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Forgotten Slaves


When Ira Berlin was growing up in the Bronx, he knew Van Cortlandt Park as a leafy attraction of that northern borough of New York City.

"What I didn't know was that it was probably once Van Cortlandt plantation and that there were slaves living and working there," says Berlin, a professor of history at the University of Maryland, College Park.

"There are probably many things I don't remember that I was taught in New York's public schools, but I very much doubt that was part of the curriculum," he says.

Berlin, 64, is trying to change that. For decades he has researched parts of slavery's history that were often overlooked. Now he has helped organize the exhibit Slavery in New York that opened at the New York Historical Society this month, telling the surprising tale of the vital importance of slaves in the history of the country's most important city.

"Probably the most exciting thing for me about this exhibit is that we are taking all the new scholarship on slavery and making it available to a larger audience," Berlin says of the well-received exhibit that will be at the society's building on Central Park West until March 5. "Very few people walk out of that exhibit not saying, 'This makes me think differently about this city.'"

Berlin, who also co-edited the exhibit's catalog with Leslie Harris of Emory University, is considered one of the nation's pre-eminent scholars of slavery. In 1999, he published the groundbreaking Many Thousands Gone, which looked at pre-19th-century slavery in the Americas, showing that the institution varied as the millions of Africans who came to the New World negotiated their way through its brutal, controlling mechanisms.

Berlin received his doctorate from the University of Wisconsin in 1970. His first book, Slaves Without Masters: The Free Negro in the Antebellum South, was published in 1975, the year he arrived at Maryland. He founded and directed the Freedmen and Southern Society Project, which published many volumes based on the papers of the federal government's Freedmen Bureau, which oversaw the concerns of freed slaves in the years after the Civil War.

Did you learn anything surprising about slavery in your hometown while working on this exhibit and catalog?

I knew quite a bit, or thought I did, but I learned quite a bit as well. It turns out there are three big stories here. This exhibit actually covers one of them. A second exhibit will cover the other two.

The first story is of the institution itself, which turns out to be much more significant than most people can imagine. New York City in the 17th and 18th centuries was the largest slave-holding city on the North American continent. There were more slaves in New York than in Charleston or New Orleans. Slaves made up a quarter of New York's population at various times, and probably a third or more of its workforce. Probably nothing moved in or out of New York without a slave touching it at one time or another. The institution is really quite significant in any understanding of the history of New York.

Then the institution dies this lingering, glacially slow death, in a sense. You finally have emancipation in 1799. New York is the next-to-last Northern state to emancipate slaves; only New Jersey takes longer. But when it was announced that slaves were free on, of course, July 4, 1799, nobody was actually free. It was people who were born after that date who would be free. And they would not be free until they came into their age of majority, which was generously defined as 25 for men and 28 for women.

So the death of the institution of slavery in New York stretched out, and would probably have stretched out past 1860, and on past the Emancipation Proclamation and the 13th Amendment, if the legislature hadn't finally called a halt to it in 1827, some 50 years after the Declaration of Independence. The institution had great staying power. There were over 10,000 slaves in New York in the third decade of the 19th century. The institution would not have gone away without considerable effort by both blacks themselves and their white abolitionist allies.

That's the number one story.

The second one is that after people thought they had put a stake in the heart of slavery, it actually becomes more important in New York because the city becomes the center of the cotton trade. The economy of New York comes to revolve around cotton. New York bankers fund the expansion of slavery in the South. New York manufacturers are making shoes for slaves. The New York textile industry gets its start making cheap clothes for slaves.

Since we know politics follows economics, it is not surprising that New York politicians are much beholden to their Southern counterparts and eager to defend the institution of slavery. When the South started seceding in 1860, the mayor of New York says he wants to secede along with it. New York politicians were great opponents of Lincoln and his emancipatory policies.

And since culture follows politics, you see in the antebellum years the great Southern planters coming to New York, meeting their bankers and brokers, being wined and dined, as you would your best customers. Their kids meet, they intermarry, and these great New York merchant families become intertwined with Southern plantation families. During this time, New York is also an important site of the movement against slavery. Black and white New York played a large role in abolition.

