African American News and Genealogy

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Sunday, October 30, 2005

Exhibit reveals lost history of slavery in New York

Museum shows slavery wasn't just a Southern institution. By David Ho NEW YORK CITY BUREAU Sunday, October 30, 2005 NEW YORK -- In a city known for fighting to abolish slavery, there is another story: the tale of the slaves who built the road that became Broadway and the wall that named Wall Street. "When most Americans think about slavery they think about 'Gone with the Wind' and cotton plantations in the South," said Richard Rabinowitz, curator of the "Slavery in New York" exhibit that opened this month at the New-York Historical Society. "This exhibit breaks new ground because it focuses on slavery in the North," he said. "Most people really don't know that story." The exhibition, set to run through March 5, is the largest for the 201-year-old historical society and one of the biggest ever devoted to slavery. The 9,000-square-foot project includes about 400 historical objects, documents and re-creations, along with multimedia and interactive displays. Across nine galleries, the exhibit spans the period from the early European settlements of the 1600s to 1827, when New York abolished slavery. In between are British colonial times when one in five New Yorkers was an enslaved African and the city's slave population was second only to Charleston, S.C. The society's 18-month slavery project also includes lectures, tours and programs for children. A second exhibit set to open by early 2007 will explore New York's central role in both fighting and funding slavery in the decades leading up to the Civil War. "The investment in slave labor and slave trading built many of the fortunes of the city," said James Horton, the exhibition's chief historian. A surge of scholarly interest in New York slavery began in 1991 after construction workers in Lower Manhattan unearthed an African burial ground dating from the 1700s. About 400 sets of remains were removed for study and were re-interred in 2003. A memorial is planned for the burial ground, now designated a historic landmark. The historical society began work on its exhibit a year ago, using its large collection, which includes paintings, abolitionist documents, ads seeking runaway slaves and coroner reports stemming from a 1712 slave revolt. The exhibit also includes wire sculptures of slaves that the society describes as evoking "the toil of the faceless, voiceless peoples whose histories were (nearly) erased." Among the first displays are materials from when New York was still the Dutch settlement of New Amsterdam. One document describes the colonial governor granting "half-freedom" to 11 slaves, who later created the first free black community in North America in the areas of Manhattan now called Greenwich Village and SoHo. Under British control, the slave population grew, and ultimately about 41 percent of New York households owned slaves. Typically, one or two slaves lived in a home, staying in basements, attics or backyard kitchens. The small groupings often broke up families, separating mothers from children. While the treatment of New York slaves varied, overall living conditions were terrible and the labor extreme, Rabinowitz said. He said slave food, including sour milk, bread and lard, was likely worse than on Southern plantations and often led to malnutrition. Among the objects displayed is a "commode" chair, an 18th-century toilet with a removable seat and space for a chamber pot. The exhibit contrasts the elegantly carved furniture with a video description of the slaves who carried such pots daily to New York rivers to dispose of their owners' human waste. "The finest, most beautiful objects always have another story underneath them," Rabinowitz said. One gallery focuses on the American Revolution and the years after the British captured New York in August 1776. When the British left, more than 3,000 slaves went with them, including Deborah Squash, who in British documents is listed as a former slave of George Washington. New York began a gradual emancipation with restrictions in 1799, but the shift to abolition was much slower than in other northern states with smaller slave populations. Legal and cultural racism also worsened as the free black population grew. The exhibit shows the role of black New Yorkers in the abolitionist movement and how freed slaves became entwined in public life, building homes and forming churches and schools. It also shows how black culture -- theater, art, music and literature -- became part of the city despite the adversity of slavery. "Slavery was not a side show in American history. It was the main event," Horton said. "That's the story we want to tell."


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