During COVID-19 school closures this spring, David Edelman’s students at Union Square Academy for Health Sciences High School created a virtual walking tour of sites in New York City with connections to slavery.
When schools reopen, Health Sciences students hope to lead in-person walking tours and contribute to rewriting the historical narrative to show how the city benefited from the labor of enslaved Africans and from the sale of slave produced commodities in the American South and Caribbean. The students hope many of these sites will be recognized with plaques.
The death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police has led to a national movement to recognize the impact of racism on American society and to redress past wrongs, including the removal of statues and monuments celebrating a racist past.
The interactive google map allows visitors to simply click on a thumbtack and then on the image upper left to watch a student-produced video explaining the locations historical significance. Click the first thumbtack, Union Square, to watch a video by Dr. Alan Singer of Hofstra University discussing this undertaking.
Sites highlighted on the tour include the African Burial Ground on Duane Street which is a now a national monument. It was used between the late 1600s and 1796 and originally contained between ten and twenty thousand burials. Despite the harsh treatment that these African people experienced in colonial America, the 427 bodies recovered from the site were buried with great care and love. They were wrapped in linen shrouds and methodically positioned in cedar or pine coffins that sometimes contained beads or other treasured objects.
At what is now Foley Square, enslaved Africans, free Blacks and White supporters accused of plotting the 1741 Slave Conspiracy were executed. White New Yorkers, afraid of another slave revolt, responded to rumors and unexplained fires with the arrest of about 150 enslaved Africans, the execution of 35 Blacks and four Whites. Historians continue to doubt whether a slave conspiracy ever existed.
St. Paul’s Chapel is the oldest church building in New York City. Enslaved Africans helped build St. Paul’s and the original Trinity Church but had to pray in separate section and could not be buried in the cemeteries.
The Wall Street Slave Market was at the corner of Wall and Water Streets. It was a market for the sale and hire of enslaved Africans established in 1711 by the New York Common Council. The office of Moses Taylor, a Slave Trade financier, was at 55 South Street. Taylor was a sugar merchant and banker and a member of the board of the City Bank where he served as its president from 1855 until his death in 1882. Taylor’s personal resources and role as business agent for the leading exporters of Cuban sugar to the United States was invaluable to grow of the institution now known as Citicorp.
At the South Street Seaport, the original building where Slave Traders met and planned voyages still stands. The men who smuggled enslaved Africans referred to themselves as “blackbirders” and their illegal human cargo as “black ivory.” Their favorite New York City meeting place was Sweet’s Restaurant at the corner of Fulton and South streets. There is no historical marker at this site.
Illustrations, from above: Foley Square; St. Paul’s Chapel, the New York Slave Market, and South Street Seaport.
Noel A. Sherry says
Wow, love this, Thanks for publishing it. It shows one of the positive activities that has taken place as a result of this awful COVID19 season, so to speak. I have been on the lookout for the “silver lining” of the corona-virus in my own life and in the actions of other people. What a great way to spend some of this time doing historical research into the roots of slavery in NYC, with a virtual (an later an actual) walking tour of these sites, mostly on the southern tip of Manhattan. I will plan to take this tour when this season is over! I have a grandfather who was a very public figure in Tudor City, just W of the United Nations, so I have my own “walking tour” of Manhattan related to his journey in life, so this one attracted my attention. Good work on this, with one of the difficult impacts of the Covid season highlighting how African Americans and Hispanics have been much more heavily impacted as a result of this history you are bringing to light.
Rebecca Manski says
Very excited to see the work of Alan Singer’s students, reflecting his many years of extremely powerful work to excavate these histories. Singer has been extremely influential for so many educators like myself, who started on their path of teaching these histories by accessing his work.
Sean I Ahern says
“rewriting the historical narrative to show how the city benefited from the labor of enslaved Africans and from the sale of slave produced commodities in the American South and Caribbean”
The “city” did not “benefit” – a certain class of people who amassed their fortunes from this trade and the exploitation of chattel labor, benefited. I think this is an important distinction and should be part of any historical “rewriting.” The African American population of the city was around 20% – were they not part of the “city?” Did free or enslaved African Americans “benefit?” The newly arrived Irish in the early 19th century comprised a large % of the population. How did they “benefit” from the trade in human beings and chattel slavery?
Editorial Staff says
The city corporation and the population more generally (some directly in big ways, others indirectly in small ways) was benefited by the use of slave labor. People certainly argued that at the time. Irish immigrants were not all Free Soilers, they had split views on the benefits of slavery. Slavery (and low paid labor) was a pervasive part of the economic growth of the city.