Once the Civil War ends New York's connection with slavery, then you have a third story, of these refugees from the South, black and white, coming up to the city, former planters and former slaves, both of whom have a profound effect on the development of New York City. The slaveholders promote this sectional reconciliation view, the dewy-eyed view of the Old South, the lost cause, that becomes very prominent on the New York stage, in magazines published in New York and in its politics. The former slaves migrate to the city, bringing their experience and memory of slavery, that very much affects the small black community that existed in New York.

It's a big and complicated story. I learned a good deal about it just doing this exhibit.

Was there any discovery you made that was particularly exciting?

One was that the area around Washington Square was once called "The Land of the Blacks." What happened was that the Dutch in New Amsterdam were suffering from raids by Indians who lived in the northern hills of Manhattan island. So they began to free slaves and give them land to try to create a little buffer zone. To learn that former slaves, free blacks, owned 12 acres of land in what is now midtown Manhattan - finding those records, I have to say, it makes you think differently about the city. When people talk about Fort Apache, the Bronx, you have a new appreciation of the connections between Native Americans, Africans and Europeans in New York's past.

Then there was an interesting finding about two major slave rebellions in New York, one in 1712 and one in 1741, the first a group of newly arrived Africans who got together and killed a couple dozen people in an effort to gain their freedom. The other was much more complex, organized out of a tavern run by an Irish tavern-keeper. Several white people were hung along with the black rebels. For the English administrators, this was a very frightening event.

And there was the Revolutionary War experience, when the British made their headquarters in New York and this large group of black people from all over the continent who had taken refuge behind British lines begin to filter into the city, hoping to get out of the country, which many of them do. Most blacks fought on the side of the British because the British offered freedom for military service first and more consistently than the patriots, who were extraordinarily reluctant to make that exchange - and when they did, they were generally a day late and a dollar short.

Another wonderful story was this school founded in the late 18th century, the Free African School, that creates this incredible cohort of black leaders, men and women who were at the forefront of the city's black community, who all came out of that school. And the African Grove Theater, the mother of African-American theater. Of course, the first show it put on was Shakespeare's Richard II.

Did slavery in New York have all the trappings that are associated with slavery in the South? For instance, did the slave ships making the Middle Passage pull into New York Harbor?

Definitely. In fact, when the English take over the city from the Dutch, there was a ship filled with African slaves sitting there in the harbor. One thing that we know was that those slaves were part of the problem Peter Stuyvesant had in defending the city against the English invasion, because the city was running low on supplies and was having trouble feeding both those slaves and the city's defenders.

New York had slave auctions and slave whipping posts and slave rebellions. Everything we connect with slavery in the South was there. New York slavery was an extremely violent institution. It couldn't exist in New York any more than it could exist anywhere else without slaveholders having a monopoly on violence and using it in ways we find unconscionable. It is an institution that constrains people, that warps their lives, that divides husbands and wives, parents and children. All of the kind of nightmares connected with slavery were very much a part of the black experience in New York.

But the other part is there, too. In New York, as in other places, on very narrow grounds, slaves created their own lives in very difficult circumstances. They created families, churches and schools, a new language, music, religion and the like. It is much the same kind of story you find with slavery elsewhere, in Maryland and South Carolina, Alabama and Mississippi. It's the same, but it's different because the circumstances were different, the slaveholders were different, the slaves were different and the geography was different.

How was it different?

Some of the slaves had much more freedom because they were "living out." The houses of white New Yorkers were so small, slaveholders first began stuffing folks away in the attic and basement, and then found it easier to give the slave a little money and let him find a place to live. Slaves were happy to take the offer, which gave them much more freedom of movement, a greater chance of getting together for whatever purposes: religious, recreational, educational, conspiratorial.

