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Reminding New York of Its Hidden History

The city was a capital for slavery -- and it embraced it in an almost casual manner.

October 09, 2005|Robert Lee Hotz | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — Her name was Violet. She was 15 years old. And on Jan. 8, 1781, a Manhattan butcher named Robert Heaton sold her to the highest bidder for 56 British pounds.

What shocked historian Richard Rabinowitz was not the price that Violet fetched -- about $6,000 in today's currency -- but that her sale at a city slave auction had been recorded on a preprinted form. So common was slavery in 18th century New York City, where almost half the households owned African slaves, that standardized paperwork for buying and selling people was the norm, like a boilerplate apartment lease or credit card slip.

"It changes the way you perceive New York," said Rabinowitz, president of the American History Workshop and curator of the ambitious new exhibition "Slavery in New York" that opened this weekend. "It is the bill of sale for a human being. It has meaning beyond the words on a page."

The exhibition, organized by the New York Historical Society, explores the city's hidden history of slavery through 9,000 square feet of artifacts ranging from Violet's bill of sale to the original rough draft -- in Abraham Lincoln's elegant scrawl -- of the Emancipation Proclamation.

The exhibition, which draws heavily on the historical society's archives, runs through March. It is the first in a series the society plans over the next two years to highlight the role of slaveholding in a city that for generations has prided itself as a stronghold of diversity, civil rights and, in its day, the abolitionist movement. Few New Yorkers are even aware that their city essentially was a capital of American slavery for 200 years, as the exhibition documents.

"Most people don't know it existed here," said the exhibition's chief historian, James O. Horton, professor of American studies and history at George Washington University. "I have people tell me they are shocked that slavery ever existed in New York."

The society's effort arises from a broad reassessment of how thoroughly slavery permeated American life when -- in what historians consider the largest forced migration in history -- 12 million Africans were kidnapped and transported across the Atlantic. In the centuries before 1800, more Africans came to America than Europeans.

"This is a very challenging part of our history," Rabinowitz said. "History is not about the past; it is about how the present makes sense of the past."

Slavery was not confined to the Southern United States, as generations of Northerners have been taught. Indeed, the "peculiar institution," as it was often called, was especially prevalent in New York City, where it was a matter of explicit colonial policy, far-ranging financial investment and personal practice.

As the exhibition reveals, New York from its founding was a city wholly dependent on African slavery. Slaves built the road to Harlem that would become Broadway, the palisades of Wall Street, the first City Hall, and the docks that would berth generations of immigrants to the New World.

New York was second only to Charleston, S.C., as an urban slaveholding center. In 1703, 42% of New York households owned slaves, compared with 6% of Philadelphia's and just 2% of Boston's.

In practice, slavery was no less brutal in the urban colony of New York than in the rural South. Abuse was common. The city's Common Council passed a series of laws to restrict the activities of black people, free or slave. They were forbidden to own property or gather in groups larger than three, and were required to carry lanterns after dark.

"There is a tendency to see slaves as simply victims," Horton said. "I don't believe any human being is simply a victim.

"They were people who devised ingenious ways of resisting, of sheltering themselves."

New York's first slave revolt took place in 1712. Many committed suicide rather than surrender. The survivors were hanged.

All told, the presence of slaves in the historical record is barely a shadow. Not a single image of a black New Yorker survives from the first 170 years that African slaves lived and worked in the city.

Much of the material on display illustrates the ambiguity of early American history.

One exhibit, for example, centers on a 1782 ledger called "The Book of Negros," which documented the names and owners of 3,000 slaves who chose the side of the British during the Revolutionary War. As loyalists under British rule, they were granted freedom and safe passage to Canada by British Gen. Guy Carleton when the war ended.

Among the names listed was Deborah Squash, a 20-year-old slave owned by Gen. George Washington. Determined to claim his property, Washington personally called on Carleton to demand her return -- only to discover that she had already fled to Canada.

"People in New York never think about it," said 10-year-old Emma O'Toole, who visited the exhibition Saturday. "They think New Yorkers are all heroes, but they had slavery too."

Slavery lingered in New York longer than in other Northern states. Vermont outlawed slavery in 1777, but not until 1827 was slavery eliminated in New York.

John Allen, who brought his 9-year-old son, Miles, to the exhibit, found it revealing.

"When I was a kid," Allen said, "they would talk about how Washington, D.C., was built by slaves. They didn't talk about New York."

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