Old North: Recalling the Real Slaves of New York

By Michael Powell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 9, 2005

NEW YORK — One fine morning in 1720, George Clarke sent his agent
off to the market in downtown Manhattan. At the top of his shopping
list was a good field slave.

Alas, the market offered spare pickings. There was a house slave,
too soft for fieldwork. Another, a strapping fellow, was overpriced.
But the day was not lost. As Clarke’s agent wrote in fine olde
script, "I was able to find some garlic."

It’s the workaday language of the unspeakable, and for almost
two centuries it was the daily argot of New York, arguably the
slave capital of the New World. This wealthiest and most mercantile
of American cities was constructed on the backs of African slaves.
The elegant old New-York Historical Society — itself founded
by a slave owner — has lifted a curtain and mounted the first
expansive exploration of slavery in New York City, running through
March 5.

The distinct impression is of an Up-South city. When the Civil
War loomed, New York’s mayor suggested that business common sense
dictated seceding and joining the Confederacy. "New York’s
whole economy was built on the cotton industry," said Richard
Rabinowitz, who curated the 9,000-square foot exhibition. "New
York was in every sense a slave city."

Slaves built the walls of Wall Street, the first city hall and
Trinity Church. Slaves accounted for 20 percent of the population
of Colonial New York, compared with 6 percent in Philadelphia
and 2 percent in Boston. Forty percent of New York households
owned slaves. Slaves dredged ponds, cleared Harlem woods and constructed
Fraunces Tavern, which was owned by "Black Sam" Fraunces,
a West Indian. George Washington, a slaveholder, bade farewell
to his lieutenants at that tavern.

There were peculiarities to the slave experience in New York.
The great cost of tiny real estate plots meant the typical white
New York family owned but a single slave. Black women who bore
children were not desired and were often sold to farms.

"More New Yorkers owned slaves than whites in the antebellum
South," says Leslie Harris, a professor of history at Emory
University, who edited a book on the exhibit. "We need to
acknowledge that our history is much more complicated than a benighted
racist South and a free North."

Nor was urbanized slavery necessarily more benign. Blacks in
New York worked from dawn to well after dark. They could not own
property and could not meet in groups of more than three. Any
hint of defiance was met with unyielding violence. One reads of
rebellious blacks burned, stretched on racks and run through.

This is a tale movingly told in an exhibition that shies from
the didactic through innovative use of sound and subdued lighting,
graphics, copious documents and splendid new maps and artwork.
If few blacks left a written or visual record — it’s not until
the 1790s that paintings begin to depict blacks — the designers
respond with what feels like judicious imaginative leaps.

There are yellowing ledger books of slave ships recording the
"38 negroes lost in passage" and classified newspaper
advertisements for "whole bodied negroe men" and an
African runaway whose "hair or Wool is curled in locks in
a very remarkable manner."

Round a corner into a room and the ear catches the rounded vowels
of Akan, a language spoken along the west "Gold Coast"
of Africa. Wander a few more feet and you come to a re-created
well where slaves gathered to tote water for their owners’ tea.
These communal wells downtown became a crossroads. In this exhibit,
you peer into the well and see the shimmering reflection of black
slave women. You hear them asking after family sold up the Hudson
River Valley, gossiping about boyfriends, laughing and whispering.

* * *

Two decades into the life of New Amsterdam, in the 1630s, when
it was a tiny collection of wharves, forts, homes and businesses
at the toe of Manhattan Island, it had 800 slaves. These Africans
arrived from Guinea and Angola and Madagascar, a transoceanic
commerce that would send 80 Africans per day to the New World
for 400 years.

The first slaves were akin to indentured servants. The city was
a typical Dutch mosaic — burghers, Jews, Flemish, Indonesians
and blacks living at close quarters. Slaves could earn limited
freedom, although if they wanted to buy a house they had to move
"uptown" to lands not protected from Indians. Intermarriage
was legal, if rare. "The racial stereotypes were not fixed
yet; it was a frontier town, and it was possible for blacks to
negotiate a half-freedom," Harris says. "Then the British
took over and the vise tightens."

When British governors took charge in 1664, they realized that
New York, with its harbor and bred-in-the-bone entrepreneurial
fever, could dominate the Colonial economy. Blacks became the
town’s sinew. Some slaves lived well enough, becoming stevedores
and metalsmiths. But there’s no mistaking bondage as less than
bitter. The slave John Jea lived on a diet of boiled corn doused
in sour buttermilk with a slice of dark bread and rancid lard.
On a rare day, an owner might toss in salt beef and potatoes.

In 1991, contractors unearthed an African burial site in Lower
Manhattan. The story pathologists found in those bones is related
here. The early slaves had spinal fractures and severe deformations
from hauling stones and other heavy loads over many years.

Revolt was common. In some cases, blacks conspired to slay their
owners, sprinkling themselves with sacred powder in hopes of making
themselves invisible. Some committed suicide rather than face

Many blacks saw little promise in the American Revolution. The
British, no doubt cynically, offered blacks freedom in exchange
for fighting on their side. The revolutionaries offered no deal
at all. They gave 500 acres to any New York slaveholder who enrolled
his slaves in George Washington’s army.

Vermont was the first state to outlaw slavery, in 1777. Massachusetts
did so in 1783. New York did not follow until 1827. Even after
that, teams of white men — known as black birders — roamed the
night streets, grabbing freed blacks and secretly shipping them
south to again become enslaved. The mystery is that so little
of this grim story is known. "As slavery ends, it’s as though
blacks and whites stop talking about it. . . . There was a lot
of shame involved," says Harris, who is African American.
"We underestimate the good power that comes when people see
their history fully represented for the first time."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company