The Anger and Shock of a City's Slave Past


They have the awkwardness of amateur home videos: background noise, long silences, people looking away from the camera. But inside a booth at the New-York Historical Society, visitors to the exhibition "Slavery in New York" are recording their reactions, creating snapshot reflections on race and history in the nation's largest city.

"It allows our young people to understand, really, how this city was born and who carried the brunt of the prosperity that we see in New York, not only then but now," a black man from "Harlem, New York," said of the show, the largest in the museum's 201-year history. The man, who appeared to be in his 30's, said he wanted to know what businesses in the city today derived profits in the past from selling human beings.

A white lawyer went into the booth twice to sort out his feelings. "This has just been devastating," he said. As he looked at the exhibition's array of documents, he said, he realized that the some of the laws used to isolate and dehumanize enslaved black New Yorkers became custom after the laws vanished and "contributed to the way whites look at blacks," even today.

"It's striking for any of us who are New Yorkers to realize that the ground we touch, every institution, is affected by slavery," he said.

Two young African-American brothers crammed into the booth together. "Slavery in New York was bad, and it's how New York became the richest city in the world," one of them declared.

The exhibition, which illustrates the centrality of 200 years of slavery to the growth of New York City, opened on Oct. 7 and runs through March 5. The very idea of slaves walking the streets of what is now SoHo or of slave auction blocks in Lower Manhattan - in a city known for tolerance and diversity - has attracted people of varied races and ages. There are no specific attendance figures yet, but museum officials said the exhibition galleries had been packed and attendance was up 83 percent over the same period last year, when the museum presented an exhibition on Alexander Hamilton.

The $5 million slavery exhibition features more than 400 artifacts, documents, paintings and maps spanning 9,000 square feet in 10 galleries. Visitors can see advertisements for runaway slaves and "negroes, to be sold"; caricatured drawings of blacks; items like chairs and cribs made by slave hands; and a 1644 document granting slaves "half freedom" and land around what is now Washington Square.

The visitor response booth is at the end of the exhibition. There, visitors touch a blue-screened computer asking questions about what they have seen: their overall impression, how it added to or altered their knowledge on the subject, what they found noteworthy. They then look at the camera and speak their answers.

"This is a much more qualitative way of knowing who's coming to the museum," said Richard Rabinowitz, the show's curator. "We really wanted to let people talk and think through things. We wanted people to frame a meaning for this as they leave." Museum officials plan to use those responses to figure out what and how people learn from such exhibitions.

So far, about 400 responses have been videotaped. Some will become part of the "visitor reaction" monitors now in three galleries, which showcase selected people who previewed the show.

In one, for example, a middle-aged white woman says the exhibition can make a difference. "A difference when you look at a black person on a subway train," she says, "or you're working next to a black person, that you have a little more empathy and understanding and also praising for how far so many people came."

In the raw videotape, the names given are not clear, one has to guess at ages and there is no consensus on what people found most noteworthy about the show. Some said they were shocked to learn that some slaves fought with the British during the Revolutionary War (in a bid for freedom); others said they had discovered that George Washington <> owned slaves; and some mused that New York City slavery was no more benign than the Southern variety.

After all, slaves in New York worked sunup to sundown. Slaves helped build the wall on Wall Street (and were sold there) and built the first City Hall and Trinity Church. Slavery was the lifeline for hundreds of city businesses. During British rule, about 40 percent of the city's households owned slaves. Institutional exhibitions about America's slave-holding past are relatively new and help foster a national conversation about race, said James Oliver Horton, the chief historian for "Slavery." This show's size and location facilitate that dialogue, he said.

"Back in the 90's, when Bill Clinton <> asked for a national conversation about race, most people didn't have the context in which to have the conversation," said Dr. Horton, a professor of American studies and history at George Washington University. "This exhibition will help Americans have such a historical context. It will help people start with a common experience."

One commonality that emerges from viewing five hours of the visitor videotapes is how much people do not know. Many were unaware of the existence or extent of slavery in New York, which lasted until 1827, longer than in any other Northern state except New Jersey.

"It's terrible to know that the city that I love was part of the slave trade," said a middle-aged white woman from New Jersey. "I'm shocked to hear about it."

An African-American man in the booth with his young daughter said: "It's just a constant reminder that here in New York, like in other places in the United States, we were nothing more than cattle in the eyes of the owners and were treated that way. It's just amazing that people were able to survive and thrive after that."

An elderly white woman who said she had two college degrees said, "I never knew until I walked in here about slavery in New York." Now, she said, "It just breaks my heart."

An African-American woman who identified herself as a graduate of Cornell University said, "I've actually had people tell me that black people in New York had no history."

"I can now feel that I have information I can share," she said.

A middle-aged white woman who said she lived down the street from the museum noted that her daughter's advanced placement courses in history included only one hour about slavery. "It made me realize how history doesn't go away," the mother said of the exhibition. "These burdens are carried through generations."

Clearly, schools are failing to educate students about slavery, said Louise Mirrer, the society's president. Dr. Mirrer said she would be gratified to see the public schools use the educational materials developed by the society for "Slavery."

While most visitors are admirers, the exhibition comes in for some criticism, too. Some said it was saturated with facts but failed to convey slavery's brutality. One woman wondered why she did not see a single shackle. Dr. Rabinowitz said it was an informed decision to let the facts speak, without graphic depictions of beatings or family separations.

But in the reaction booth, a young black man from Harlem argued that the show should be enraging. "Why are there ghettos in New York City? Because of slavery," he said. He learned many facts from the show, he added, but wanted explicit connections between race and class. "The ramifications of slavery still affect the world," he said. "It's not something to be put in the past, like dinosaurs or fossils."

An African-American woman from Washington complained, "The soul of it was completely gone." She added, "It was spoken about as if it was any economic phenomenon instead of human."

But some people caught on camera said the show had certainly made them think harder about skin color and the echoes of the past.

A woman from Chicago, who described herself as an artist and a second-generation Slovakian, said the exhibition helped her in that way. She watched two African-American children playing in the museum, and it dawned on her that in another time they would have been slaves. "They had no choice," she said. "They had no power."

And after learning that at one time 20 percent of New Yorkers were enslaved, the artist said, she went to the lobby of the grand Historical Society building and began imagining the past. "I'd look around and look around," she said, "and one in five people would be a slave."

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