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.”
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.