Slavery in NY

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(HOST) Rosa Parks’ recent death, and an exhibit on slavery in New York, lead commentator Allen Gilbert to reflect on race relations in our country.

(GILBERT) I’m still trying to absorb the scope of honors paid to Rosa Parks upon her recent death. They were well-deserved. Perhaps the honors were our way of saying, “We’re sorry. We’re sorry we tolerated racial injustice in this country for so long. We wish we had done better.”

There’s the same sort of air about a new exhibit at the New York Historical Society in New York City. It, too, tries to atone for a cultural sin. The exhibit is called simply “Slavery in New York.” The atonement is for the broad acceptance of slavery in early
New York, plus the state’s amnesia about this stain on its past.

When the English took New Amsterdam from the Dutch in 1664, about 10 percent of the population were slaves. There were more slaves in New Amsterdam, in fact, than in Virginia.

Nearly forty years later, in 1703, forty percent of New York households had slaves. Only one other American city, Charleston, in South Carolina, had more.

The slave trade flourished in New York because of the city’s under-
lying profit-driven society. In 1675, a slave bought in West Africa for $355 in today’s money could be sold in New York for $3,793 – nearly a thousand percent profit.

Slavery – its profits and benefits – underlay the city’s early success.The whole slave system created tremendous wealth — through slave labor, through the trade in human beings, through the insurance of slave ships, through the financing of purchases, through the sale of goods that the slaves needed.

Some New York slaves were freed as early as the 1600s. There was a slave revolt in 1712. But sadly, it was the exigencies of war that brought many slaves their freedom. The British occupied New York for most of the American Revolution. They needed bodies – as willing workers, as soldiers. The British agreed to free New York’s slaves if they would promise to support the Crown. Many did. And when the British finally left the city at the end of the war in 1783, 3,000 blacks left, too, sailing for freedom in Nova Scotia.

It’s ironic that Vermont, once a part of New York, adopted the first constitution that outlawed slavery. New York passed a gradual emancipation act in 1799, but it wasn’t until 1827 that slavery was illegal in New York.

A consulting historian to the exhibit said, “Slavery was not a side-show in American history. It was the main event.”

Should reparations be paid to the descendants of these slaves? Several recently filed lawsuits are attempting just that. I doubt that they will be successful. But at least we can search our souls and honor the memory of people like Rosa Parks. They helped to bring down Jim Crow laws that prolonged the separation of the races that slavery had established. Her funeral lasted seven hours. One wonders if the remembrance shouldn’t have gone on longer.

This is Allen Gilbert.

Allen Gilbert is a former journalist, teacher, and consultant currently serving as executive director of the ACLU of Vermont. He has a longtime interest in public policy issues.

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