I Sit And Look Out: A moving exhibit: ‘Slavery in New York’

By Kenneth Kowald

As a native New Yorker who has lived here all my life (with the exception of Army service), I have always defended and bragged about the greatest city in the world, the center of the universe. But, I have not been reluctant to acknowledge the problems in our town. The earliest discrimination we know much about was when Peter Stuyvesant tried to keep out of New Amsterdam anyone who didn't agree with his very narrow religious point of view. He didn't succeed because his bosses back home were interested in money, not theology, and they made sure this place was open to everyone who could contribute to profits. We all know how the good burghers in Holland protected John Bowne of Flushing. Of course, discrimination continued-and continues-in New York City to this day. Successive waves of immigrants-Germans, Irish, Jews, Italians and others in the 19th and 20th centuries, and today people from Asia and Central and Latin America- have all been subjected to it. The nativist Know-Nothing Party was strong in the early part of the 19th Century. The Ku Klux Klan was still active here in the 1920s. But, for blacks, there was more than discrimination. There was slavery. The tolerant Dutch brought slavery to New Amsterdam in 1626. The Dutch West India Company, which kept a leash on Stuyvesant, was among the foremost slave traders in the world. By the time of British rule in New York City, 40 percent of the households owned slaves. In the early days of the new republic, here are the figures for slaves in Queens for 1790, 1800, 1810 and 1820, respectively: 2,309; 1,528; 909; 559. Just before the Revolution, New York City was second only to Charleston, South Carolina, among urban centers in slavery. Abolition came slowly in New York state and was not complete until 1841, barely 20 years before the start of the Civil War. Much of the above information is from the splendid “Encyclopedia of New York City.” The sections on slavery and blacks are especially important to an understanding of this horror in our city. (Interestingly, the volume has no separate entries for Ralph Bunche or Trygve Lie, Queens residents who were mentioned in my most recent column.) But, the cold type on the page comes alive in a moving and extraordinary exhibit, “Slavery in New York,” on view through March 5 at the New-York Historical Society, at Central Park West and 77th Street. This is the largest exhibit in the Society's 201-year history and it is worth a visit from anyone who wants to learn about a subject of great importance, not only in the history of New York City, but to today's world. Those who attend the exhibit have a chance to record their reactions. One white lawyer is reported to have said that he realized that some of the laws enslaving black New Yorkers became custom after the laws vanished and “contributed to the way whites look at blacks” to this day. The exhibit has nine galleries and an introduction area. The galleries take you through the slave trade, the colonial slave situation, the effect of the Revolution, the gradual freedom of the slaves and how we have forgotten and are now rediscovering the story of slavery in New York City. The exhibition is excellently designed and very powerful.A smaller exhibition, “Finding Priscilla's Children: The Roots and Branches of Slavery,” is on view at the Society until March 19. It links a 10-year old sold into bondage in 1756 to her present day descendants. To find out about the hours of the exhibits, call 212-873-3400. The impact of these exhibits will linger for a long time in the memory of all those who see them. And, the New-York Historical Society has insured that this story of the degradation of people will not go unnoticed after the exhibits close. Educational materials are available for any schools which request them. Let us hope many do. (In the last of this series, I will comment on what happened in the nation and our county in the decade after Rosa Parks took her seat on that bus.)

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