Slavery in NYC
The New York Historical Society (170 Central Park West at 77th St.) is one of those small New York museums that are dwarfed in the public's consciousness by iconic institutions like the Met, MOMA, and the Guggenheim. The Society has the added problem of being almost obliterated by the immense, venerable, and crowd-pleasing American Museum of Natural History that is located across the street from it on Central Park West. Still, the New York Historical Society-housed in a dull, squat building that looks likes a Parisian library-is older than the other institutions mentioned-having been in operation since 1804, and having been for many years the only museum in the city committed to establishing a permanent collection. The Society is now home to one of the nation's most distinguished research libraries and a world-class museum that includes an impressive collection of Tiffany glasswork, a prized group of Hudson River School paintings (e.g., the work of Cole and Durand) and more than four hundred of the original watercolors used for John J. Audubon's classic work The Birds of America.
In recent years the Society has faced a series of financial crises and administrative controversies that almost brought it to the point of closing. But it now has succeeded in stabilizing its finances and has expanded its outreach, with thousands of school children taking part in innovative educational programs each year. And in November 2000, it opened the Henry Luce III Center for the Study of American Culture, which makes accessible to the public in a single place nearly 40,000 objects from the museum's permanent collection ranging from George Washington's camp bed at Valley Forge to the world's largest collection of Tiffany lamps.
I recently visited the Society to get a look at an informative and ambitious exhibit on slavery in New York (it runs until March 5). The exhibit offers visitors a chance to view a wide variety of primary and secondary source material that include: advertisements for ''negroes, to be sold;'' items like chairs and cribs made by slave hands; pages from ships' logs, slave manifests and other original documents; wire sculptures of slaves at work; paintings of city street scenes; and historically detailed video re-enactments and audio narratives.
Though I am fairly knowledgeable about New York City history, the exhibit made me much more conscious of how profoundly slavery permeated every aspect of life in colonial New York-the major slaveholding city in the northern colonies. Slaves accounted for 20% of the city's population (compared to only 2% in Boston), and they did almost all the heavy work constructing the city's infrastructure. They built city landmarks like Trinity Church, and the wall on Wall Street. And almost every businessman in 18th century New York had a financial stake in some aspect of the slave economy.
Slavery was also just as brutal and dehumanizing in the North as it was in the South-with the city passing one restrictive law after another, for example, forbidding blacks from congregating at night. But the slaves were not totally passive nor without personal resources-they initiated a couple of revolts, and despite the forced and traumatic separations of husbands from wives, and parents from children, some slaves were able to sustain families.
One interesting fact the exhibit highlights is that more slaves fought with the British than the Patriots during the Revolutionary War because the British offered them freedom -and made good on that promise for thousands of slaves.
And despite an abolition movement formed by men like Alexander Hamilton, New York state was one of the last in the North (1827) to abolish slavery. With the abolition of slavery, free blacks had to compete for employment with a flood of European immigrants whose white skin, (despite being reviled), gave them an advantage; and they had to deal with the racism endemic to American society -a cross they would have to bear over the years.
While walking through the exhibit, I was struck by the number of black schoolchildren raptly watching the video dramatizations of slave life, and was also struck by the concert of gospel music given in the museum's auditorium by the Addicts Rehabilitation Center. The singing of these emotionally frayed men and women may have been slightly off key, but it was poignant and deeply felt. And in the light of the museum's exhibit, one could feel something of the destructive legacy of slavery and the struggle for personal liberation ("Lord, we need your grace") in their voices.
When I left the museum I began to think of what it means to call one's country democratic. Despite profound economic inequities and the Bush administration's contempt for civil liberties, we are still a functioning democracy. But even a liberal and cosmopolitan city like New York was built on the exploitation, violent abuse, and subjugation of human beings. We should condemn the Sudan or Zimbabwe for their actions, but, at the same time, understand that our own history is filled with its own monstrous transgressions. No country is pure and inviolate, so a foreign policy based on self-righteous moralism is not in order. The exhibit reminds us again, that despite the Declaration of Independence, we were founded and flourished on a bedrock of inequality and oppression.