Coming Face-to-Face With the History of Slavery in New York City

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Welcome to THIS IS AMERICA in VOA Special English.  I'm Faith Lapidus. And I'm Steve Ember.  Slavery was not just in the South.  Some early Americans in the North also owned African slaves.  In fact, historians say the capital of American slavery for more than two hundred years was New York.  In colonial times, one of out five people in the city was a slave.

Now, many people are interested in learning more about this part of the history of America's largest city.


A discovery in New York City in nineteen ninety-one brought people face-to-face with the past.  Workers found human remains as they broke ground for a new federal office building.

More than four hundred remains from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were unearthed.  In nineteen ninety-three, officials declared the African Burial Ground a National Historic Landmark.

Now an exhibition at the New-York Historical Society explores the history of slavery in the city.  Visitors see hundreds of objects, including slave ship documents, bills of sale and wanted posters for runaway slaves.  Events are recreated with sound and pictures.  Visitors learn how slavery was important to the northern economy.

New York City used to be called New Amsterdam.  It was a Dutch colony on the southern end of Manhattan Island, at the mouth of the Hudson River.  It was the main settlement in the territory of New Netherland.

The Dutch West India Company settled New Amsterdam in sixteen twenty-four.  The first slaves from Africa arrived a few years later.

In the words of the New-York Historical Society: "Enslaved Africans were at work in New Amsterdam from its beginning."  The slaves wore Dutch clothing.  They learned the Dutch language.  They lived much like the Dutch, except they were the property of other people.  Slave owners included Peter Styvesant, the director-general of the colony.

The slaves cleared land, grew crops and built roads, buildings and defenses.  Wall Street, where the New York Stock Exchange is located, runs along what was once the wall of a fort built by slaves.  Slaves built Fort Amsterdam, where Battery Park is now located.  And they cut the road famous today for its theaters: Broadway.

First the Dutch and then the British built the local economy on ships, slaves, crops and manufactured goods.  Many people profited from slavery.  Historians say that without slave labor, New Amsterdam might not have survived.


In the sixteen forties, the Dutch West India Company began to give slaves "half-freedom."  They could settle nearby in what the Dutch called "the land of the blacks."

But the people who lived there had to pay a yearly tax.  They had to work for the colony whenever needed.  And their children became slaves.  But the people were free to farm their own lands and sell what they grew.

New Amsterdam did not have enough colonists to do the work needed to create a major port city.  As the New-York Historical Society explains, efforts to get more Dutch people to move there largely failed.  So did efforts to put Native Americans from nearby villages to work, and keep them from fleeing.

The Dutch often seized European ships in the Atlantic and captured their African crew members.  In the words of the historical society: "Bringing the captured African seamen to New Amsterdam seemed to solve these problems.  The Africans could be forced to work, and they could not escape and go home."

In sixteen sixty-four, the British captured New Amsterdam.  They renamed it New York.  The British expanded slavery and strengthened slave laws.  Blacks could not own property.  They could not gather at night or in groups of more than three.  And there were restrictions on where they could go.  Historians note that the British rewrote many of these laws often, which suggests that the measures did not work well.

Records show that the British were much rougher in their treatment of slaves than the Dutch had been.  Slaves faced death or other severe punishment for crimes like robbery, setting fires or plotting to revolt.  Punishments were often carried out in public.

Yet even under repressive laws many slaves married and had families.  They attended religious services and produced poetry, art, music and literature.  Denied a vote, they organized political pressure groups and created a "lively press," the New-York Historical Society says.

During the seventeen hundreds, historians say, forty percent of all households in New York owned slaves.  At the time of the American Revolution, New York had more slaves than any American city except Charleston, South Carolina.  Charleston is a major port in the South.

"Almost anything that people bought in New York - cheese, tobacco, cloth, rum, sugar, butter - was grown or made by enslaved labor," the historical society says.  Often the goods arrived on ships owned by slave traders.

The local economy was built on a large, unpaid labor force that kept stores well-supplied and prices reasonable.

Unlike the South, New York City did not have large plantation farms.  Slaves did not live in rooms with large numbers of other slaves.  They lived in the kitchens or back rooms of their owners' houses.

Southern slaves most often worked either in the fields or as house servants.  In New York, enslaved men often learned a skill.  Early builders and manufacturers depended on them.  A few were taught to read and write.

Most females slaves worked as servants and could not read or write.


Some slaves rebelled.  A reported plot in seventeen forty-one led to the execution of thirty blacks and four whites.  It became known as the "Great Negro Plot"  to destroy New York.

In the end, the American Revolution crushed the system of slavery in New York City.  The thirteen British colonies in America declared their independence on July fourth, seventeen seventy-six.

The British lost the war in seventeen eighty-three.  But they kept their promise of freedom and passage to Canada for more than three thousand slaves who fought on their side.

The issue of slavery had always divided people in the city.  But after the war, more and more white New Yorkers started to think that slavery should end.  They saw that it conflicted with the goals of freedom and equality that led to the revolution and the creation of the United States.

Poor European immigrants increasingly did the work that slaves had done.  Slave labor, though, was still important to the New York City economy.

Slavery would end, but it would end slowly.

The legislation was a compromise.  Laws delayed the end of slavery in New York State until July fourth, eighteen twenty-seven.  Some other states in the North also passed similar laws of gradual emancipation.

New York City became actively involved in the Underground Railroad which helped blacks escape from slavery.

In the Confederate states of the South, the plantation economy still depended on slaves.  It took President Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War in the eighteen sixties to end slavery in America.

Listen now to some of the reactions that visitors have recorded at the slavery exhibit in New York:


"Slavery in New York: A Landmark Exhibition" has been extended through March twenty-sixth at the New-York Historical Society.  The Web site is slaveryinnewyork, all one word, dot o-r-g (  There is also a related book called "Slavery in New York," edited by two history professors, Ira Berlin and Leslie Harris.


THIS IS AMERICA was written and produced by Cynthia Kirk.  Internet users can read and hear our programs at voaspecialenglish.  I'm Steve Ember. And I'm Faith Lapidus.  We hope you listen again next week for THIS IS AMERICA in VOA Special English.