Slavery takes on the characteristics of its environment. It is different in different places. It is different in New York than it is out in Brooklyn. Different in Queens than it is on Long Island. Urban slavery is a very different kind of institution. In cities, you need a different system of social control that does, in fact, give blacks a bit more elbow room than they have on the plantations.

Why did slavery hang on longer in the South than it did in the North?

It was much more profitable in the South. Plantation agriculture made much more use of slave labor, but with the kind of agriculture that developed in the North, grain agriculture, you had to find other uses for slaves once you were out of the periods of heaviest use, planting and harvest. It made it a much more complicated system.

By the time of the American Revolution, there was a commitment to a different kind of labor system - wage labor - and there was a competition between that and slave labor. Northerners were finding that the system of wage labor, which often could be extremely exploitative, was much more profitable than slave labor. Then, the Revolutionary ideas of equality began pushing on slavery, and there were the objections of black people themselves.

One of the things that happens in the 1790s, in the years prior to emancipation, was a series of fires in New York, which, like all cities in those days, was full of wooden buildings, which made fires a very fearsome occurrence. The source of those fires was never definitively figured out, but I think everybody believed they were set by slaves. That's one of the things that frightened white New Yorkers enough to surrender their commitment to slavery, though they did it reluctantly and very slowly.

Why did you make slavery the central focus of your academic research?

When I was in graduate school in the 1960s, for many people involved in the issues of those days, the civil rights movement, there was always a desire to make your work consonant with your politics. I guess that's where my own interest first came from. Probably we all thought that once we've figured this all out, this business of race, once we've learned something about slavery and its origins, its connection to race, well, we could all go home early that night. The problem would be solved. We were extremely naive.

Slavery is such a dauntingly complicated subject. Once you begin to learn about it, you just want to learn more. It's like one of those sweaters - you pull on one thread and the whole thing starts unraveling. That's what has made the story of slavery so interesting to me; the subject has continued to broaden in terms of understanding and connections.

When I was in graduate school, the only reason people were interested in slavery was because some people said it had something to do with the Civil War. No one was interested in slavery beyond that, whether it was slavery in this country in the 18th century, slavery in the North, slavery in the larger Atlantic world, connections between Africans and Native Americans and Europeans in the colonizing process. Except for black scholars, no one was interested in the effects of slavery on people of African descent. And that has been the most exciting thing, to see the questions grow, to see how it has made us think differently about American history and about the history of the world, for that matter.

Do you think the country is beginning to come to terms with its slavery past?

There is enormous popular interest in the subject now. This exhibit is one small part of that. You see it in other places. Every major museum, it seems, has had an exhibition on slavery. There are entire museums of slavery being planned. There is the Underground Railroad Museum in Cincinnati. There's the new African-American museum in Baltimore, and the museum planned for the Mall in Washington. You see it in the movies - Glory, Amistad, Beloved. You see it on TV. You see the way it has become part of politics, two presidents who have seen fit to go the coast of Africa, to the slave factory in Goree, and look out that door of no return. You see it in debates about apologies, and the whole question of reparations lurking back there all the time.

All this speaks to a real desire to try to come to terms with slavery, and that, of course, speaks to a desire to come to terms with race. It is not an easy process. Nobody knows exactly how to do it. We - both blacks and whites - don't often do it very well or elegantly. We are often tripping over our ideological shoelaces as we try. People are afraid. I see this in my students, white and black, who are afraid to misspeak, to embarrass themselves or somebody else. But they do want to come to terms with it. That's why this exhibit is there and why it is attracting such attention.

Do you think an exhibit like this can have an effect?

I have been up to the exhibit a couple of times, and everybody who walks in and sees it walks out saying, "I didn't know that. Why wasn't I told this? Why didn't we learn it?" It's an additive thing, one more thing that people know, that forces them to think differently about the entirety of New York history, about the entirety of American history.

For most people, slavery was a Southern institution; our racial problems were probably the products of something that existed in the South, not in the North. This is one of the things this exhibit is producing, forcing people to begin to make those adjustments, to think again about things they thought they knew.

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