Forgotten Slaves

For centuries, slavery played a huge role in the economic and social life of New York City. UM Professor Ira Berlin has helped the city's historical society tell a story that challenges conventional wisdom about slavery in America.


When Ira Berlin was growing up in the Bronx, he knew Van Cortlandt Park as a leafy attraction of that northern borough of New York City.

"What I didn't know was that it was probably once Van Cortlandt plantation and that there were slaves living and working there," says Berlin, a professor of history at the University of Maryland, College Park.

"There are probably many things I don't remember that I was taught in New York's public schools, but I very much doubt that was part of the curriculum," he says.

Berlin, 64, is trying to change that. For decades he has researched parts of slavery's history that were often overlooked. Now he has helped organize the exhibit Slavery in New York that opened at the New York Historical Society this month, telling the surprising tale of the vital importance of slaves in the history of the country's most important city.

"Probably the most exciting thing for me about this exhibit is that we are taking all the new scholarship on slavery and making it available to a larger audience," Berlin says of the well-received exhibit that will be at the society's building on Central Park West until March 5. "Very few people walk out of that exhibit not saying, `This makes me think differently about this city.'"

Berlin, who also co-edited the exhibit's catalog with Leslie Harris of Emory University, is considered one of the nation's pre-eminent scholars of slavery. In 1999, he published the groundbreaking Many Thousands Gone, which looked at pre-19th-century slavery in the Americas, showing that the institution varied as the millions of Africans who came to the New World negotiated their way through its brutal, controlling mechanisms.

Berlin received his doctorate from the University of Wisconsin in 1970. His first book, Slaves Without Masters: The Free Negro in the Antebellum South, was published in 1975, the year he arrived at Maryland. He founded and directed the Freedmen and Southern Society Project, which published many volumes based on the papers of the federal government's Freedmen Bureau, which oversaw the concerns of freed slaves in the years after the Civil War.

Did you learn anything surprising about slavery in your hometown while working on this exhibit and catalog?

I knew quite a bit, or thought I did, but I learned quite a bit as well. It turns out there are three big stories here. This exhibit actually covers one of them. A second exhibit will cover the other two.

The first story is of the institution itself, which turns out to be much more significant than most people can imagine. New York City in the 17th and 18th centuries was the largest slave-holding city on the North American continent. There were more slaves in New York than in Charleston or New Orleans. Slaves made up a quarter of New York's population at various times, and probably a third or more of its workforce. Probably nothing moved in or out of New York without a slave touching it at one time or another. The institution is really quite significant in any understanding of the history of New York.

Then the institution dies this lingering, glacially slow death, in a sense. You finally have emancipation in 1799. New York is the next-to-last Northern state to emancipate slaves; only New Jersey takes longer. But when it was announced that slaves were free on, of course, July 4, 1799, nobody was actually free. It was people who were born after that date who would be free. And they would not be free until they came into their age of majority, which was generously defined as 25 for men and 28 for women.

So the death of the institution of slavery in New York stretched out, and would probably have stretched out past 1860, and on past the Emancipation Proclamation and the 13th Amendment, if the legislature hadn't finally called a halt to it in 1827, some 50 years after the Declaration of Independence. The institution had great staying power. There were over 10,000 slaves in New York in the third decade of the 19th century. The institution would not have gone away without considerable effort by both blacks themselves and their white abolitionist allies.

That's the number one story.

The second one is that after people thought they had put a stake in the heart of slavery, it actually becomes more important in New York because the city becomes the center of the cotton trade. The economy of New York comes to revolve around cotton. New York bankers fund the expansion of slavery in the South. New York manufacturers are making shoes for slaves. The New York textile industry gets its start making cheap clothes for slaves.

Since we know politics follows economics, it is not surprising that New York politicians are much beholden to their Southern counterparts and eager to defend the institution of slavery. When the South started seceding in 1860, the mayor of New York says he wants to secede along with it. New York politicians were great opponents of Lincoln and his emancipatory policies.

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