Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Slavery In New York

Recently, I had the pleasure of seeing the Slavery In New York exhibit at the New York Historical Society and I can't recommend it enough.

New York, land of love, liberty and liberals was once the capital of American slavery for more than 200 years. During the colonial period, only Charleston, South Carolina had more slaves.

The Dutch were the first to bring slaves to New York. In 1621, Holland granted the Dutch West India Company territory stretching from Manhattan to Albany called 'New Netherland'. In the early years, slaves worked for the Dutch West India Company, not individual slaveowners. Some blacks won "half-freedom" (you know, sort of like being "half-pregnant") but still worked for the Dutch West India Company and paid taxes (!) unlike white colonists. They were also able to own land, but their children were automatically slaves.

The most famous slave from New York is surely the legendary Sojourner Truth. She was born with the name Isabella in Ulster County, New York around 1797 and her first language was Dutch! Yes, Sojourner Truth uttered her immortal phrase, "Ar'n't I a woman?" with a Dutch accent. Nell Irvin Painter's definitive biography of her does a good job of dispelling a lot of myths.

The gentleman in the top photo was Caesar, a slave in Bethlehem, New York. He outlived three slave masters and lived to be 115 years old.

The gentleman in the photo below Caesar was Pierre Toussaint, a Haitian immigrant and a successful hairdresser. Photos of his wife and niece are also featured.

The gentleman in the picture on the bottom was James Hewlett, a singer and actor who began his career at the African Grove Theater on Bleecker Street. A former seaman, he played Shakespearian roles like Richard III and Macbeth and toured Europe and the Caribbean.

My favorite part of the exhibit? Easily, the runaway slave ads. Oh the genius and heroism of our people!! Slaves are often thought of as weak and passive, but slaves were the first street venders in New York and they started two revolts against slavery in the 18th century.

The introduction to this segment of the exhibit says it all:

Almost every runaway ad reads like an adventure novel. Previously anonymous slaves suddenly appeared in print as people with names, looks, personal histories, skills, character traits, and modes of dress. A brief paragraph told more about everyday life than a book full of laws. Slaveholders serve as witnesses despite themselves, providing insights into the realities of black life in slavery. Escaping from slavery permanently was nearly impossible, but a skilled person, changing his or her name, might find an employer eager for workers.
You can get it online, but it's even better in person to see how the historians decode the slave ads, pointing out the hypocrisy of the owners and the bravery of the escaped slaves. For instance, a slaveowner may point out that a slave could wash, iron and cook, in case that slave tried to get hired as a free person. Or, they would point out a disfigurement (like a missing finger or scars) to readily identify the slave, while conveniently ignoring that it was likely a sign of abuse.

There are so many other things, including a copy of Freedom's Journal, the first black owned and edited newspaper in the United States, and a 'Book of Negroes', which lists the names of slaves who were promised freedom by the British during the Revolutionary War, but were worried about being sent back to their American masters after the colonies won. The British kept their promise and sent many of the slaves to Canada, including a woman that was owned by none other than General George Washington. She escaped at 16, married at 20 and was in Canada a few years later. Her name was Deborah Squash.

The exhibit is interactive and designed for people of all ages, so for goodness sake, bring your kids or somebody's kid, so they won't go around thinking that 'hip hop is the only real description of the suffering of our people.'
You can't help but be affected by it, but it is far from depressing. It's been so popular that it was extended through March 26th, so if you haven't been, GO!



Blogger Miss Ahmad said...

ahhh I am so ready for a trip to New York just to see this exhibit would actually be good for me...and a walk thru Central Park on a brisk day would also do me good!

Great post!

Thank you!

March 15, 2006 at 10:35 PM  
Blogger Nichelle said...

Well, I hope you can make it before the exhibit closes on the 26th. But even if you don't, I'm sure you'll find plenty of other things to do in the city!

And on the flip side, I need to make my way back to Hollywood. I lasted there for 6 months before I came running back to New York.

March 15, 2006 at 11:00 PM  
Blogger Cocoa Girl said...

I love Central Park on a brisk day, Miss A. It's funny you mentioned such fun. On the day that some friends and I visited this exhibit, we took a walk through a (very brisk) Central Park and took tons of photos!

Nice post, Nichelle. The exhibit was actually very, very informative. I cannot wait for the Part II.

March 16, 2006 at 2:27 PM  
Blogger Nichelle said...

Thanks Cocoa. I love Central Park on a brisk day myself. I used to live right above it (in the 100s).

I'm a little confused about the second part you're referring to. It is my understanding that the exhibit lasts through March 26th. Maybe I missed it on their site?

March 16, 2006 at 3:17 PM  
Blogger Miss Ahmad said...

ooh them New York days. I thought I was gonna make it out there for the Black Writers Conference in Brooklyn, but alas work has my ass in a Lasso!

I will make time to get there this year though...i don't think it's good to stay away too long.

Nichelle LA and NYC are hard places for different reasons. NYC made me realize I am a Cali Girl all the way!

March 16, 2006 at 10:20 PM  
Blogger Cocoa Girl said...

I was reading that the exhibit ending March 26 is part one of two parts...

March 17, 2006 at 1:34 PM  
Blogger Nichelle said...

Miss Ahmad: I've been to the Black Writers Conference before. It was, um, an experience...

And I agree with you on LA and NYC. Lost Angeles (oops? did I say that? No offense!) made me realize I am a New Yorker through and through!

Cocoa: I'll have to check that out. Thank goodness the weather is getting nicer!

March 17, 2006 at 4:10 PM  

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