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The front of Fraunces Tavern.
Photograph: Courtesy of Fraunces Tavern

Fraunces Tavern Museum now showcases NYC’s role in Revolutionary-era emancipation

Learn about "The Birch Trials" at the Fraunces Tavern Museum in Lower Manhattan.

Rossilynne Skena Culgan
Written by
Rossilynne Skena Culgan

As the Revolutionary War came to a close, British Loyalists and soldiers evacuated the colonies in droves. But the evacuation was more complicated for Black Loyalists, some of whom joined the British cause in response to offers of freedom. 

In 1783, the new government formed a special committee to review the eligibility of some Black Loyalists to evacuate with the British Army, and that committee met at Fraunces Tavern in Lower Manhattan. A new permanent exhibit at the Fraunces Tavern Museum explores this important moment in history. 

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A rarely told Revolutionary story 

Thousands of Black people fought for American liberty, likely helping to encourage legislatures in the northern states to abolish slavery. Other Black colonists saw the British as offering the best hope for a better life. When some of those Black Loyalists tried to evacuate, they were faced with claims that they were ineligible to leave. 

To review those claims, the British and American governments worked together to create a committee overseen by British Brigadier General Samuel Birch. The commission's work became known as The Birch Trials, which were held at Fraunces Tavern. 

A table with a quill.
Photograph: By Rossilynne Skena Culgan / Time Out | The Birch Trials exhibit.

The exhibition, also titled "The Birch Trials," features archival documents explaining the committee's work. The space is set up with simple wooden chairs, a table, and a quill pen intended to depict what the meetings would have looked like. 

“We really want to dig into the details and figure out what happened here, why it happened, what were the cases, how was it tied to the tavern and how was it tied to the evacuation that was happening across the board,” Scott Dwyer, executive director of Fraunces Tavern Museum, tells Time Out New York

Government leaders prepared a record of 3,000 Black men, women and children who were permitted to board British ships. Of those 3,000 people, about 400 were born free or emancipated before the war. Many evacuated to Nova Scotia. 

Officials wrote down each person's name in "the Book of Negroes" to facilitate compensation claims from American slaveholders to the Crown for their lost property, but no record of payments has been found.

It became one of the largest emancipations of Black people prior to the American Civil War.

The committee was founded as a way to negotiate without reigniting the war. If anyone had objections to Black individuals leaving, all parties had to plead their case in front of the committee. Only about 10 cases came up in front of the committee at Fraunces Tavern. The committee had several options: Keep the person free, give them back to the enslaver or refer the claim to Birch. The exhibition explores several claims with different outcomes.  

“It’s a really important story of the tavern,” Dwyer says. “And we wanted to make a permanent space for it in our museum,” Dwyer said. “We want to make sure this story is out there permanently and documented.”

The exhibition required two years of exhaustive research into thousands of pages of documentation.

The museum's Ambrose M. Richardson III describes The Birch Trials as "a significant event in the long and continuing story of Americans of African descent in the United States."

"Although the story of these individuals has been told, including by our own museum, it is still not widely known by the public. We hope this new permanent exhibition will change that," Richardson, co-chairman of the Museum and Art Committee, said in a press release. 

The Long Room at Fraunces Tavern.
Photograph: Courtesy of Fraunces Tavern | The Long Room

About the museum

If you haven't been to the Fraunces Tavern Museum yet, it's definitely worth a visit. First of all, it's the oldest building in Manhattan, dating all the way back to 1719. While it was built as a mansion, the building has had lots of other uses over the years including as a dance hall, a boarding house, commercial space and a home for government offices in America's early days. 

New York's chapter of the Sons of the Revolution stepped in during the early 1900s to renovate the building back to its 18th Century look. 

Today, the museum operates on the upper floors of the building daily from noon-5pm with $10 adult admission. Permanent exhibits include a George Washington portrait gallery, a re-creation of the post-Revolutionary foreign affairs office, commemorative war objects and a deep dive into the building’s history.  It’s also home to “The Long Room” where Washington delivered his famous farewell to officers at the end of the Revolution. Today, the room is furnished with period objects and used as an educational space.  

Also on view: "Cloaked Crusader: George Washington in Comics and Pop Culture," which explores how George Washington became a pop culture icon over the years.

Beneath the museum on the ground floor, Fraunces Tavern is open daily for food and drinks. Inside the tavern, you’ll find a variety of dining rooms and bars, including a piano bar and a whiskey bar.

Find it all at 54 Pearl Street in Lower Manhattan. 

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