New exhibit on slavery and New York at the New-York Historical Society wins rave review in the NYT

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When the New-York Historical Society opened an extensive exploration of slavery in New York last year with an ambitious exhibition, it began to transform how New York remembers itself. The city, of course, always had its riots, its social traumas, its eruptions of unrest, but wasn’t New York (at least in our cosmopolitan imaginations) immune from systematic associations with history’s more deplorable practices? If not always a model of tolerance, didn’t its growth as a port, its importance as a center of international commerce and its churning population of immigrants and aspirants lead to an enduring liberality of spirit?

Perhaps, but that first exhibition, “Slavery in New York,” surveyed the impact of slavery from the colonial period until its abolition in 1827. It demonstrated that the enslavement of Africans was not alien to New York’s past but an essential part of it; slavery was indelibly linked to the labor that built New York and the trade that nourished it.

The society’s second major exploration of this subject, “New York Divided: Slavery and the Civil War,” which opens today, is even more potent than the first, a fitting conclusion to a multiyear project guided by Louise Mirrer, the society’s president. This exhibition is smaller and more focused, dealing with the years between Emancipation and Reconstruction. It is less concerned with pulling in children with minor entertainments (though it includes an opportunity to print out and personalize an abolitionist newspaper and features one display in which viewers “vote” electronically on issues debated in a video enactment of an 1835 black convention). And while its predecessor, in breaking new ground, tended to overstate its case, this show is fully intent on portraying the complexities and contradictions that shaped a great city.

The historian Richard Rabinowitz, the show’s curator, joined by James Oliver Horton, the exhibition’s chief historian, and a panel of consulting historians have mounted exhibits ranging from 19th-century invoices and documents to a video reconstructing part of a minstrel show; from soft-hued romantic views of the South in Currier & Ives prints to political cartoons of the 1850s; from images of the Colored Orphan Asylum that was burned down in the 1863 draft riots to a wooden draft lottery wheel used in Lower Manhattan before those five days of destruction, including assaults on black residents that constituted some of the worst violence in New York’s history....

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