By Sylviane A. Diouf, Director, Lapidus Center.
June 29, 2015.
On June 27, a plaque marking the site of New York City’s main 18th-century slave market was unveiled in Lower Manhattan by Mayor Bill de Blasio. Reflecting on 300 years of local history, he drew a comparison between black life then and now: “It was true two, three centuries ago, even though it was never acknowledged. It was true then, it is true today. It will be true tomorrow. Black lives matter.” The recognition of black New Yorkers’ vital role in the history of the city was long overdue.
This history had started with the arrival of a black man. In June 1613, Juan Rodrigues, a free sailor from Hispaniola (in what is today the Dominican Republic) who worked for a Dutch fur trading company, was left on Manhattan Island to trade with Native Americans. He was the first non-indigenous permanent resident of Manhattan and remained the only one until 1621 when the Dutch West India Company (WIC) built a settlement and began introducing African labor.
In 1626, 11 Africans from Congo, Angola, and the island of Sao Tome were transported to the small town. Eighteen years later, the men, who had petitioned the local Dutch authorities to get their freedom, were liberated. Each one received land. Their collective 300 acres stretched from the Bowery Road to 5th Avenue and 39th Street. Their freedom was conditional, though; they had to deliver one “fat hog” and 22.5 bushels of corn, wheat, peas, or beans to the WIC every year or be re-enslaved. Their wives were freed too, but not their children.
Whereas during the Dutch period, 70 percent of the Africans came from the Caribbean under British rule—which started in 1664—most arrived directly from Africa. Of the close to 4,000 people whose origins are known, 1,271 came from Madagascar, 998 from Congo, 757 from Senegambia, 504 from the Gold Coast (Ghana), 239 from Sierra Leone, and 217 from non-identified areas of the continent.
With the aggressive increase in the slave trade and the expansion of the city, an official slave market opened in 1711 by the East River on Wall Street between Pearl and Water Streets. By 1730, 42 percent of the population owned slaves, a higher percentage than in any other city in the country except Charleston, South Carolina. The enslaved population—which ranged between 15 and 20 percent of the total—literally built the city and was the engine that made its economy run.
The slave market on Wall Street closed in 1762 but men, women, and children continued to be bought and sold throughout the city.
After the abolition of slavery, which became effective on July 4, 1827, New York’s shameful history of discrimination, racism, rigid segregation, and anti-black violence continued. By the 1850s, the city was dominating the illegal international slave trade to the American South, Brazil, and Cuba. New York benefited much from slavery and the slave trade: southern cotton and sugar sailed to Europe from its harbor. Banks, insurance companies—among them Aetna, JP Morgan Chase, and New York Life—and lawyers made a brisk business with slaveholders and slave ship owners. Traders and builders outfitted slave ships.
In this northern city, pro-Confederate sentiment ran high, and in July 1863, during the infamous Draft Riots 11 black men were lynched, tortured, mutilated, some hung from lampposts and burned. About 100 people (mostly blacks) were killed in Manhattan and Brooklyn, 100 buildings were destroyed, the property damage was high. The brutal episode changed the demographics of black New York. From 12,472 in 1860, the black population decreased to 9,943 in 1865.
But through it all, from running away and launching revolts to establishing progressive churches, schools, abolition and mutual aid societies, black New Yorkers, enslaved and free, resisted and fought back.
We need many more markers to tell their heroic story.
The marker, the brainchild of writer and artist Christopher Cobb, took years and the advocacy of City Council member Jumaane Williams to become reality. The text was written by the Parks Department and the Landmarks Preservation Commission in collaboration with former Schomburg Center curator and historian Christopher Moore.
More about slavery in New York
- Ann Farrow et al. Complicity: How the North Promoted, Prolonged, and Profited from Slavery
- Ira Berlin & Leslie Harris, eds. Slavery in New York
- Eric Foner. Gateway to Freedom: The Hidden History of the Underground Railroad
- Watch a conversation between Eric Foner and Leslie Harris
- Graham Hodges. David Ruggles: A Radical Black Abolitionist and the Underground Railroad in New York City
- Graham Hodges. Root and Branch: African Americans in New York and New Jersey, 1613-1863
- Graham Hodges. “Pretends to be Free.” Fugitive Slave Advertisements from Colonial and Revolutionary New York and New Jersey
- Graham Hodges. Chains and Freedom: The Life and Adventures of Peter Wheeler
- Leslie M. Harris. In the Shadow of Slavery: African Americans in New York City, 1626-1863
- Listen to Leslie Harris on urban slavery, particularly in New York
- Alan Singer. New York and Slavery: Time to Teach the Truth
- Judith Wellman. Brooklyn’s Promised Land: The Free Black Community of Weeksville, New York