The Anger and Shock of a City's Slave Past

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They have the awkwardness of amateur home videos: background noise, long silences, people looking away from the camera. But inside a booth at the New-York Historical Society, visitors to the exhibition "Slavery in New York" are recording their reactions, creating snapshot reflections on race and history in the nation's largest city.

"It allows our young people to understand, really, how this city was born and who carried the brunt of the prosperity that we see in New York, not only then but now," a black man from "Harlem, New York," said of the show, the largest in the museum's 201-year history. The man, who appeared to be in his 30's, said he wanted to know what businesses in the city today derived profits in the past from selling human beings.

A white lawyer went into the booth twice to sort out his feelings. "This has just been devastating," he said. As he looked at the exhibition's array of documents, he said, he realized that the some of the laws used to isolate and dehumanize enslaved black New Yorkers became custom after the laws vanished and "contributed to the way whites look at blacks," even today.

See: Phyllis C. Murray,"There is Nothing New About Slavery."

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