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Exhibit Encourages New York to Face Its History of Slavery

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Chicago Tribune


NEW YORK - On July 5, 1827, a parade wound its way through the streets of New York to celebrate the end of what one of the parade organizers called a "most foul, poisonous and damnable stain."

The day before, slavery had been abolished in New York, a mere 34 years before the outbreak of the Civil War.

What was euphemistically referred to as the South's "peculiar institution" was no foreigner to the North, as "Slavery in New York," a startling new exhibit at the New-York Historical Society, makes clear.

Starting in 1627, when the Dutch were settling the southern tip of Manhattan, slaves were bought, sold, worked, whipped, hunted down, put to death and buried here for 200 years. They were an ingrained part of New York commerce and culture.

Africans owned by the Dutch West India Co., which ran the little village then called New Amsterdam, helped to clear "De Breede Wegh," the road renamed Broadway after the British took over in 1664. They also built the wooden palisade that ran along "De Cingle," the street at the northern end of town. Today, it's known as Wall Street.

The exhibit, scheduled to be on view until March 5, traces the history of slavery in the city with period artifacts, record books, documents and maps that show how New York fit into the trans-Atlantic trade in human misery. Manufactured goods from America and Europe were bartered for slaves in Africa, who were then sold to sugar-cane plantations in the Caribbean and tobacco plantations in the South.

But population records show that many of the captive immigrants ended up in New York. By 1703, 42 percent of New York households included slaves. Among cities in Colonial America, only Charleston, S.C., had a higher proportion, but part of the point of the exhibit is to show that New York was not unique among Northern cities.

"African slavery was fundamental to the founding of America," said Emory University history professor Leslie Harris, co-author of the exhibit's companion book, also called "Slavery in New York." "All 13 British colonies held slaves."

Slavery was overwhelmingly a Southern phenomenon. Slaves made up 70 percent of South Carolina's population in 1720, compared to roughly 15 percent in New York and less than 10 percent in all other Northern colonies. But Harris hopes "Slavery in New York" reminds visitors that the country's history is less clear-cut than many thought.

"It's the beginning of the rethinking of our national story, dating to the 19th Century and the Civil War, of a triumphant North leading a benighted South out of the darkness and evil of slavery," Harris said. "This exhibit should inspire other communities to re-examine their own histories. Looking at our history should not be about shame and guilt and finger-pointing but about honesty and looking at our legacy."

Other Northern colonies may have had slave populations, but none pursued the slave trade as vigorously as New York. Peter Stuyvesant, the director-general of the Dutch colony, aimed to make New Amsterdam the busiest slave market in North America.

Newspaper ads from the British colonial period testify to a thriving business.

"Negroes to be sold," reads an ad from the New-York Journal in 1768, which lists one man as a cooper, or barrelmaker, by trade and notes that a 16-year-old girl is a "good seamstress, and can be well recommended."

Those same newspapers also give hints that not all of the slaves in New York were content with their lot, as slave owners often argued.

"Run away ... a Negro man named Jack," states an October 1760 ad by Jack's owner, Manuel Myers, who offered a reward of 40 shillings for his return. Myers described Jack as "much pitted with the Small-pox" and "pretends much to understand the Scriptures."

The exhibit includes an account book of the sloop Rhode Island, which sailed to West Africa in 1748, carrying tobacco, rum and cheese. Several trading stops later, it had acquired 124 slaves, but by the time it returned to New York in 1749, it had only 86 slaves. The other 38 died during the voyage.

The Rhode Island was notable for two reasons. That death rate of almost 31 percent was about twice the normal loss of slaves during the passage to the New World. And the owner of the sloop was Philip Livingston and Sons of New York. Less than 30 years later, one of Philip's sons, also named Philip, was one of the New York representatives who signed the Declaration of Independence.

It was only on the eve of the American Revolution, when New York City's population of nearly 22,000 included more than 3,100 slaves, that New Yorkers began to question the propriety of their version of the "peculiar institution."

"We don't find references to doubts or debates about the morality of slavery, really, until the 1770s," said historian Richard Rabinowitz, whose company, American History Workshop, designed the exhibit.

The American Revolution was the turning point for slavery in New York, in large part because the British occupied the city. New York became a destination for runaway slaves, to whom the British promised freedom if they would serve the British cause. After the Revolution, abolitionist sentiment steadily increased.

Before handing the city over to the victorious Americans in 1783, Gen. Guy Carleton, the British commander, arranged for 3,000 former slaves in the city to sail for Canada. Their names are noted in "A Book of Negroes," a highlight of the exhibit.

One of the slaves listed in the handwritten journal was a 20-year-old named Deborah Squash. Her owner appealed to Carleton in person for her return, but Carleton told the man - like himself, a general - that the young woman had already sailed for Canada. George Washington went away disappointed.


(c) 2005, Chicago Tribune. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.

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