New York and Slavery: Time to Teach the Truth

by William Loren Katz on October 5, 2008

Author: Alan J. Singer
Publisher: SUNY Press (2008)

As some southern legislatures, prodded by African American representatives, expressed regret over their states’ role in slave trading and exploiting slave labor, a kind of “truth and reconciliation” movement has stirred educators. So far the focus has been on the southern states where African people were brutally exploited, their families sundered, resulting in a civil war and a nation wide system of racial inequality.

Now some educators who welcome this truth are claiming it omits the complicity of “the free North.” Prominent northern merchant, industrial and banking families built the ships, hired the captains and crews and financed the expeditions that snared millions of African men, women and children for forced labor in the Americas. Wealthy Northerners then used their profits to first fund the southern plantation system and then politically promote slaveholder goals. Northern capital, ships and business acumen carried cotton, sugar, rice and other plantation crops to world markets, and produced the chains and whips needed by planters and overseers. “I hear the sound of the hammer, I see the smoke of furnaces where manacles and fetters are forged for human hands,” said Senator Daniel Webster. He was standing in Boston when he spoke.

In New York and Slavery: Time to Teach The Truth, Professor Alan Singer of Hofstra University tells how he and his classes stood in today’s Wall Street and pointed to buildings where New York’s early entrepreneurs reaped the profits of human bondage.

Northern slavery began after the Dutch occupation and enslaved Africans became vital to the city’s economy. Africans put up the first buildings, brought in the first crops, turned an Indian path into Broadway, and built the wall at Wall Street. In the British colony of New York its bankers and merchants so successfully invested in the international African trade they made it the slave-traders’ leading port. After the Revolution, with the city leading the way, slavery and its profits grew in the land of the free. A greater percentage of white households in Brooklyn, Queens and Staten Island owned slaves than in South Carolina. The world’s first stock exchange opened in New York in 1792 and half of its 177 stockholders owned slaves. Africans were auctioned to bidders at Wall Street and other city markets. Forced labor made the Empire State.

New York and Slavery summons a host of reliable witnesses. There is the calm, confident, talkative Captain James Smith, a chillingly unrepentant slave trader. Sitting in a city jail serving a two year sentence and $1,000 fine for violating the federal law against slave trading, Smith tells a reporter he is proud of himself and the other “good men in the business.” Smith states:

New York is the chief port in the world for the Slave Trade. It is the greatest place in the universe for it. Neither in Cuba nor in the Brazils is it carried on so extensively. Ships that convey Slaves to the West Indies and South America are fitted out from New York . . . . New York is our headquarters.

Smith’s simple truth, substantiated by Singer’s statistics and documentation, has yet to find its niche in our school social studies curricula, in teacher college courses, and on Regents examinations. If we are ever to understand the roots of our economic and racial problems, he warns us, schools have to confront these issues. But since Captain Smith’s interview New York students, instructors, teacher colleges, public school classrooms have ignored or denied this knowledge.

New York and Slavery indicts a host of prominent New York mercantile and banking families and corporations such as Citicorp which first made its name in the slave trade. Slaveholder names currently grace our buildings, bridges, parks, streets, and schools. This, Singer shows, teaches our children to celebrate men who benefited from the African trade, southern slavery and bondage in New York.

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