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New York City exhibits its slave past

Email|Print| Text size + By Tatsha Robertson
Globe Staff / October 9, 2005

NEW YORK -- A 2-foot-high well on the shiny hardwood floors of the New York Historical Society looks out of place, almost strange, inside the museum. Then, when observers bend over to look into the well, their senses are shaken even more, for it is not their reflection looking back from below, but the images of black women dressed like slaves, chatting away about family, work, and the troubles of the day in pre-Revolutionary War America.

Even more surprising, perhaps, than the women's reflections, made possible by video images projected from the ceiling, is that the women are discussing slavery in New York, not in the South.

The scene is part of an unusual and potentially controversial exhibit about slavery and how it was the engine for New York's economic vitality. Created by the nearly 201-year-old society that launched last year's Alexander Hamilton exhibition to mixed reviews, ''Slavery in New York" opened Friday in Manhattan and runs through March. Weaving a tale that begins in the 1620s and ends in 1827 when black New Yorkers were given their freedom, the exhibit takes visitors on a surprising historical tour through a New York few people know. A sequel is scheduled next year and will extend the tale past the Civil War.

''They [slaves] built the wall that became Wall Street. They built the road that became Broadway. They built great docks, and many of the most important buildings, including the first church in New York City," said Richard Rabinowitz, curator of the show. ''I think the exhibit starts with the assumption that most people do not know this, but we want all Americans to know that slavery was part of every colony and every state, from Maine to Georgia."

For two centuries, slavery was not only active in New York, but was fundamental in boosting the city's economy. During the Revolutionary War, New York had more slaves than any other city, with the lone exception of Charleston, S.C. Slaves accounted for 20 percent of the New York City population, far more than Boston, where 2 percent of the population were slaves, and Philadelphia, where slaves made up 6 percent of the city's inhabitants.

The $5 million exhibit, conceived by Rabinowitz a year ago and designed by the Boston company Krent/Paffett/Carney, Inc., occupies 9,000 square feet, and provides surprising information not included in school history books. For example, nearly every businessman in the city in the 18th century had a hand in slave trafficking. Also, contrary to popular belief, slavery was just as brutal in New York as it was in the South. Leaders in the city now known as a symbol of freedom and a hotbed of activism passed laws restricting blacks from owning land or passing it down to their children or even from congregating in groups.

Highlights of the show include a bill of sale for a slave trade, advertisements offering rewards for runaway slaves, and letters that provide details of everyday life among slaves in New York. Even the original, handwritten draft of President Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation will make a rare two-week appearance.

Still, while history lovers will be dazzled by some rarely seen artifacts, pictures, and maps, mostly from the society's collection, others will be drawn to the innovative media that help explain those artifacts.

While visitors can view a Dutch document that granted freedom to some of the first slaves, for instance, they can also run their fingers along a monitor that instantly translates the handwritten scribble into typed English. Michael Roper, executive producer of Experience Media Group, which produces the interactive media for KPC, said the company designed the exhibit in six months.

Because no records are left of most enslaved Africans who lived in the city, Roper said the company as well as historians had to use court documents and ads for runaway slaves as guides to help depict what life was like for enslaved people here.

Leslie Harris, an associate professor of history and African-American studies at Emory University in Atlanta and a contributor to the exhibit, said the long history of slavery in New York has been obscured for many reasons.

''Once slavery ended in the North, both blacks and whites were beginning to struggle over the meaning of slavery in the South," she said. ''The need to erase that overshadowed the previous history of slavery in the North." In some cases, she said, black and white New Yorkers preferred just to forget this painful chapter.

''Some blacks in the North didn't really want to talk about that experience for a variety of reasons -- shame, or they saw themselves as fighting a new struggle to free slaves in the South," Harris said. ''And so, to spend time talking about the past was a luxury they could not afford. Then, once the Civil War ended, the reigning story of history was that the free North saw itself as the victor and it had brought freedom to the South. It would have complicated that story by saying, 'Oh yeah, we were slaveholders, too.' "

Contact Tatsha Robertson at robertson@globe.com.

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