Welcome to the most ambitious exhibition ever assembled on the subject of slavery in New York. On October 7, Slavery in New York, a multimedia exhibition, reveals a history of which most people are unaware, illuminates the contributions of the enslaved and explores the role slavery played in the making of New York and the United States.

Though it is barely mentioned in school textbooks, slavery was a key institution in the development of New York, from its formative years. We believe the philosophical notion that if you want to understand the present, you have to start by understanding the past.

What Americans know about freedom we learned in the school of slavery. Those in our past who spoke the language of liberty always had in mind - and often in view - shackles on the legs and manacles on the wrists of the enslaved.

At the height of the revolutionary conflict, George Washington, our greatest apostle of freedom but also the owner of hundreds of slaves, warned that if the Americans did not resist British tyranny they would become "as tame and abject slaves as the blacks we rule over with such arbitrary sway."

New York has preeminently been the capital of American liberty, the freest city of the nation - its largest, most diverse, its most economically ambitious, and its most open to the world. It was also, paradoxically, for more than two centuries, the capital of American slavery.

As many as 20 percent of colonial New Yorkers were enslaved Africans. First Dutch and then English merchants built the city's local economy largely around supplying ships for the trade in slaves and in what slaves produced - sugar, tobacco, indigo, coffee, chocolate, and ultimately, cotton. New York ship captains and merchants bought and sold slaves along the coast of Africa and in the taverns of their own city. Almost every businessman in 18th-century New York had a stake, at one time or another, in the traffic in human beings.

During the colonial period, 41 perent of the city's households had slaves, compared to 6 percent in Philadelphia and 2 percent in Boston. Only Charleston, South Carolina, rivaled New York in the extent to which slavery penetrated everyday life. To be sure, each slaveholding New Yorker usually owned only one or two persons.

In the urban landscape, there were no plantations. Slaves slept in the cellars and attics of town houses or above farmhouse kitchens in the countryside. They did virtually all of the work of many households - bringing in the firewood, the water, and the food; cleaning the house and the clothing; removing the wastes. They were vital to the work of early craftsmen and manufacturers, and many became skilled artisans themselves. And they performed almost all the heavy labor of building New York's infrastructure.

Slaves constructed Fort Amsterdam and its successors along the Battery. They built the wall from which Wall Street gets its name. They built the roads, the docks, and most of the important buildings of the early city - the first city hall, the first Dutch and English churches, Fraunces Tavern, the city prison and the city hospital.

Slavery was no milder in the urban North than in the Deep South. Instances of abusive treatment permeate public and personal records. The city's Common Council passed one restrictive law after another: forbidding blacks from owning property or bequeathing it to their children; forbidding them to congregate at night or in groups larger than three; requiring them to carry lanterns after dark and to remain south of what is now Worth Street; threatening the most severe punishments, even death, for theft, arson, or conspiracy to revolt - and carrying out these punishments brutally and publicly time and again.

Paradoxically, New York was also, from the start, a center for efforts to abolish slavery. SLAVERY IN NEW YORK also tells the story of how the black population began to plant its cultural roots, producing a rich legacy of poetry, art, music and literature in the face of adversity while at the same time, actively resisting injustice.

The records that document the oppression of the enslaved are, if one reads them carefully, evidence of just how creative and passionate they were in their quest for liberty.

With every obstacle in their way, the enslaved were able to form and nurture families, to overcome frequent loss and separation, and to pass along cultural legacies to their children.

First to arrive every market day to sell food and the products of their idle moments, they demonstrated an amazing combination of street smarts and entrepreneurial energy.

  1. Disparaged for their passivity, the enslaved were twice able to shake the eighteenth-century British Empire with their revolts against slavery in New York.
  2. Taken for granted by their Patriot slaveholding masters, they were acknowledged to be among the most valiant fighters on the British side during the Revolutionary War.
  3. Mocked for their crudeness during slave times, they were able to fashion the musical, dance, and theatrical traditions that have been at the core of American culture ever since.
  4. Without abandoning a treasured memory of African homelands, they came together to create a dynamic form of African American religion that continues to inspire today.
  5. Deprived of the right to vote in the 1820s, they organized political pressure groups, created a lively press, and shaped a political rhetoric that has been at the heart of every civil rights movement in the United States and around the globe ever since.

The message is ultimately uplifting, even inspiring. In confronting, resisting, and eventually defeating an institution as powerful as chattel slavery, black New Yorkers and their white allies forged the tools of freedom that all Americans treasure today.

The black New Yorkers who survived enslavement left us legacies that shape life in this city and nation every day. Having persisted through our worst moments, they help us see the best in ourselves. The New-York Historical Society exhibition uncovers what has too long been hidden in our past and helps us find the resources to continue our long national experiment with liberty.