Ira Berlin: The Surprising Importance of Slavery in NY's History

Roundup: Talking About History

... For decades [University of Maryland Professor Ira Berlin] has researched parts of slavery's history that were often overlooked. Now he has helped organize the exhibit Slavery in New York that opened at the New York Historical Society this month, telling the surprising tale of the vital importance of slaves in the history of the country's most important city.

...Did you learn anything surprising about slavery in your hometown while working on this exhibit and catalog?

I knew quite a bit, or thought I did, but I learned quite a bit as well. It turns out there are three big stories here. This exhibit actually covers one of them. A second exhibit will cover the other two.

The first story is of the institution itself, which turns out to be much more significant than most people can imagine. New York City in the 17th and 18th centuries was the largest slave-holding city on the North American continent. There were more slaves in New York than in Charleston or New Orleans. Slaves made up a quarter of New York's population at various times, and probably a third or more of its workforce. Probably nothing moved in or out of New York without a slave touching it at one time or another. The institution is really quite significant in any understanding of the history of New York.

Then the institution dies this lingering, glacially slow death, in a sense. You finally have emancipation in 1799. New York is the next-to-last Northern state to emancipate slaves; only New Jersey takes longer. But when it was announced that slaves were free on, of course, July 4, 1799, nobody was actually free. It was people who were born after that date who would be free. And they would not be free until they came into their age of majority, which was generously defined as 25 for men and 28 for women.

So the death of the institution of slavery in New York stretched out, and would probably have stretched out past 1860, and on past the Emancipation Proclamation and the 13th Amendment, if the legislature hadn't finally called a halt to it in 1827, some 50 years after the Declaration of Independence. The institution had great staying power. There were over 10,000 slaves in New York in the third decade of the 19th century. The institution would not have gone away without considerable effort by both blacks themselves and their white abolitionist allies.

That's the number one story.

The second one is that after people thought they had put a stake in the heart of slavery, it actually becomes more important in New York because the city becomes the center of the cotton trade. The economy of New York comes to revolve around cotton. New York bankers fund the expansion of slavery in the South. New York manufacturers are making shoes for slaves. The New York textile industry gets its start making cheap clothes for slaves.

Since we know politics follows economics, it is not surprising that New York politicians are much beholden to their Southern counterparts and eager to defend the institution of slavery. When the South started seceding in 1860, the mayor of New York says he wants to secede along with it. New York politicians were great opponents of Lincoln and his emancipatory policies.

And since culture follows politics, you see in the antebellum years the great Southern planters coming to New York, meeting their bankers and brokers, being wined and dined, as you would your best customers. Their kids meet, they intermarry, and these great New York merchant families become intertwined with Southern plantation families. During this time, New York is also an important site of the movement against slavery. Black and white New York played a large role in abolition.

Once the Civil War ends New York's connection with slavery, then you have a third story, of these refugees from the South, black and white, coming up to the city, former planters and former slaves, both of whom have a profound effect on the development of New York City. The slaveholders promote this sectional reconciliation view, the dewy-eyed view of the Old South, the lost cause, that becomes very prominent on the New York stage, in magazines published in New York and in its politics. The former slaves migrate to the city, bringing their experience and memory of slavery, that very much affects the small black community that existed in New York.

It's a big and complicated story. I learned a good deal about it just doing this exhibit.

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