THE BLOG
09/21/2015 09:18 am ET Updated Sep 21, 2016

Rethinking How We Teach About Slavery

In a New York Times op-ed Sean Wilentz, Hillary Clinton's favorite historian, slashed out at Bernie Sanders accusing him of perpetuating a myth that "threatens to poison the current presidential campaign" when he asserted the United States "in many ways was created, and I'm sorry to have to say this, from way back, on racist principles, that's a fact." While Wilentz, and I hope not Hillary, dismiss the impact of racism and slavery on the development of the United States, other groups are confronting it in very positive ways especially useful for teaching about the history of slavery.

Independent journalist and television producer Susan Modaress of Inside Out productions just completed and posted on youtube an excellent examination of New York's complicity with slavery. According to Modaress:

New York has been for the most of in its history the largest, most diverse and economically ambitious city in America. Anchored by Wall Street, New York City has been called both the most economically powerful city and the hub of the global financial center . . . But for more than 2 centuries New York was also a hub for America's slave trade. Enslaved and free Africans were largely responsible for the construction of the early city, first by clearing land, then by building a fort, mills, bridges, houses, and even the first city hall.

In the video, Modaress explains "the very name Wall Street is born of slavery, as they built a wall in 1653 to protect Dutch settlers from Indian raids." The video, which I had a chance to participate in along with Hofstra University alumni April Francis, a middle school social studies teacher in Uniondale, New York, and her teenage son Jalen Beatty, takes viewers on a tour of Lower Manhattan exploring the "often overlooked history of enslaved and free Africans in early New York." It make "stops at historic sites most tour guides and buses will never show you."

I also recommend another video, "Slavery and the Law" by Paula Heredia in cooperation with the Office of the Brooklyn District Attorney. Historians and educators involved in the project included Ira Berlin of the University of Maryland, Gloria Browne-Marshall of John Jay-CUNY, Clement Price and Deborah Gray White of Rutgers University, New York State Regent Adelaide Sanford, Lois Rosebrooks, Plymouth Church Historian, and myself.

Historian Michael Todd Landis recently added to discussion on rethinking how we teach about slavery in an essay posted on the History News Network. Landis believes that the words historians and teachers use shape the way we think about the past. He argues that what is taught as the "Compromise of 1850" really represented Northern appeasement of the slave South, a position that was held at the time by New York State's Senator William Seward. He also wants the term planation, which has idealized implications, replaced by forced labor camps, and slave-owners called enslavers. Perhaps his most powerful argument is that presenting the Civil War as a war between the Union and the Confederacy adds legitimacy to Southern claims that they were fighting for either state's rights or independence and not for slavery. He wants it made clear that the Confederacy was fighting a war against the government of the United States, not against one region.

A number of major institutions are also rethinking how they tell their own stories. Yale University is debating renaming Calhoun College, one of its twelve undergraduate residential colleges. Calhoun is named after a Yale graduate who went on to become a Senator from South Carolina, Vice President of the United States, and a major defender of slavery. The University of Texas at Austin recently removed a statue of Confederate President Jefferson Davis from its main campus mall.

The Episcopal Church of the United States launched a long process of rethinking both its relationship to slavery and the lingering impact of slavery on American society. The Church acknowledged its participation in perpetuating slavery and the trans-Atlantic slave trade in the eighteen and nineteenth centuries and has apologized for its actions.

Many participants in the slave trade, including shipbuilders, ship captains and financiers of the voyagers were parishioners of Episcopalian churches, especially in Rhode Island cities that were homeport for many slavers. The Diocese of Rhode Island is creating a center for racial reconciliation and healing that will include a museum focused on the trans-Atlantic slave trade, slavery and the North's complicity,.

In New York City, Trinity Church is organizing a theological conference scheduled for January 2016 that will examine "racial issues of our time, including structural racism, mass incarceration, and policy change." In preparation for the conference, Trinity is producing a video examining its relationship with slavery and the slave trade during the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries.

As more and more institutions examine their relationship to slavery and the slave trade and as school curriculum change there are a number of key questions that need to be explored. What was slavery like in the North? How was it similar to and different from enslavement in the South and the Caribbean? What role did Northerners and Northern institutions play in supporting slavery in the South and the Caribbean? How did free Blacks in the North help to bring down the institution of slavery?

These are some issues I introduced in discussion with Trinity Church as at prepares for the 2016 convocation.

1. All slavery is not the same. There is an economic difference between a slave society and a society with slavery and this leads to social differences as well. Sugar producing Caribbean and cotton producing American South were slave societies where enslaved African labor was the primary producer of wealth and the entire society, its culture and beliefs, and all its social and political institutions were organized to maintain and justify enslavement. New York was a society with slavery primarily because of an initial shortage of free labor. The Dutch had slavery on New Amsterdam but the system was ill-defined. The Dutch West Indies Company promised it would provide White settlers with enslaved African labor but the population of both groups remained small and the legal system governing enslavement was unclear. After the British occupation of the city in 1664 it largely imports the slave system with supporting laws from Virginia. Enslaved Africans built the infrastructure of the city, the walls at Wall Street and Chambers street, roads, dredged harbors, and built major buildings including church facilities that were part of Trinity parish. But as the basic infrastructure was laid in and other sources of labor became available, slavery became less important and by 1800 it was being phased out through gradual emancipation.

2. In New York and surrounding communities there were movements to proselytize enslaved Africans and promote Christianity and some opposition to slavery, especially among Quakers. At the start of the 18th century Trinity Church was involved in providing religious instruction to enslaved Africans. A letter, written July 5, 1726, reported: "about one Thousand and four hundred Indian and Negro slaves and the number daily encreaseing by Births and importation from Guiney and other parts. A considerable number of those Negroes by the Societys Charity have been already instructed in the principles of Christianity, have received Holy Baptism Are communicant of our Church and frequently approach the altars." Welcoming enslaved Africans into Christianity did not end chattel slavery, but it did challenge some of its fundamental premises.

