Anyone who has studied New York City history knows about the financial predations of the robber barons, the conspicuous consumption of the Gilded Age and the corrupt political machinations of Tammany Hall. A few have even heard about the 1863 draft riots, although they were nothing like the fictional gang wars portrayed in Martin Scorcese's "Gangs of New York."
But I bet few New Yorkers know about the role that the hideous institution of slavery played in shaping the city physically, financially and socially, so the Lower Manhattan New York City Slavery Walking Tour serves as an eye-opener. The annual one-day event was created four years ago by Hofstra University education professor Alan Singer and Michael Pezone, who teaches an Advanced Placement course in government at Law, Government and Community Service Magnet High School in Queens.
Using history students from the high school as guides, each spring the tour takes 600 middle school students to locations that are connected in dramatic ways to the city's former involvement in the slave trade. The goal, Singer says, is not only to educate the students about an important aspect of American history, but to make them agents for change.
Singer recently took me on an abbreviated version of the tour -- minus the skits, instrumentals, and rap-song versions of history that his students use to liven up the experience. The tour starts at 1 Police Plaza (because it is convenient), and moves to the south end of Foley Square, now a traffic island with a modern sculpture flanked by courthouses and government official buildings, but which in 1741 was where 35 blacks and four whites who were suspected of plotting a slave insurrection were publicly executed. At the time, Africans comprised 15% of Manhattan's population, many of them hired out by their owners to work on the city's docks.
The next stop, at Duane and Elk Streets, is a stone memorial marking the site of the former African Burial Ground. As many as 20,000 blacks were buried here from the late 1600s to 1796, because at the time the area was outside the city limits, and blacks were not allowed to be buried in the city. The six-acre cemetery was built over as the city expanded, but was re-discovered at a construction site in 1991.
Next was City Hall, because two former mayors played a major role in the slave trade. William Havemeyer, who was elected mayor three times between 1845 and 1872, built his political career using money from his family's sugar refining business, which processed sugar produced by slaves in the South and in Cuba. In 1861 Mayor Fernando Wood called on the city to secede from the union to protect its investments in the sugar and cotton industries. He later opposed ratification of the 13th amendment.
Our tour continued to St. Paul's Chapel at Fulton and Broadway, which was a resting place for the Ground Zero rescue workers after 9/11. In the 1700s and 1800s black city residents were allowed to worship here, but could not be buried in its cemetery. At Liberty and Trinity Streets is the site of the former Hughson's Tavern, whose white owner allowed free and enslaved blacks and their white supporters to mingle socially. Hughson was among those executed as part of the alleged 1741 slave conspiracy.
The other sites include Maiden Lane near Williams Street, where in 1712 two dozen African slaves set fire to a building to protest the proposed separation of their family members, and 122 Pearl Street, the site of the former offices of silk merchants Lewis and Arthur Tappan, abolitionists who organized the defense committee to free the Africans aboard the slave ship "Amistad."
And who knew that 75 Wall Street, which now houses luxury condominiums, sits on the site on the old Wall Street slave market, where slaves fresh from the ships on the nearby dock were bought and sold, and other slaves were rented out? At 11 Wall Street stands a massive Citibank building. This was the original site of what ultimately became Citibank, the bank that grew directly out of the business of sugar merchant and banker Moses Taylor, who financed the export of sugar produced by African slaves in Cuba.
The last stop on the tour is South Street Seaport, now a lively boat basin, shopping mall and tourist attraction. But here, at 91 South Street, now the site of the Heartland Brewery, the city's slave traders used to meet to plan slave-trading voyages and discuss where in Africa slaves were being sold.
As the walking tour illustrates, "New York's involvement in the slave trade was substantial," Singer says. He's been advocating for the city to erect historical markers at the various sites, so that people who come here will know about the history of New York and the central role that blacks played in the city's development.
"New York emerged as the world's financial center because of the central role it played in the slave trade," Singer says.