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Museum exhibit buries myth of slave-free New York

October 7, 2005

By Richard Satran

NEW YORK (Reuters) – Slavery was something that took place
“down South,” most New Yorkers would say, but a museum exhibit
that opened on Friday shows that Manhattan was slave territory
too.

“Slavery in New York,” a $5 million multimedia show at the
New-York Historical Society, provides vivid evidence that
slaves came with the foreigners who settled Manhattan island
more than 300 years ago.

“The Dutch settlers could not have survived without the
input of slaves,” said Leslie Harris of Emory University in
Atlanta, an historian who contributed to the project. “The
Dutch were living in dugout trenches until slaves built the
first houses.

“The show explodes the myths about slavery as a purely
southern phenomenon and that it was not that important here in
New York, or that only whites were involved in settling
America,” said Harris.

Museum show designer Michael Roper said he tried to depict
“the humanity of the slaves in the early era, so we are looking
at real people, not abstractions.”

At the entry to the exhibit are eleven wire sculptures
representing the first eleven black settlers, whose names are
known through historical accounts but about whom nothing else
is recorded. Large portions of the show consist of similarly
imagined works, recordings and dramatizations of early slave
life. There are no first-person accounts or even painted
likenesses of New York’s slaves in the pre-Revolutionary era.

But the exhibit gives ample evidence of pervasive and
brutal slavery from the city’s early legal records, business
transactions and newspaper clippings. The records show bloody
slave uprisings, attempted runaways and violence.

The stark history is tempered with more whimsical views,
largely aimed at educating young people: In one display,
visitors can lean over a water well and, instead of seeing
their own reflection, see and hear images of slave women
talking about their difficult lives.

“The well puts you into their shoes, it’s a way to put
people inside that experience,” said Roper.

To highlight the economics of slavery, a computer screen
that might be seen on a New York trading room scrolls headlines
on the arrival of slave ships, as well as “ticker prices” of
human transactions, resembling stock quotes.

The economic theme resonates since New York, even in the
earliest days, was the mercantile center of the nation. Indeed,
the city always had an active slave market, though it never
reached the scale of other cities.

But if it never matched the huge plantation dimensions of
the south, it was at least as widespread. Nearly half the
residents of the affluent island city owned slaves, nearly
twice the proportion of the South, and the city’s shipping and
trading revolved around the cash crops produced by slavery.

“Everything was touched by slavery,” says one display.

The exhibit draws on the renaissance of study of New York’s
slave past sparked by the discovery of a large slave burial
ground near City Hall in 1991. It became the focus of debate
over slave reparations, racial equality and the teaching of
black history in schools.

“Even today one approaches this exhibition with
discomfort,” said a New York Times reviewer.

David Dinkins, New York’s first black mayor, was on hand
for the show’s opening. “There is a legacy of slavery in this
country and a failure to acknowledge it,” he said.

And the show holds realities that may hit close to home.
The Historical Society itself was founded in 1804, 23 years
before New York’s slavery ban, by slaveholder John Pitard.




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