Recovering New York City's Black History

On Saturday, June 27, 2015, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio dedicated a marker on Wall and Water Streets near the site of an 18th century slave market. It was established by the city's Common Council and operated from 1711 until at least 1762.
07/02/2015 11:12 am ET Updated Jul 02, 2016

On Saturday, June 27, 2015, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio dedicated a marker on Wall and Water Streets near the site of an 18th century slave market. It was established by the city's Common Council and operated from 1711 until at least 1762. Speakers included Chirlane McCray, de Blasio's wife and aide, and City Council member Jumaane Williams of Brooklyn, who played a major role in the initiative. Pulitzer prize winning poet Yusef Komunyakaa read his poem "The African Burial Ground."

The marker is the culmination of a decade long campaign that included thousands of New York City students. Students organized walking tours of slavery related sites in Lower Manhattan that included dramatic reenactments. In June 2006, a New York Post editorial accused the students of littering and their teachers of promoting lawlessness because they hung posters at the sites.

At the beginning of the 18th century, over 40% of White New York families owned enslaved Africans. A 1711 law passed by the city's Common Council established a market for the "more convenient hiring of slaves." The city taxed all slave sales at the site so the municipal government actively benefited from African enslavement.

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.

For too long, the African American role in the building of colonial New York, and the New York economic and political elite's complicity with slavery, including financing of the 19th century trans-Atlantic slave trade, have been erased from history. According to a 2007 New York Times article, at east seventy streets in Brooklyn alone are named after slaveholders. However, over the last few years there have been major victories in the battle to write Africans back into the early history of New York.

More battles still need to be fought. A predecessor of Citibank was instrumental in promoting the illegal slave trade into Cuba and South Street Seaport was the meeting place for slave traders. Both of those sites, within walking distance of the Wall Street slave market, remain unmarked.

As part of a school project that involved studying census data and maps, students and teachers from Public School 48 discovered an African slave burial ground at a park in the Hunts Point section of the Bronx. Scientists from the United States Department of Agriculture, using ground-penetrating radar, confirmed that there appears to be skeletal remains about six feet under the ground. Students and local politicians are now pressing for official recognition for the site.

Students started their research with a black-and-white photograph from 1910 that showed possible gravestones on the site. overgrown landscape with several markers resembling headstones. The back of the photograph identified the site as "Slave burying ground, Hunts Point Road." Hunts Point Road no longer exists. According to old maps, it ran through an area that became Joseph Rodman Drake Park. The image was first uncovered by Philip Panaritis, a social studies curriculum specialist with the new York City Department of Education at the Museum of the City of New York.

Another African burial ground in the East New York section of Brooklyn was officially recognized in 2013. There is now a plaque at the site and the Schenck Park and New Lots Library block has been renamed African Burial Ground Square.

In January 2015, the Metropolitan Transit Authority closed an East Harlem bus depot that was built on top of a 17th century African burial ground. The land under the depot was once the site of the First Reformed Church of Harlem, which became the Elmendorf Reformed Church. In 1658, Peter Stuyvesant, Governor of the Dutch New Amsterdam colony, ordered enslaved Africans owned by the Dutch West Indies Company to build a road from lower Manhattan to Nieuw Haarlem near the conjunction of the Harlem and East Rivers. Between 1665 until the time of the American Civil War, enslaved and free Africans were buried in a separate, segregated in death, plot in church cemetery. The church sold its "Negro Burying Ground" in 1853 for $3,000, about $30,000 in today's money. There are now plans to build a monument on the site.

Recent books by historians Eric Foner, Gateway to Freedom: The Hidden History of the Underground Railroad (Norton) and Sven Beckert, Empire of Cotton, A Global History (Knopf) detail the extent of early New York's involvement with slavery. According to Foner, in 1650 New Netherlands the 500 enslaved Africans outnumbered those in Virginia and Maryland. The Dutch West Indies Company used enslaved Africans to build fortifications and infrastructure. Individual Dutch farmers used enslaved Africans to clear fields, plant, and harvest. In British New York slavery expanded and was more tightly regulated. By 1750, enslaved Africans made up about 20% of the city's population of around 12,000. In rural Kings County, modern day Brooklyn, enslaved Africans made up one-third of the population in 1771.

"Hard usage" by enslavers led to a revolt in 1712, escapes to freedom, and more restrictive laws. The suspected but never confirmed "Great Negro Plot" of 1741 produced mass public executions and further legal restrictions on New York's Black population. When an independent New York adopted its first constitution in 1777 it was silent on the issue of slavery and in 1784, the New York City Common Council tightened restrictions on enslaved Africans.

In 1799, the state legislature adopted a gradual emancipation law freeing enslaved children born after July 4, 1799 once they had reached adulthood, twenty-eight years old for men and twenty-five years old for women, completed an "apprenticeship," and had essentially compensated their enslavers through unpaid work. In 1817 the legislature finally passed a law that would free all enslaved Africans in the state on July 4, 1827.

While New York City and State became central to the movement to abolish slavery and were part of major escape routes on the Underground Railroad, city merchants and bankers played a major role in financing the illegal slave trade into Cuba during the 19th century and the processing and marketing of slave produced commodities, particularly sugar cane and cotton. The financing and operation of the Southern cotton trade, and its ties with New York City merchants, was detailed in an 1852 report to Congress and in the first annual report of the Chamber of Commerce of the State of New York in 1859. According to the Chamber of Commerce, even when the Europe-bound cotton trade was not shipped through the port of New York, New York City merchants and bankers financed the exchange. Beckert's book focuses on the cotton industry and he explains how Brown Brothers, based in New York City but with offices in New Orleans and Liverpool, became one of the world's most important cotton brokerage firms by involving itself in every aspect of the trade in cotton produced in the American south.

2015 is the start of the United Nations' International Decade for People of African Descent. In March 2015, as part of commemoration ceremonies the United Nations unveiled a monument, the "Ark of Return," at its New York headquarters. The marble and steel structure honors victims of slavery and the transatlantic slave trade.

I would like to see Metrotech Plaza in Brooklyn renamed Grand Emancipation Jubilee Park. On January 1, 1863, the Bridge Street AME Church at that location was the site of an enormous three-day celebration by free Blacks, former slaves, and White abolitionists upon the issuing of the Emancipation Proclamation.