N-Y Historical Society Exhibit on Slavery Wins Positive Reviews

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Our friends at The New-York Historical Society have, once again, mounted an excellent and ground breaking exhibition: "Slavery In New York." It is a presentation that is long overdue. I can remember school in the 1950s: the topic of slavery was barely mentioned. The year 1619, Nat Turner, Dred Scott, and Frederick Douglass were the main focus. Slavery in New York?? Not a word. Today it is not much better: most children, when told that the Northern colonies as well as those in the South had slavery, look at you with blank faces. This exhibition should help solve this historical & educational gap.

Divided into two sections depicting New Amsterdam and New York before 1776, and then to slavery's abolishment in 1827, it is a multi-media presentation: you first view a five segment movie telling the story of slavery both before and during it's existence in New York, and then you enter a room of wire sculptures of slaves at various occupations.

As you travel through time, you learn facts that were never taught in class. Only Charleston, SC had more slaves before the Revolution than New York City; they represented 20% of the population (by comparison, Philadelphia had 6%, and Boston had 2%). No less than 40% of NYC's households owned slaves. Four maps detail the city in 1664 (when the British took over); 1741 (the "Great Negro Plot"); 1783 (American victory); and 1827 (end of NYS slavery). Each map shows, in detail, the continued growth of the city and the slaves' contribution to the story. The Society has on display many historical documents, including slave ships' freight records, an inquest into the slave revolt of 1712, ads seeking runaway slaves, and the Gradual Emancipation Law of 1799. There are portraits and decorative arts objects (furniture, silverware) showing the work of the slaves, and their masters' use of them to better their own lives, and around the corner, what the slaves had: not much of anything except tools for work. Special sections show how blacks were depicted in drawings, paintings and newspaper articles, and you can sit in a church and listen to black gospel music, work on an interactive computer project to help free slaves, or pick up a phone receiver to learn about the lives of slaves. How much were slaves worth?? In 1675, a slaver could buy a person for $350 in Africa, and sell him/her in NYC for $3,800; by 1775, slaves cost $2300 and sold for $6000. Big business, big profits, very little morality. By 1706 this profit was so greatly noticed that NYC passed a law stating that any child born of a slave woman was also a slave. Laws against slave movement, ownership of property, or social gatherings were just as restrictive at those we studied in the antebellum South. It is overwhelming!!

Just one thing bothered this observer -- the lack of the instruments used to keep the slaves in check; no handcuffs, chains, ropes, are seen; just a representation of a whip. Southern museums show these "tools" and we should also. It is not likely that most slaves were treated better north of the Mason-Dixon Line: brutality knows no borders. The exhibition closes March 5, 2006; on the second floor is a wonderful Hudson River School presentation until January 22. After seeing "Slavery" you need the quiet galleries for reflection.

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