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Alan Singer

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Wall Street Was a Slave Market Before It Was a Financial Center

Posted: 01/17/12 07:30 PM ET

The Occupy Wall Street movement brought a lot of attention to Wall Street and the New York City financial district as the center of economic inequality in the United States. The 1 percent, the bankers, brokers, and hedge fund operators who dominate the global economy and politics in the United States own and make their home on Wall Street.

The Wall Street wealthy are equal opportunity buyers of influence, contributing mightily to both major political parties. In the 2008 presidential election, political action committees (PACs), employees, and owners of major Wall Street firms gave money to both Democrats and Republicans. The Obama campaign received over a million dollars from PACs, individuals, and groups associated with Goldman Sachs, $800,000 from Morgan Chase, $700,000 from Citigroup, and $500,000 from Morgan Stanley. The McCain campaign, while it did not fare quite as well, received over $300,000 from PACs, individuals, and groups associated with Morgan Chase and Citigroup, a quarter of a million dollars from Goldman Sachs, $200,000 from Wachovia, and over $350,000 from Merrill Lynch.

According to the non-partisan Americans for Campaign Reform, individuals and PACs in finance, insurance, and real estate contributed over $2 billion to federal campaigns between 1990 and 2008. "Members of the U.S. House and Senate received an average $142,663 and $1,042,663, respectively, in Wall Street contributions as of July 28, 2008." The total Wall Street "contribution" to people running for federal office in 2008 was over THREE HUNDRED MILLION DOLLARS.

Wall Street influence, and the battle between main Street and Wall Street stretches way back in United States history. Mary E. Lease was a well-known "stump" speaker for the Farmers' Alliance and the Populist Party. They called her and her colleagues stump speakers because they stood on tree stumps to be seen over the crowd. Between 1890 and 1896 she toured the country making speeches telling farmers to "raise less corn and more hell." Some scholars believe Mary E. Lease was the model for the character Dorothy in Frank Baum's The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. In one of her best-known speeches she told her audience:

"Wall Street owns the country. It is no longer a government of the people, by the people, and for the people, but a government of Wall Street, by Wall Street, and for Wall Street. The great common people of this country are slaves, and monopoly is the master... Our laws are the output of a system which clothes rascals in robes and honesty in rags."

But the sordid history of Wall Street is actually much older and darker. December 13, 2011 was the three hundredth anniversary of the law passed by the New York City Common Council that made Wall Street the city's official slave market for the sale and rental of enslaved Africans.

1711 Law Appointing a Place for the More Convenient Hiring of Slaves Source: Minutes of the Common Council of the City of New York, vol. II, 458, December 13, 1711

Be it Ordained by the Mayor Recorder Aldermen and Assistants of the City of New York Convened in Common Council and it is hereby Ordained by the Authority of the same That all Negro and Indian slaves that are lett out to hire within this City do take up their Standing in Order to be hired at the Markett house at the Wall Street Slip untill Such time as they are hired, whereby all Persons may Know where to hire slaves as their Occasions Shall require and also Masters discover when their Slaves are so hired and all the Inhabitants of this City are to take Notice hereof Accordingly.

The predecessor bank of Citibank, which has offices at 111 Wall Street, was actually founded by a banker and sugar trader deeply involved in financing the illegal slave trade bringing Africans into Cuba in the 19th century. When Moses Taylor died in 1882, he was one of the wealthiest men of that century with an estate reportedly worth $70 million, or about $1.6 billion in today's dollars.

There is now an online petition addressed to Mayor Bloomberg and the City Council calling for a historical marker at the site of the Wall Street slave market detailing its role in the history of New York City. I signed the petition and welcome others to join the campaign. The letter reads:

December 13th is the 300th anniversary of the law establishing the first slave market in New York. That market was located at the end of Wall Street where present day Water Street is. Yet there is not a single sign, plaque, marker, statue, memorial or monument with any reference to slavery or the slave trade in Lower Manhattan (with the exception of the African Burial Ground memorial).


The fact is that New York's first City Hall was built with slave labor. The first Congress passed the Bill of Rights there and George Washington gave his inaugural speech there. Slaves helped build the wall that Wall Street is named for. Slavery was such a big part of early New York that during the colonial era one in five people living in New York was an enslaved African. One in five. Yet there are no permanent signs acknowledging the role slaves played in early New York.

Even after the discovery of a massive, 6.6 acre burial ground where Africans -- free and enslaved -- were buried, with thousands of individuals possibly still in the ground, their contribution to New York is and has been completely invisible. After 300 years it is finally time to tell their story.