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The Hidden History of Slavery in New York | The Nation

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The Hidden History of Slavery in New York

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In 1991 excavators for a new federal office building in Manhattan unearthed the remains of more than 400 Africans stacked in wooden boxes sixteen to twenty-eight feet below street level. The cemetery dated back to the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and its discovery ignited an effort by many Northerners to uncover the history of the institutional complicity with slavery. In 2000 Aetna, one of Connecticut's largest companies, apologized for profiting from slavery by issuing insurance policies on slaves in the 1850s. After a four-month investigation into its archives, Connecticut's largest newspaper, the Hartford Courant, apologized for selling advertisement space in its pages for the sale of slaves in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. And in 2004 Ruth Simmons, president of Brown University, established the Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice to investigate "and discuss an uncomfortable piece" of the university's history: The construction of the university's first building in 1764, reads a university press release, "involved the labor of Providence area slaves."

About the Author

Adele Oltman
Adele Oltman is a historian, journalist and author of Sacred Mission, Worldly Ambition: Black Christian Nationalism in...

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As Obama accepts his party's presidential nomination on the forty-fifth anniversary of King's most famous speech, a historian looks beyond the obvious analogies.

Chicago's Robert Taylor Homes--once the nation's largest public housing project--is currently being dismantled. Half of its buildings have already been torn down, and of those that are still standing only some are occupied. It is only a matter of time before the remainder will meet the wrecking ball.

Completed in 1962, the Robert Taylor Homes at one time housed more than 27,000 residents, all African-Americans, in twenty-eight identical sixteen-story buildings. While the housing project replaced one of Chicago's worst slums, it became itself the stuff of legend--one of the nation's most infamous and troubled housing communities. It is being demolished in response to federal pressure on the grounds that the projects are no longer habitable.

Sudhir Venkatesh's new book, American Project: The Rise and Fall of a Modern Ghetto, is both an ethnography and a history of the Taylor Homes from the 1960s through the mid-1990s. Venkatesh spent a year and a half hanging out, as he puts it, primarily with longtime tenant leaders and gang members. The result is a fascinating study of community dynamics between various groups of tenants, including leaders and members of the Black Kings gang, and how they created and lived what Venkatesh refers to as an "ordered environment"--against incredible odds.

One of the ironies of this story is that the Taylor Homes were named after a black chairman of the Chicago Housing Authority (CHA) who served in the 1940s. Robert Taylor was committed to racial integration during a time when virtually all power blocs were opposed, albeit for different reasons. After the Federal Housing Act was passed in 1949 providing funds for more than 800,000 new units of public housing, Robert Taylor submitted a number of sites for the construction of a new housing project, which included vacant land in white communities. Chicago's City Council--with the support of powerful black machine politician and political broker Congressman William Dawson (in power from 1942 to 1970), ministers of the largest black churches and the Chicago Defender--supported urban renewal instead: the razing of existing slums with the purpose of keeping the housing project inside Chicago's black belt. The CHA used the federal funds to buy up poor neighborhoods and turn them over to private companies at bargain prices for demolition and commercial redevelopment. The residents of the slums were forced to move into different slums with the promise that they could apply for public housing sometime in the future. Robert Taylor's career in public housing ended in 1950 over the issue of urban renewal, well before the projects named after him were completed.

Venkatesh's portrayal of the Taylor Homes during its first decade depicts a complicated arrangement that to the uninitiated appears to have bordered on lawlessness and social instability. Tenants and the CHA maintained social order largely through such informal and formal female-led tenant organizations as the Mama's Mafia, Mothers on the Move Against Slums, elevator committees and citizens' committees, and CHA-organized Building Councils, which comprised tenants who were theoretically elected but often appointed. Each member of the community had his or her role in maintaining economic solvency and social control: There were the tenant leaders who had informal relationships with the local police, and the off-the-books entrepreneurs, including marijuana dealers, car mechanics, clothing sellers, pimps, prostitutes and proprietors of gambling parlors--all of whom paid taxes to tenant leaders who in turn paid off the police, thus avoiding investigation and allowing the much-needed informal economy to prosper. One informant, who operated an off-the-books car repair service with his brother in the Taylor Homes parking lot, recalled, "We paid our [tenant leaders] real good, so they'd keep the pigs off of us."

