom she had been separated.
Although the bulk of Pinkster celebrations were decidedly African, many commentators described the event as multi-ethnic. In the spring of 1737, the New York Weekly Journal ran a long article that described a Pinkster festival in Flatbush. The author noted a multi ethnic event with “mix’t-multitudes” including “Gentlemen, Merchants & Mechanics of different Occupations... [and] Negroes divided into Companies... according to their different Nations.” In 1803, the Albany Centinel published an article chronicling Pinkster, writing that “the blacks and a certain class of whites, together with children of all countries and colours, [. . .] Collected from every part of the city and from the adjacent country for many miles around, forming in the whole a motley group of thousands,” came together to celebrate. It is evident from these primary sources that Pinkster was a multi ethnic festival unique to the Hudson River region and awash with a variety of African cultural traditions.
“A Pinkster Ode,” an 1803 poem ascribed to Absolom Aimwell(a pseudonym), praised Albany’s Pinkster King Charles and described many of the events and cultural exchanges taking place during the festival. This lengthy poem has satiric elements, but also a strong abolitionist viewpoint. Although many of these primary sources use racist and prejudiced language to describe Pinkster proceedings and the people celebrating, they nonetheless offer some of the few period accounts of the event.
Pinkster was celebrated through the colonial era and into the early 19th century. However, by the end of the 18th century, White residents and governments became concerned about the large gatherings of enslaved and free Africans and African descendants. Turn of the 19th century slave rebellions and insurrections in places like Haiti, Cuba, Virginia, and Louisiana made the ruling classes nervous. As a result, the Albany Common Council essentially banned the event in 1811.
In 1827, New York finally ended legal slavery with the passage of the Emancipation Act. Any enslaved people not included in the 1799 Gradual Emancipation Act were legally freed. Those born after 1799 continued to serve out “indentures” as late as the 1840s.
But the decline in legal slavery and the gradual dilution of Dutch culture meant that Pinkster celebrations also died out. Without them, the strong direct connection between New York’s African descended community and their African heritage was no longer renewed every year. As freedom seekers from the South came northward, they brought their own cultural traditions, which mingled with local freedmen culture.
White 19th century authors and journalists catalogued Pinkster as a quaint holiday, painting it as an example of the “happy slave” and bemoaning the lost culture of their youth. Late 19th century attempts to revive Dutch culture, most notably with the St. Nicholas Club in New York, revived interest in Pinkster, but largely divorced from its African aspects.
Pinkster remained a faint memory of a quaint New York holiday until the late 20th century. Bicentennial celebrations in New York along with a rising interest in social history helped spur research into Pinkster. In the early 1980s, Historic Hudson Valley’s Philipsburg Manor revived Pinkster celebrations. In 1994, A.J. Williams-Myers published Long Hammering, a series of essays about enslaved African and African-American experiences in the Hudson Valley; one chapter was on Pinkster. By the turn of the millennium, State Historic Sites in Albany like Schuyler Mansion and Crailo joined in the revival. In 2011, the City of Albany officially repealed the 1811 ban on Pinkster celebrations.
Today, Pinkster festivals have expanded to include Philipse Manor Hall State Historic Site in Yonkers, NY, Senate House State Historic Site in Kingston, NY, Historic New Bridge Landing in Bergen County, NJ, and other historic sites throughout the old New Netherland region. These events acknowledge the oppression of slavery in the North and the ultimate triumph over it. They celebrate resistance to cultural erasure and bring together diverse communities to learn about and celebrate New York’s whole history.
Academic History Books:
Abrahams, Roger D. Singing the Master : The Emergence of African American Culture in the Plantation South. New York: Penguin Books (1993).
Dewulf, Jeroen. The Pinkster King and the King of Congo: The Forgotten History of America’s Dutch-Owned Slaves. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi (2017).
Hodges, Graham Russell. Root & Branch: African Americans in New York & East Jersey, 1613-1863. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press (1999).
White, Shane. Somewhat More Independent : The End of Slavery in New York City 1770-1810. Athens: University of Georgia Press (1991).
Williams-Myers, Albert James. Long Hammering : Essays on the Forging of an African American Presence in the Hudson River Valley to the Early Twentieth Century. Trenton N.J: Africa World Press (1994).
Please note - these sources often contain racist and prejudiced descriptions and stereotypes.
New York Weekly Journal, March 7, 1736 - front page.
"Pinkster," Albany Centinel, June 17, 1803
A PINKSTER ODE For the Year 1803. Most Respectfully Dedicated To CAROLUS AFRICANUS, REX: Thus Rendered in English: KING CHARLES, Capital-General and Commander in Chief of the PINKSTER BOYS. By His Majesty's Obedient Servant, ABSALOM AIMWELL, Esq. Albany: Printed Solely for the Purchasers and Others, 1803.
Collections on the History of Albany by Joel Munsell, 1865.