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Exhibit Reveals History of Slavery in New York City

January 25, 2007 at 6:35 PM EDT
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GWEN IFILL: There are many myths about slavery: that it was confined only to the Civil War era; that it only occurred in the South; that all Northerners were abolitionists.

History tells another story, much of it now on view at the New York Historical Society in the exhibit New York Divided: Slavery and the Civil War. The exhibit showcases the contributions of more than 200 scholars, historians, and academics. And it continues through next September.

James Oliver Horton, a professor of American studies and history at George Washington University and historian emeritus at the Smithsonian, is this exhibit’s chief historian. He joins me now.

Welcome, professor Horton.

JAMES OLIVER HORTON, Historian Emeritus, National Museum of American History: Well, thank you.

GWEN IFILL: So, it turns out slavery was actually abolished in New York City in 1827, but it took many more decades for that to be real.

JAMES OLIVER HORTON: No, actually, the first gradual emancipation law went into effect for New York in 1799. That law said that a person born after the 4th of July in 1799 had to spend a number of years in slavery. And it differed, depending upon whether you were a male or female, but in the 20s, 20, 25 years in slavery.

But, then, in 1827 — again, on the 4th of July — a law went into effect that said, slavery is over. So, as of the 4th of July, 1827, slavery was officially abolished in New York City and State.

A divided city

James Horton
Historian
Now, New York was involved, in many ways, with the South, but, most importantly, economically. I mean, New York really provided much of the capital that made the plantation economy in the South possible.

GWEN IFILL: So, if it was abolished, if it was over many years before the Emancipation Proclamation, when people think of the end of slavery, what was the division in New York over slavery?

JAMES OLIVER HORTON: Well, of course, slavery was ended in New York State, but it was very much alive in the American South, and even in some, what we think of today as Northern states. Delaware, for example, had slavery well until after the Civil War.

And the last 16 slaves in my home state of New Jersey were freed by the 13th Amendment in 1865, so that there were still some slaves scattered in various places in the North, but that the stronghold of slavery was obviously the American South.

Now, New York was involved, in many ways, with the South, but, most importantly, economically. I mean, New York really provided much of the capital that made the plantation economy in the South possible. It not only bought the cotton. It loaned money for the growing of cotton. It handled the foreign distribution of cotton. It was very much involved in cotton -- in the cotton production.

GWEN IFILL: And the cotton -- and king cotton was the big commodity at that time. It was, like, oil is today?

JAMES OLIVER HORTON: Absolutely.

On the eve of the Civil War, the American South produced seven-eighths of the world's cotton. And, when we think about how powerful that made the South, because it was in control of this cotton economy, you realize, in the 72 years between the election of George Washington and the election of Abraham Lincoln, 50 of those years sees a slaveholder as president of the United States, and, for that whole period of time, there was never a person elected to a second term who was not a slaveholder, it gives you some idea of how powerful cotton and the cotton South was.

GWEN IFILL: So, because of that, you're saying that, even though slavery was abolished, the slave economy, as it -- as it was practiced in the docks of New York, flourished?

JAMES OLIVER HORTON: Absolutely, the slave economy, and as the slave economy affected New York's economy.

Now, so, you had a substantial proportion, especially the business interests in New York, focused on Southern plantation society. But, at the same time, you had an important anti-slavery movement which was growing in New York. The foundation of that movement was the Free Black Society in New York, that is, in New York City and in New York State.

But there were a substantial number of white allies who were part of the anti-slavery movement. And this integrated movement in opposition to the institution of slavery was very important. And that's the thing which made New York a divided place, with anti-slavery on one side and pro-slavery on the other.

Risky times for abolitionists

James Horton
Historian
To be an abolitionist, even in the North, could be taking your life in your hands.

GWEN IFILL: But the abolitionists were not necessarily welcomed or greeted particularly well in those decades in New York.

JAMES OLIVER HORTON: Oh, my goodness.

JAMES OLIVER HORTON: To be an abolitionist, even in the North, could be taking your life in your hands.

I mean, the Tappan brothers -- I'm talking about Lewis and Arthur Tappan -- who were very important business people in New York, they -- their firm was the forerunner of Dun and Bradstreet in New York. Their houses were attacked in several anti-abolitionist mobs that -- that just thought the abolitionists had no business operating in New York City or New York State.

And, as I said, you could -- you could put your property or your life at risk to be an abolitionist.