The tenant leaders' informal relationships with the police, writes Venkatesh, afforded "a practical means of working with a city agency that people generally distrusted and from whom they did not expect timely service." Tenant leaders became the police department's first point of contact, and as the testimony of a number of residents indicates, they had more to fear from tenant leaders than from the police department. One longtime resident recalled, "Hell, we never saw [the police] when I was growing up," adding "just look who caught me. [It was one of the tenant leaders] not the police. She was the one who called them to bust my ass."

The underground economy and the tenant leaders' informal relationships with the local police were, according to Venkatesh, what made the Taylor Homes "viable." Indeed, here lies Venkatesh's main argument, which provides the name of the book. The residents of the project--just like residents of any American community--faced the challenges of building a habitable community by procuring city services and controlling the behavior of local youth. Only, in this instance, with a more than 90 percent unemployment rate, "it is almost assured that aspects of daily life will be somewhat unique and possibly at odds with institutions in the wider world."

As obvious as this point should be, it is a useful heuristic device not so much for its sagacity but to offset a tendency to regard long-term ghetto residents as pathological and living beyond the pale of human decency. Venkatesh situates himself in the company of recent social scientists and historians, including Adolph Reed, Michael Katz and Kevin Phillips--to name just a few--who have attacked what William Julius Wilson infamously referred to as the "tangle of pathology"--a term that has attained popularity in the press and that has become a central component of the New Right's political lexicon. In contrast to those who indulge in underclass explanations for poverty--and they range from those who would situate themselves in the liberal camp (Nicholas Lemann) to those on the extreme right (Charles Murray)--Venkatesh focuses on complex internal social patterns of obligation, reciprocity and expectation. He shows that Taylor Homes residents, including gang members, had a work ethic just like most other Americans. And despite the high percentage of single heads of household (near 75 percent in the 1980s), he avoids the politically charged rhetoric of family values--another New Right buzzword--that stigmatizes female-headed households and absurdly identifies out-of-wedlock births as the root cause of poverty.

Venkatesh is to be commended for rejecting the perception of the black ghetto as a morally deficient space, and for letting the voices of the tenants be heard. The result is a rich account of the political lives of the leaders and some of its residents. Some of the book's most compelling narration is of 1960s tenant activism, which took place in the context of the Black Power movement in Chicago. The signal success of this activism, according to Venkatesh, was the creation of the Local Advisory Council, which grew out of the CHA-sponsored Building Councils. What once had been "the shouts of parents became the voices of empowered citizens," and the "female head-of-household stood at the political vanguard." Community control--another buzzword, this time of the left--intersected with Lyndon Johnson's program of maximum feasible participation and had become all the rage by the late 1960s. All of which sounds promising on the surface, but it ultimately failed to provide the residents of the Taylor Homes with more city services. If Venkatesh had weighed in with some of the more sustained critiques of LBJ's War on Poverty that began (but didn't end) with Frances Fox Piven and Richard Cloward in the 1970s, his contribution to the literature on poor people's responses to urban poverty would have been richer.

Decentralization and local control, as the historian Thomas Jackson has shown, was not a panacea for eradicating poverty. Decentralization ultimately gave the state a role in regulating political dissent when it reached into black political life and reshaped networks and political loyalties. Steven Gregory, in his recent study of Corona, Queens, has taken this point further, arguing that the War on Poverty reframed explicitly political issues of racial and class inequality, which led to the "articulation of new forms of political subjectivity and action." Urban poverty, in other words, was now a black problem, and inequalities that were exacerbated by the economic restructuring of the 1970s and '80s helped to define places like the Taylor Homes as the problem--so the links between urban poverty and broader structures of economic and racial subordination became obscured.

In what sense was the 1960s activism and the spawning of the Local Advisory Council a marker of success? Jackson and Gregory have suggested that this was the moment when social inequality became depoliticized, as local leaders, once militant and agitating from the outside, became political brokers. At the same time, the ghetto itself became a hyperpoliticized site on the American landscape. Venkatesh succeeds in transcending the trope of the black ghetto. But if this had been a mere starting point and not the denouement, his exploration of local power dynamics and how they intersected with larger social processes and politics might have been more thorough.

The idea of local control as a way to achieve more equitable distribution of resources that the federal government has made scarce remains alive today. Our public education system, for example, which is being dismantled--a process that began during the Clinton Administration--has been met by some community activists with a cry for more local control.

As an ethnography, American Project is an innovative, insightful and valuable examination of internal project politics. Venkatesh's research method enabled him to explore in fairly minute detail a multitude of tenants' positions and conflicts with one another and various organizations that sprang up in the projects over a thirty-year period. "The patterns of hidden work and the complex schemes for policing social problems," he writes, "offer a clue as to how the poorest sectors of black Americans coped with the growing impoverishment of their communities," especially during the 1970s.

