Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Slaves and the City

In the mid-18th century, one in five New Yorkers was a chattel.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005 12:01 a.m. EST
The Wall Street Journal

NEW YORK--Let's begin with three facts. In the middle of the 18th century, slaves constituted about one-fifth of New York City's population. Slavery persisted in New York well into the 19th century. Although male slaves outnumbered females in rural New York, in the city there was an increasing surplus of women over men. After viewing the exhibit under review, visitors are likely to be aware of the first two of these facts but ignorant of the third, and herein lie both the many strengths and the occasional limitations of this lavish display.

The largest exhibit in the 201-year history of the New-York Historical Society, "Slavery in New York" was prepared by a distinguished team of historians headed by James Oliver Horton, Benjamin Banneker Professor of History and American Studies at George Washington University, and supported by 17 "scholarly advisors" including such luminaries as Columbia University's Eric Foner and Yale's David Blight. It is accompanied by a handsome companion volume, also titled "Slavery in New York," edited by historians Ira Berlin and Leslie M. Harris.

The exhibit uses an impressive variety of items--maps, ledgers, correspondence, newspapers and artwork--supplemented by extensive written texts, artistic re-creations, video re-enactments, and interactive displays to present the chronological sweep of slavery in New York City. Beginning with a background unit on the slave trade from Africa to the Americas, the exhibit covers the early development of slavery under the Dutch, before the British takeover and renaming of New Amsterdam in 1664; the continued expansion of slavery under the British; slave resistance, including flight, rebellion, and support for the British during the American Revolution; gradual emancipation, beginning in 1799; and the growth of a free black community, whose members built churches, schools and voluntary associations while enduring growing racial discrimination. New York State's constitution of 1821 abolished property qualifications for voting among white men, but set a minimum threshold of $250 for black men; five years later, there were only 16 African-American voters in New York County.

"Slavery in New York" provides an outstanding introduction to what will be a shocking story for many viewers unaware of the extent to which slavery permeated life in New York during the city's first two centuries. On the Saturday afternoon that I visited the museum, the large and attentive crowd of visitors seemed particularly interested in a listing of restrictive laws, which included the 1702 provision, "Masters may punish their slaves however they choose so long as they do not cut off their limbs or kill them." Other viewers studied a newspaper advertisement for a fugitive "negro wench nam'd Pegg" who was described in some detail as "of a yellowish complexion" with a smooth face, a crooked middle finger, and a character that was "sensible, cunning, and artful." Still others pushed buttons to hear six different "cries of New York," including those of vendors selling sweet potatoes, buttermilk and baked pears, and watched historians Horton and Harris on two adjacent video screens as they discussed the vagaries of New York's emancipation legislation. Few visitors to this exhibit will come away unmoved by the presence, dimension and horror of slavery in New York.

Indeed, the exhibit is so good that I can't help wishing it was even better. One of the limitations faced by its creators is the paucity of slavery-related artifacts at their disposal, a paucity that explains their heavy reliance on text and re-created text-based visual evidence. There are no paintings with images of black New Yorkers dating from before the 1790s, so it is hardly surprising that the exhibit provides a richer display of free black life in the early 19th century than of slave life in the preceding decades.

Beyond the scarcity of artifacts lies the problem of how to convey historical concepts visually, or grapple with such historical staples as complexity, context and causation. There is little in this exhibit, for example, on the actual lives of the slaves, on changing slave demography, or on how slave experiences varied according to age, sex, occupation or place of birth. (It is worth noting that the "Slavery in New York" volume does cover such themes, and will therefore be of great interest to visitors in search of a fuller picture.)

But what is perhaps most surprising is the lack of context provided for understanding slavery in New York. The exhibit properly emphasizes the prevalence of slavery there--the proportion of slaves in both urban and rural New York was greater than elsewhere in the northern colonies--but surely it is also important to explain that slavery was less central to the economy and social order in New York than it was in Virginia or South Carolina (let alone Caribbean colonies such as Jamaica or Saint Domingue, where the vast majority of the population was enslaved). That, of course, explains why it was so much easier to abolish slavery in New York than it was in the South: In the wake of the American Revolution, every state north of Delaware initiated the abolition of slavery, whereas none of the Southern states did.

Finally, from a historian's perspective it is noteworthy that this exhibit gives little sense of slavery as a source of lively scholarly debate. Most viewers, no doubt, would quickly tire of a detailed presentation of the ins and outs of conflicting historical interpretations, but in avoiding discussion of how our understanding of slavery has changed over the years, and how at any given point in time experts continue to disagree over important questions (such as slave rebelliousness), the exhibit's creators missed a chance to show that knowledge about slavery is not simply "there" but is constantly being created and contested--in short, that the study of slavery is a vital and continuing intellectual enterprise.

Perhaps I am asking for too much. There is no perfection in this world, and "Slavery in New York" is a very good exhibit. You should go see it.

Mr. Kolchin, the Henry Clay Reed Professor of History at the University of Delaware, is the author of "American Slavery, 1617-1877" (rev. ed., Hill & Wang, 2003) and other books on slavery and emancipation.


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