Slavery in New York: Uncovering the brutal truth

NEW YORK — Wall Street and much of this city’s renowned financial district were built on the burial ground of African slaves. New York’s prosperity stems in large part from the grotesque profits of the African slave trade and African enslavement.

This is the inescapable conclusion one draws from the evidence presented in a major exhibition on “Slavery in New York,” which opened here Oct. 7 and runs through March 5. Hosted by the New-York Historical Society, the exhibition is the most impressive display ever mounted on slavery in the Empire State and in New York City in particular.

The exhibition features public programs, walking tours, educational materials and programs for school, college and adult learners. It explores the vital role that slave trading, the labor of enslaved people, and slavery’s integration with everyday commerce played from 1600 to 1827 in making New York the wealthiest city in the world.

Hidden history

For a phenomenon that should be common knowledge, the role of New York in the Atlantic slave trade is buried deep in the underground of U.S. history and outside of the consciousness of many New Yorkers. Each year thousands of students in the nation’s largest school system study the history of New York with hardly a mention of this city’s experience with slavery.

Granted, slavery in America has traditionally been identified as a Southern phenomenon. Yet there were more enslaved Africans in New York before the American Revolution than any other city except Charleston, S.C. During this period, 1 out of every 5 New Yorkers was enslaved. At one point, 40 percent of colonial New York’s households owned slaves.

A jolting discovery

The discovery of the African Burial Ground in the heart of New York’s financial district in 1991 put the spotlight on the forgotten dark underbelly of the epicenter of U.S. and global capitalism. The huge, 18th-century burial ground uncovered during painstaking excavations — following the abortive construction of a skyscraper on the site — eventually revealed the skeletal remains of some 419 Africans, a large proportion of them women and children.

At that time the city consisted of the southern tip of Manhattan, stretching up to where today’s City Hall sits. The burial ground extends from Broadway southward under City Hall, and almost to the site of the former World Trade Center, in close proximity to the Wall Street financial center.

The African cemeteries in the Wall Street area were buried long ago when surrounding hills were flattened and the soil deposited there as foundation for buildings that now serve as a major nerve center of the world economy. It is believed that there are as many as 20,000 slavery-era Africans in graves under the constellation of buildings in lower Manhattan.

Manhattan Island had a population of enslaved Africans almost from the very beginning of settlement in 1624. The findings of scientists examining the graves show that enslaved Africans lived agonizing lives. They were overworked and underfed. Many died young. The average life expectancy of Africans of that era was 37 years.

Slavery’s global reach

The largest forced migration in world history, the Atlantic slave trade involved an estimated 40,000 ships, carrying an average of 80 persons a day for more than 400 years. The astounding profits from this trade fueled the industrial revolution in England and later in Europe and the United States.

New York’s strategic geographical position, its proximity to other American colonial settlements, as well as its network of inland waterways, made it a prime center for the slave trade and the accumulation of capital from very early on. The Empire City was an important nexus in a far-flung web commanded by the Dutch Wast India Company. That web involved a base in Angola on Africa’s Atlantic shore, a base in Brazil in South America, and one in Curaçao in the Dutch Caribbean.

The first slaves arrived in what was then known as New Amsterdam around 1627. These enslaved Africans worked for the Dutch West India Company rather than for individuals. In addition to building the wall that gives Wall Street its name — a wall of timber and earthwork along the northern boundary of New Amsterdam — slaves cleared Manhattan’s forests, turned up the soil for farming, built roads and constructed buildings. Without slave labor New Amsterdam might not have survived.

As a rule, unlike the slaves of the South, New York slaves did not live in quarters with large numbers of other Black people, but in kitchens or back rooms of their owners’ houses. Many white New Yorkers owned one or two slaves.

Cruel repression

But Northern slavery was no less cruel than its Southern counterpart. Coercive measures were harsh. A litany of repressive and restrictive laws were passed from time to time by New York City Common Council, including laws that forbade Africans from owning significant property or bequeathing what they did own to their offspring, and laws banning gatherings of more than three people of African descent. Restrictions of movement included requiring them to carry lanterns after dark and to remain south of what is now Worth Street.

Sentences of what were characterized then as “horrible” public executions for theft, arson, murdering a slave master, or conspiracy to revolt were issued and carried out from time to time.

