Typically, the “After Hours” section features places and events for business and family entertainment—from restaurants and art galleries to Broadway plays and jazz performances. In this issue, however, the event is a sobering look at slavery in New York. Designed to inform, it takes you on a roller-coaster ride of emotions, plunging you into depths of anger, flattening you on plateaus of pain, then catapulting you to heights of pride where you rejoice in the proof of triumph over adversity. “Slavery in New York” is a landmark exhibit at the New-York Historical Society, New York City’s oldest museum and research library, located at 170 Central Park West and 77th Street.
The exhibit, which runs through March 5, takes up nearly 9,000 square feet. It is a graphic, comprehensive depiction of the roots of slavery and how it began in New York State. While the anguish of the slaves is almost palpable, what gets to you as you read about how historical icons, among them Peter Stuyvesant, promoted the slave trade is the cold, clinical reasoning at the time that slavery was not a crime against human beings, but merely another form of commerce.
Through powerful video re-enactments, audio narrative and interactive video displays, you experience what our African ancestors, stolen from their homeland, endured on 40,000 slave ships. You learn that the slave trade did not discriminate. Men, women, children, carpenters, poets—no one was immune to abduction. You see them being auctioned at the market in New York, toiling on the docks and on farms in Long Island, devoid of all rights under New York law. There are artifacts, artwork and materials documenting the history of the United States and New York, gleaned from the collections of NYHS and several other sources. There are daily readings from slave narratives and related journals and a walking tour. A documentary film at the beginning of the exhibit explains how the slave trade fueled the industrial revolution in New York in the 18th century.
The exhibit pulls no punches. It portrays the role of Africans who sold their fellow Africans into slavery, noting that they, too, made money, albeit nowhere near what the slaves sold for in New York. The price of a slave could be marked up more than 159 percent on the market. Everyone is included in the exhibit, from those who promoted slavery to those who fought against it, including Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass.
In one of the most poignant segments, an African storyteller recounts what it was like on a slave ship during the Middle Passage and what it was like to be auctioned and sold. He tells how those in his group who were not sold decided to revolt and kill the whites when they came to give them water, how the uprising ended in tragedy for the dissidents. He speaks of how Blacks were brought to this country to die like beasts.
After slavery was abolished in New York in 1827, Blacks, now free, faced new problems, such as racial discrimination and the loss of their jobs to white immigrants. Through these times they were a tight-knit community, supporting each other’s endeavors and gathering to worship in their own venues. In time, some became preachers, teachers and even newspaper editors.
For more information on “Slavery in New York,” contact NYHS at 212-873-3400, or go to www.nyhistory.org. The museum is open seven days a week.