GWEN IFILL: And there are names of African-Americans, like James McCune Smith, which most schoolkids don't know about, who were very prominent in the movement as well.

JAMES OLIVER HORTON: Oh, absolutely.

I mean, David Ruggles, who, when -- when Frederick Douglass escaped from slavery in Baltimore, he got to New York. And he was actually helped and sheltered by David Ruggles, who ran the -- what was called the Vigilance Committee, which was a kind of underground railroad organization, which protected fugitive slaves once they got to the New York area.

GWEN IFILL: So, there were actually racial underpinnings to this objection as well?

Jim Crow, for instance, was a real character, a real three-dimensional character, at that time.

JAMES OLIVER HORTON: Absolutely.

In fact, Jim Crow was developed by a white actor, whose name was Thomas "Daddy" Rice. And he would put on a costume. He would put on blackface. And, then, he would sing the song "Jim Crow."

"I whirl around. I turn around. I do just so. I whirl around. I jump Jim Crow."

And he would sing this song. And he was very popular. And he would do this kind of stereotypical impersonation, his -- his interpretation of actually a black man that he met in the South. And it got to be a very popular performance that he -- he did.

Organizing for and against slavery

James Horton
Historian
Free blacks across the North held conventions, where they came together to discuss their strategies, to talk about their -- the issues that confronted them.

GWEN IFILL: You talked about what happened to the Tappan brothers. There were riots over this issue in New York. There was a mayor who asked that New York secede from the Union at some point. This was all long after we thought that New York was supposed to have been through with this.

JAMES OLIVER HORTON: Well, you know, you're talking about Fernando Wood, who was the mayor of New York at the time of the Civil War.

In December of 1860, South Carolina announced that it was seceding from the United States. And Fernando Wood proposed to the city council that the city of New York secede from the state of New York and from the United States to establish an independent commonwealth. And this independent commonwealth would have been made up of Long Island, Staten Island, and Manhattan Island.

And the reason for that was that this independent commonwealth could continue to do business with the slaveholding South, which had -- or was in the process of seceding to form the Confederate States of America. From the standpoint of economics, this commonwealth would have given New York businessmen a continued access to the moneymaking ventures that they had going in the American South.

GWEN IFILL: How did African-Americans organize during this period? Were -- there were newspapers; there were organizations, other than just strictly anti-slavery organizations?

JAMES OLIVER HORTON: Absolutely.

You know, the first African-American newspaper in the country was formed in New York in 1827, Freedom's Journal. And the African-American population, the free blacks that organized in New York during this period, organized not only for -- to address the problems and the issues specific to New York, but they organized with free blacks across the North to address the problems that free black people faced and that those in slavery faced.

So, they -- they organized as an anti-slavery group. But they also organized as a civil rights group. And there were a number of conventions that were held, starting in the 1830s. Free blacks across the North held conventions, where they came together to discuss their strategies, to talk about their -- the issues that confronted them.

And, in fact, in the exhibit at the New York Historical Society, there is the recreation of one of the conventions. And -- and the thing I love about this particular part of the exhibit is, the visitors can actually vote on various issues. They can vote on the issue of colonization: Should black people be colonized in West Africa?

They can vote on the question of women's rights: How many -- how much -- how much should women be given, in terms of rights of citizenship?

Addressing this history in schools

James Horton
Historian
I want to hope that, in many places, it is being taught. But I have to be realistic, to understand that, in most places, it's not being taught.

GWEN IFILL: Was any of this taught -- is any of this taught in our schools? This -- so much of this, I think, comes as news to people.

JAMES OLIVER HORTON: Well, hopefully, it's taught someplace.

JAMES OLIVER HORTON: It certainly wasn't taught when I was in school.

Now, I think there are places in public schools where, today, it is being taught. I mean, I -- I, in the last few years, have been working with a number of people in New York City at the Gilder Lehrman Institute for American History, which has been sponsoring workshops for public school teachers, to make them aware of these kinds of issues, to give them access to the data that they can use for teaching.

And, so, I want to hope that, in many places, it is being taught. But I have to be realistic, to understand that, in most places, it's not being taught.

GWEN IFILL: Well, people can certainly see it on view at the New York Historical Society. The exhibit is New York Divided: Slavery and the Civil War.

James Oliver Horton, thank you very much for joining us.

JAMES OLIVER HORTON: Oh, it's been my pleasure. And thank you for having me.