Slave rebellions

Yet enslaved Africans resisted at every point of the slave trade and in the New World. There was a tight clandestine network of the Underground Railroad operating in the city, with Brooklyn being an important hub.

One of the high points of this resistance came in 1712, in what New York’s Royal Gov. Robert Hunter described as a “bloody conspiracy” of some of the slaves of the city “to destroy as many of the inhabitants as they could ... to revenge themselves for some hard usage they apprehended to have received from their Masters.” Twenty-three slaves met about midnight on April 6, 1712, and set fire to several buildings in the middle of town. When whites came to put out the fires, they were ambushed. Nine whites were slain on the spot, and about a dozen others were wounded. The rebels fled, but most were soon captured.

The rebellion led to further repression. Nineteen slaves were executed by burning at the stake or hanging. Two were targeted for special treatment. “One [was] broke on the wheele and one hung alive in chains in the town,” explained Gov. Hunter, pointing out that these measures were “the most exemplary punishment inflicted that could be possibly thought of.”

And in 1741, following a series of rumors about what was referred to as the “Great Negro Plot” to burn down the city, the authorities fixed blame on the growing slave male population. Seventeen slaves were hanged and 13 burned at the stake.

The profits of slavery

The exhibition takes viewers through the various stages of New York’s evolution — from a Dutch colony under the management of the Dutch West India Company, to a British colony, to the American Revolution, to the early settlements of free Blacks in New York City.

From the beginning, virtually every New York business was involved with slavery in one way or another. The enslavement enterprise involved a myriad of activities, including direct trading in slaves; harvesting, processing, packing foodstuffs for the slave trade; and using slave labor in craft workshops. It included supplying slave plantations in the West Indies and North America with grains, tools and manufactured foods.

The city’s slave trade involved building and maintaining ships that carried trade between New York, Europe, Caribbean and Africa, and borrowing, lending and insuring the vessels. It included advertising for the sale of slaves and the recapture of runaways. Advertisements of slaves for purchase were a major source of revenue for 18th-century newspapers in New York.

On display are ledger books of slave voyages, ads for runaway slaves, and implements and household objects produced by the enslaved. Almost everything was grown or produced with enslaved labor — cheese, tobacco, rum, sugar, cloth, butter, clothes. These goods were carried here on ships owned by slave traders. With a system of an enormous unpaid labor force that kept stores well stocked and prices fairly low, the entire economy of the city was built on slavery.

In a quite appropriate multimedia section of the display, a market ticker scrolls across the bottom of a video screen, as you might see on a CNN or MSNBC newscast, reflecting the trade of enslaved humans from the coast of Africa to South America, the Caribbean, North America and specifically to colonial Wall Street.

The slave trade was enormously profitable for the traders, shipbuilders, bankers, and insurers who made it possible. At its peak the margin of profit soared just above 369 percent. At its ebb the profit margin was still a whopping 94 percent. For example, in 1675, a slave could be purchased in Africa for today’s equivalent of $355 and later sold in New York for $3,793.

Abolitionism and justice

Slavery also bred a humanitarian response. The existence of slavery in New York gave rise to a vibrant abolitionist movement, which is also depicted in the exhibition.

However, the end of slavery in New York did not come easily or quickly. Well-positioned New Yorkers who thrived on the slave economy fought to maintain the system to the very end. As a consequence, slavery ended, but not before the New York Legislature passed two pieces of legislation delaying its end until July 4, 1827. This action pointed the way, in turn, for other Northern states to adopt a system of gradual emancipation as well.

No doubt “Slavery in New York” will give further impetus and focus to the reparations movement. In speaking of the significance of the African Burial Ground, Congressman John Conyers (D-Mich.) has suggested that the shipping and insurance companies who profited so handsomely from the transport of slaves have a moral and legal obligation to compensate the slaves’ descendants.

The exhibition has been characterized as “phase one” of a two-year initiative of the New-York Historical Society, located at 170 Central Park West at 77th Street, on slavery and New York. We can only greet the first installment of this initiative and look forward to the next.

Martin Frazier (mfrazier at pww.org) is a member of the editorial board of the People’s Weekly World.