New York City has a not-so-little secret: About 300 years ago, as the first Dutch settlers docked on the shores of what would later become a metropolis, they brought with them enslaved men and women.
At the foot of the city, in what would later become Wall Street, New York operated its first slave market to buy, sell and trade human beings.
Soon, there will be a permanent reminder of that little-known history.
The New York City Council approved the creation of a historical marker acknowledging for the first time the contributions of slaves to the creation of early New York and its economy. It will be erected later this year, just a block from where the market once stood.
“The slaves of that time and place helped build City Hall,” City Council member Jumaane Williams, the principal sponsor of the bill that established the marker, told WNYC. “Their lives should be celebrated and their deaths should be mourned.”
By 1711, there were hundreds of slaves at work in New York — learning trades, farming crops, working in homes and on the docks, and building the foundation of what would eventually become a great American city. According to Columbia University, about 40 percent of white homes owned slaves at the time.
But if you travel to Lower Manhattan today, you almost wouldn’t know that slavery was ever present in the city.
“In Lower Manhattan, with the exception of the African burial ground memorial, there are no reminders of the slave market and the incredible injustices that happened there and have been unrecognized by our city,” James G. Van Bramer, chair of the City Council’s Committee on Cultural Affairs, said at a hearing last year. “We must never forget what happened, and it is important that native New Yorkers, tourists and everyone alike be reminded of what happened there. And that we mark the contributions of enslaved Africans who built our city, including our City Hall and the wall that would give the name to Wall Street.”
Initially, the buying, selling and trading of slaves was conducted privately, according to Columbia University. Some slaves were even sent out on their own to find work. But in 1711, in response to anxieties of white, middle-class New Yorkers who feared that the presence of so many black slaves looking for work on the streets might raise the risks of an insurrection, the market was erected.
“All Negro and Indian slaves that are let out to hired” would be “hired at the Market house at the Wall Street Slip…” the City Council declared.
It was more than 50 years later, in 1762, when the market was finally taken down. But historians have noted that New York has a long history of support for the institution of slavery, even though it later became known for its role in helping abolitionists dismantle it.
New York would become an economic and cultural powerhouse. But rarely is slavery or segregation talked about in the re-telling of those events. And the places that played a key role in the events of that time are just as difficult to identify.
Newsweek’s Alexander Nazaryan went searching for the city’s hidden history of slavery and segregation and found a rich, if somewhat obscured, past:
That era seems almost too complex for us to remember, eluding the easy narratives of triumph and redemption while calling into question New York’s liberal self-image. Kenneth T. Jackson, a Columbia University professor widely regarded as the preeminent historian of New York City, points out that while Southern cities like Charleston, South Carolina, unequivocally supported slavery and New England ones like Boston thoroughly opposed it, New York was probably the most ideologically conflicted urban center in the nation. Jackson surmised that New York’s complicity in the slave trade remains an “unpleasant topic” to this day. It is not the kind of conversation we can conduct with a well-meaning Starbucks barista. But we will have to have it sooner or later. “There is no future,” Jackson warns, “in denying the past.”
According to WNYC, the marker is expected to be finished soon and may be unveiled on June 19 — or Juneteenth, which is commemorated as the day slaves in the South were emancipated.