3. Despite laws restricting all aspects of the lives of enslaved Africans, in New York City they had a greater degree of freedom of movement, the ability to develop skills, access to literacy, and perhaps more flexibility in association and relationships than did enslaved Africans in the South and the Caribbean, but evidence from bodies disinterred at the African burial ground suggests that their lives were often short and their treatment could be brutal.

4. The issue is not just whether enslaved Africans helped to build the original Trinity Church buildings or St. Paul's or whether despite the law some enslaved Africans ended up buried on church grounds. Trinity Parish as the Anglican Church was the official church of the colony and the parish as an institution and its parishioners as individuals were instrumental and powerful in the leadership of a colony that utilized and initially required slave labor. It was so important and powerful that by the 1720s many of the city's prominent Dutch families convert and joined the church. Trinity received a royal charter in 1697 and held its first services in the new church building in 1698. It was on Broadway at the head of Wall Street where the current church is still located. The building was destroyed in a mass fire in 1776. A second church was built in 1790 but demolished in 1839. The current building opened in 1846. It was the tallest building in New York City until 1890. Captain William Kidd, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay were members. Francis Lewis, who signed the Declaration of Independence is buried in the churchyard. Lewis and Jay both owned enslaved Africans. Lewis is also suspected of being a slave trader.

5. Trinity Parish archivist and historian Gwynedd Cannan reports that "An examination of records, from the church's beginnings in 1696 to the abolition of slavery in New York State in 1827, demonstrates that the parish enlisted slave labor in the building of its first church, catechized and ministered to Africans and persons of African descent, enslaved or free, and practiced a fluid burial segregation in its churchyards."

Minutes from 1696 "specifically mention the use of enslaved labor at several points. Four of the managers each 'lent a Negro' to dig the foundation and the twelve managers were each designated to provide 'A Negro or Labourer' to work fourteen days on the building at their own cost over and above what they contributed to the subscription." According to Cannan, "most, if not all, of the managers were slave holders, although the 'Negro or Labourer' phrase implies that if some managers owned no slave or could make none available, they were still responsible for providing a workman." The church archives contain a contract dated June 3, 1696 detailing that "Saml Van de burgh is to furnish sd managers for use of Trinity Church three Labourers viz Jack his own Negro, Jack Jaman's Negro and ye Negro belonging to the French minister at three shillings per diem." Slavery was still legal in New York when the second church building was constructed but there are no surviving records that specify the use of slave labor.

6. According to Trinity Vestry minutes from October 25, 1697, "That after the Expiration of four weeks from the dates hereof no Negro's be buried within the bounds & Limitts of the Church Yard of Trinity Church, that is to say, in the rear of the present burying place & that no person or Negro whatsoever, do presume after the terme above Limitted to break up any ground for the burying of his Negro, as they will answer it at their perill & that this order be forthwith publish'd." Vestry minutes from April 12, 1790 again banned burials of African-Americans ordering "that in future no black Persons be permitted to be buried in Trinity Church Yard, nor any except Communicants in the Cemetery at St Paul's." Parish historian Gwynedd Cannan believes that "the wording of the ban implies that African-Americans had continued to be buried both at Trinity and St. Paul's, in spite of the 1697 ban and in spite of the burial ground set aside specifically for black burials in 1773." Trinity's north churchyard was originally the city burial ground of New Amsterdam and colonial New York. Surviving records from 1801 note the race of people being interred and at least two people of African ancestry, an 8 months old baby and an elderly man, were buried in Trinity churchyard.

7. I am particularly interested in Trinity Parish's role in the 1741 slavery conspiracy trial and have uncovered no specific documentation. The church and parish are not mentioned in Justice Daniel Horsmanden's account of the trial. Daniel Horsmanden, a judge during the trial, is buried in Trinity churchyard. The plot supposedly was developed at Hughson's tavern, directly across from St. Paul's chapel. According to historian Jill Lepore, 208 enslaved Africans in New York City were suspected of involvement in a conspiracy to rebel, 161 were charged with involvement but 38 later had charges dismissed, 84 were convicted and transported, primarily to the Caribbean, and 30 were publicly executed for conspiring in a rebellion that never took place and that most likely never was planned (246). In a letter to Cadwallader Colden, a colonial New York official, Josiah Cotton, a Plymouth, Massachusetts judge, compared to "imaginary plot" and the punishment of supposed participants with the Salem witch trials. Lepore lists 158 slaveholders who claimed ownership over the enslaved Africans. 64 or 40% were Dutch, 46 or 29% were English, and 48 or 30% were other, with French being the largest group. All paid taxes to support the established Anglican Church and I think it is fair to assume that most of the English slaveholders would have been members of the Trinity parish.

8. In 1785, the New York State Society for Promoting the Manumission of Slaves was organized to lobby for anti-slavery laws and to assist African-Americans, slave and free. John Jay, Trinity churchwarden from 1785 to 1790, was president of the society. Trinity pew holder Alexander Hamilton was also a member. In 1787, Trinity provided for an African Free School. Although slavery gradually became less important in the city itself, New York's merchants and bankers continued to profit off of the slave trade and the sale of slave produced commodities, especially sugar and cotton, until the Civil War. William Havemeyer, Moses Taylor, and Fernando Wood, all buried in Trinity cemeteries, were part of this system.

9. In The Long Emancipation historian Ira Berlin documents the crucial role played by free Black communities in the North in bringing about the end of slavery in the United States. Berlin emphasizes that freedom was not just given to enslaved Africans by charitable Whites, but it was something that they struggled for decades to achieve.