Saturday, March 25, 2006

A History of Slavery in New York

We went to the New York Historical Society exhibit, Slavery in New York
open until March 26th at the New York Historical Society.

From the 1600's to 1827, it reconstructs the slave trade and its impact first on the Dutch in New York, and then the British, arguing that as many as 20% of New Yorkers were enslaved African-Americans. During the colonial period, 41% of the city's households had slaves, compared to 6% in Philadelphia and 2% in Boston. Only Charleston, South Carolina, rivaled New York in the extent to which slavery penetrated everyday life. By 1775, in New York there were 3,100 slaves, accounting for 30 percent to 40 percent of the city's workforce. While the exhibit does not clarify this statistic, the website notes that each slaveholding New Yorker usually owned only one or two persons. Its also important to note slavery was less central to the economy and social order in New York than it was in Virginia or South Carolina (let alone Caribbean colonies such as Jamaica or Saint Domingue, where the vast majority of the population was enslaved). Thus, it was easier to abolish slavery in New York than it was in the South: in the wake of the American Revolution, every state north of Delaware initiated the abolition of slavery, whereas none of the Southern states did.

One other quibble: the introductory video included a quote from Aristotle about slavery being normative. But slavery in classical Greece was not at all the same thing as slavery in the New World. It would have been good to clarify different kinds of slavery.

The New York Times review notes that the exhibit tends to overlook this broader context. However, the exhibit is provocative, the information is new, and no one comes away unaffected.

We were able to hear the Abyssinian Baptist Church Sanctuary Choir (director Dr. Jewel T. Thompson) perform spirituals including "Rock my soul in the bosom of Abraham." For the first time I heard it as an interpretation of the Lucan parable of Lazarus and the rich man from the point of view of slaves. I'll never hear it in the same way again.

1 comment:

Rev Dr Mom said...

Very interesting--I had no idea that slavery was so prominent in New York or that it lasted so long there. Thanks.