On this dayApr 18, 1846

New Jersey Orders Black Servitude for Life

On April 18, 1846, New Jersey enacted a law which bound enslaved Black people to indefinite servitude as “apprentices for life” to work at the will of their white enslavers.

Under the new law, called “An Act to Abolish Slavery,” white enslavers continued to exploit and profit from the labor of Black people who were now referred to as “apprentices” instead of “slaves,” but who were still unable to obtain freedom without a written certificate of discharge from their “masters or mistresses.”

Though enacting the law allowed New Jersey to claim its state laws no longer permitted “slavery,” the act did not meaningfully change the plight of Black people living in bondage there. Many of the same oppressive provisions that defined enslavement in New Jersey and elsewhere remained in place under this new law. The act prohibited Black “apprentices” from leaving the State of New Jersey, for instance, and imposed criminal penalties on any person who hid or harbored an “apprentice” or helped them run away.

Decades earlier, in 1804, New Jersey had passed the “Gradual Abolition Act,” becoming the last Northern state to take any steps towards the process of ending enslavement within its borders. That law had also fallen far short of abolishing slavery, instead delaying abolition for decades and ensuring that Black children not yet born would spend their youth in bondage. The 1804 act provided that children of enslaved people born after July 4, 1804, would be freed only when they reached the age of 21 for women and the age of 15 for boys. Despite the passage of this 1804 act, there were still more than 2,000 Black people enslaved in New Jersey by 1830.

Like the 1804 law, the 1846 act also failed to abolish—or even attempt to abolish—enslavement in New Jersey. It took the Civil War and the 1865 ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment—which abolished slavery in the U.S. except as punishment for crime—to emancipate the remaining Black people still involuntarily bound as “apprentices” in the state.  

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