Sean I Ahern says
People certainly presented the view, in the past and in the present, that slavery was a benefit to the city but who are these “people?” If the present project is to raise awareness today, it might be useful to consider the counter arguments of the abolitionists who claimed that slavery was not a “benefit” to the “city” or the majority of its residents, in “big” or in “small” ways. Indeed it was this belief that slavery was not a “benefit” combined with the resistance of the enslaved and moral outrage that helped end racial slavery.
Editorial Staff says
Yes, that’s the point of the project. To show that many powerful people and institutions got that way because they benefited from slavery.
Betty Peek says
I did a walking tour of slavery with Professor Singer a couple of years ago.
Although it was actually planned and scheduled for his Hofstra students, residents of the local Hofstra community were invited and encouraged to participate. I traveled in from Long Island on the LIRR. So glad I did. Thanks Professor Singer and thanks also to Hofstra University for reaching out to the community and including us in these types of events.
R. Pikser says
Mr. Ahearn is quite right to demand precision in the discussion of who actually benefited from slavery: it was not the city as a whole, but a certain specific class of people in the city. ,
Editorial Staff says
New York was the largest slave-owning colony in the north and slavery was an significant source of the city’s labor force, economy and social structure. At one point 40 percent of white households in the city of New York owned slaves. A slave market was located at the foot of Wall Street. Were there some people who didn’t benefit? Surely, slaves for example, and low wage workers competing with slaves for work did not directly benefit.
But the city corporation itself and public benefit institutions used or profited from slavery in addition to the wealthy. Even what we think of as private corporations now, had to argue then that they were a public benefit to be incorporated. Those who worked for the city, took city money, used city property, or engaged in greater access to, or lower priced, goods and services thanks to slavery also benefited, albeit in a smaller way.
R. Pikser says
If 40% of households owned people, that means that 60% did not. I do not know where the enslaved people figured into these numbers. Those who own the means of production always claim that benefits for them benefit the society as a whole. If we want to understand the costs to society of institutions, such as slavery, or finance, or war production, it behooves us to be precise about how money and institutions are used, to what ends, whom they benefit, and whom they do not benefit.
Editorial Staff says
That’s literally the point of this tour.
Sean I Ahern says
Ira Berlin and Leslie Harris write in their introduction to Slavery in New York:
“…every major political figure in New York’s history from the 17th through the 19th centuries confronted slavery as opponent or apologist and as an advocate of white supremacy or champion of racial equality…New York was a house divided.” (p.5)
The point is that if one wishes to gain a deeper awareness of our history, it is best understood as a struggle between contending forces, classes and views. To describe slavery as a benefit “large” or “small” to the “city” masks the actual struggles that occurred between pro and anti slavery forces and perpetuates ignorance of our past.
Worse still, by proceeding from the unexamined assumption that slavery was a “benefit,” to the “city,” inquiry is framed to reproduce pro slavery arguments. “…show how the city benefited from the labor of enslaved Africans and from the sale of slave produced commodities in the American South and Caribbean.”
It sounds like an assignment that could have been written by Tammany Hall or Mayor Fernando Wood or any other booster of racial slavery.
If such an essay question was offered to NYC HS students taking the US History Regents I think there would be good basis to criticize the un-examined “lens” at work here.
Opponents of white supremacism and champions of racial equality in the past rejected the notion that slavery was a “benefit.” It would have been self defeating for them to do otherwise. They lambasted the minority who benefited and appealed to the majority who didn’t.
I think it is plain that the younger generation today is also rejecting the notion that racial oppression in its new forms is a “benefit.” Hopefully their inquiries into the past may shed some light on our present and future course.
I agree with the critiques of this piece in the comments section, while also thanking the folks who put this virtual tour together. I work in a Brooklyn elementary school and we may very well use this as part of our new anti-racist curriculum. But we will not talk about how New York City “benefitted” from slavery; rather, how it is a stain on our city that continues to hurt us all to this day. I think we will probably frame it for kids as “slavery was used to give more power to the rich white people in charge of the city, while also holding down Black and indigenous people; and this is the same as what we see today such as police brutality, school-to-prison pipeline, less tax money given to Black and brown neighborhoods than to white neighborhoods, and other kinds of systemic racism. When there is systemic racism like this in our society, both in the past and in the present, no one wins. We all lose. That’s why we need to work to take it apart.”
Perhaps you could reword your phrase “show how the city benefited” to something like “show how the white owning class of New York City amassed more resources and power”?
David Edelman says
Hi. It was my students that created this tour. The purpose of the project was to shed light on an important piece of little known NYC history and challenge students to think about how we pay homage and memorialize the past. The sites speak to places connected to the abolitionist movement and institutions that supported and benefited from the slave trade.