As a history that attempts to explain the failure of the projects, however, it is incomplete. Its almost exclusive reliance on the oral testimony of tenants and gang members--("I let the voices of [the] tenants chart our course")--is the crux of the problem. The author pays too little attention to municipal and federal policy, and to senior CHA and police officials, especially after the 1970s. This bottom-up approach leaves the reader with the impression that tenants' failures to create and sustain an "ordered community" were stymied by their inability to form a consensus on whether to include gang leaders and members in their efforts to build a political movement that could successfully win adequate resources for the Taylor Homes in the mid-1990s. "With the discussion so sharply polarized," writes Venkatesh, "it was difficult to see how tenants could move forward together in a practical effort to address their concerns." Those who supported inclusion of the Black Kings in order to achieve at least short-term benefits--most notably safe public spaces--lacked effective mediation skills. Those who were opposed were unable to provide a workable program for addressing the social ills--some of which were gang-related--that confronted the tenants.

Venkatesh's success in portraying the residents of the Taylor Homes not as victims but as individuals actively searching for ways to create a habitable living space contributes to a weakness in his overall argument. It is a contradiction that cries out for resolution. Inadvertently, by paying too little attention to the larger political and economic context in which the projects existed, he lays blame for the failure of the tenants to secure more government resources on the tenants themselves. Not until the last few pages of the book is there mention of structures or institutions of racial and class inequality, and even then it's only as a generality and not with any historical or topical specificity. A more effective social history that attempted to locate the underlying causes of the Taylor Homes' failure would have to examine tenant strategies not in a vacuum but in the context of policies enacted by those with access to power and resources.

The most immediate question, of course, is what happens to the remaining residents of the Robert Taylor Homes. More than forty years ago, poor black people who lived in the same area were also told to pack their things and get out. Then they were told to wait for public housing. Both times city officials made promises they couldn't possibly keep. In recent years the federal government's approach has been to rely more heavily on private market forces to eradicate poverty. For some, this has resulted in new spaces of apartheid--this time in the suburbs. According to researchers at Northwestern University and elsewhere, there have been limited benefits, but the problem of structural poverty has not been addressed at all. Others have remained in their old neighborhoods, which have become "empowerment zones." Their new neighbors might be middle class and professional--and some might even be white--and even though the long-term residents might not be able to afford the $5 coffee drink at Starbucks, a few might find employment there. How does this private initiative benefit them? Aside from saving on subway fare, in a negligible way at best. So it seems that the main beneficiaries of mixed-income urban housing are the new homesteaders, who buy their properties at bargain prices, and the quality-of-lifers, as unseemly urban blight becomes slightly more hidden.

Now another blue-blooded institution--the New-York Historical Society--has joined this important public engagement with our past by mounting an ambitious exhibition, "Slavery in New York." To all those who think slavery was a "Southern thing," think again. In 1703, 42 percent of New York's households had slaves, much more than Philadelphia and Boston combined. Among the colonies' cities, only Charleston, South Carolina, had more.

The history presented here does not offer the flabby reflection that "slavery is bad" or that once it came to an end everyone lived happily ever after. The Historical Society hired experts led by Richard Rabinowitz, historian and president of the American History Workshop, to untangle the complicated stories of slavery and provide historical context. With more than a score of scholarly advisers weighing in, one wonders whether there were too many cooks, each one bringing a different feature of slavery at the expense of some themes that cry out for explication.

Take, for example, the creation of a distinctive black community of "half-free" New Yorkers in the middle of what is today's downtown but well north of the cluster of seventeenth-century houses. "Slavery in New York" leaves the designation "half-free" dangling suggestively, unexplored and undefined. Wasn't slavery straightforward? How could someone be enslaved and free? Fortunately, a book of essays titled Slavery in New York, published in conjunction with the New-York Historical Society, provides a valuable supplement to the exhibit (and a worthwhile resource in its own right). The collection--co-edited by Ira Berlin, a distinguished scholar of slavery, and Leslie M. Harris, the author of a 2003 study of slavery in New York (The Shadow of Slavery)--assembles a prodigious group of scholars, writing on topics ranging from slave rebellion, slavery in the American Revolution, black abolitionism and life after slavery.

Half-free, we learn from Berlin and Harris's introduction, reflected the evolving nature of slavery in the urban North. The Dutch West India Company that governed New Amsterdam worked its chattel hard, clearing the land, splitting logs, milling lumber and building wharves, roads and fortifications; but slavery was so ill defined in those days that slaves collected wages. In 1635, when wages were not forthcoming, a small group petitioned the company for redress, and that's when they became "half-free." As a condition of their half-freedom, families who sustained themselves as farmers agreed to labor for the company when it called on them and pay an annual tribute in furs, produce or wampum. This arrangement provided the company with a loyal reserve force without the responsibility for supporting its workers. It was less beneficial for the half-free men and women. Their status was not automatically passed down to their children, who instead remained the property of the company. This anomalous sorting of humanity produced an ongoing struggle over freedom, and it reflected "the ambiguous place of black men and black women in New Netherland. Exploited, enslaved, unequal to be sure," write Berlin and Harris, "they were recognized as integral, if inferior, members of the Dutch colony on the Hudson." And their status conferred on them a penchant to make trouble.

A map titled "Landscapes of Conspiracy" shows Hughson's Tavern, where black and white New Yorkers intermingled. There they "drank, divvied up stolen goods, [and] slept together," reads the label. Hughson's was on the far west side of the city, where Crown Street intersected with today's West Side Highway. The map details New Amsterdam in 1741, a crucial year in the city's history of slavery. After an especially severe winter, ten fires blazed in the city over three short weeks. A grand jury called by the Supreme Court quickly concluded that the fires were the work of black arsonists, "plot Negroes" from the half-free community. They were accused of acting as part of a vast conspiracy that seemed to involve just about every slave in the city and was carefully planned by John Ury, an "alleged" white priest, and John Hughson. It seems that the Supreme Court Justice was unwilling to believe that black people could have devised the plot themselves. In an admirable essay in the accompanying volume, the historian Jill Lepore argues there was little evidence to support the Ury-Hughson plot. As to the question of whether there actually had been a plot, Lepore says the evidence is inconclusive. What is clear, she argues, is that given a history of the city's slave codes (which serve as a record of the difficulty of enslaving human beings) and the testimony of the slaves themselves, "much evidence points to a plot hatched on street corners and in markets, the forging of an Akan-influenced brotherhood" and "a political order that encouraged individual acts of vengeance, of cursing whites and setting fires, skirmishes in the daily, unwinnable war of slavery."

One of the many strengths of "Slavery in New York" is its depiction of American history and life that was (and is) entangled with other histories and other lives. It puts to rest any mistaken belief that globalization began recently with outsourcing and free-trade agreements. The profits from the slave trade and products of slave labor, the exhibition tells us, "fueled the world's first industrial revolution." By 1800 it also fueled moral outrage against slave trading, igniting "the first international human rights movement," another suggestive comment left undeveloped. It turns out this is the subject of a second exhibition slated for next year.

On display is The Trading Book of the Sloop of Rhode Island, which left the Port of New York in 1748 for West Africa under the direction of Capt. Peter James. Thumbing through a virtual trading book while the original remains safely behind glass, the visitor will see that early in the voyage, around Sierra Leone, James distributed two New World commodities that had come through the Port of New York: tobacco and rum, connecting the British colonies of Virginia and Caribbean plantation economies into an Atlantic world of inebriation and addiction. In return he loaded up on cloth, guns and other manufactured goods from Europe. Later, as he sailed along the Gold Coast (today's Ghana), he traded those goods for slaves, a few at a time.

James's book registered the deaths of thirty-eight slaves on the journey home. But even with the loss, the trafficking in slaves was profitable. A table provides a graphic illustration of just how lucrative the business was. In 1675 the average selling price of a slave in dollars in Africa was $354.89, and in New York it was $3,792.66 (that's a 969 percent markup, for those econometricians keeping score). A hundred years later the trade was still profitable, although with a more modest return of 159 percent.

"Slavery in New York" is not the last word on how the institution evolved--and how it helped New York develop into the most powerful port in the hemisphere in the decades after New York State's Gradual Emancipation Law of 1799. When you walk down a hallway at the end of the exhibition, pause to ponder two quotes inscribed on the wall, both written years after the abolition of slavery in all of the Americas. The first is by U.B. Phillips, grandson of a Southern planter and a historian who wrote favorably about slavery in 1929, and the other is by W.E.B. Du Bois, scholar, polemicist and pan-Africanist who recognized before anyone else that slavery, even when it was confined to the South in the years before the Civil War, was a national phenomenon that touched the lives of every American, black, white, slave and free. It seems right that Du Bois should have the last word in "Slavery in New York."

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