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New York City Walking Tour Explores Slavery Sites - 2004-02-25

Slavery was abolished in the United States in 1865 after the Civil War between northern and southern states. Although the practice was outlawed in the north decades before the Civil War, slavery had been an integral part of economic and cultural life in the northern states. A new walking tour in New York City shows the slave trade was more than a purely southern phenomenon.

Slaves literally built part of New York City. In the 1620s, the Dutch forced African slaves to fill in land and shift the water line to enlarge the city then called New Amsterdam.

Historian Debra Wexler of the South Street Seaport Museum in New York City has created a walking tour exploring the legacy of Africans in early New York history. There are no markings to honor their work. But Ms. Wexler says a few historic buildings and original cobblestone streets in lower Manhattan are evidence of the slaves' labor.

"The earliest groups of slaves that came to New York were brought by the Dutch West Indies Company and they were brought for the purposes of developing the infrastructure of the city. So they were critical to the building of the city, they were involved with landfill, laying the streets, paving the streets," she says.

The tour begins at the harbor. Not only was it a port of arrival but many slaves and freed blacks worked there as mariners. A guide brings the tour to the nearby site of the original slave market, just one block away from today's New York Stock Exchange.

"There were three basic products that were used in this whole commercial period: cotton, tobacco and slaves," says the guide. "And we will see today that New York was built with that commercial identity and that commercial economic market. And we will also see some physical references. And why not start where we are."

Participants visit the African burial ground where the remains of over 400 slaves and freed blacks were recently re-interred. They stop at the site of what was a barracks for slaves.

Historian Debra Wexler wants to bring attention to slavery's role in driving early New York's economy. In doing so, she is challenging an oversimplification of history of the slavery in the United States.

"A lot of people ask about the scope of slavery in New York and that is something that tends to be a surprise to a lot of people," she said. "New York had [a large] urban slave population, second only to Charleston, South Carolina, and that came as a big shock to a lot of people who do not think of slavery as a very prominent issue here in the north and in New York specifically."

The participants of the tour are a diverse group. They are black and white, New Yorkers and tourists. Some want their children to learn about their roots, others are history buffs. Most say they were unaware of the extent of slavery in New York.

"I am very surprised, I thought I knew more about New York City and seeing this last stop is just amazing," says one participant. "It is kind of chilling to know that it existed right here."

Another participant notes: "I lived here a while ago and I never thought about slavery in New York."

The tour also covers the role of freed blacks and the anti-slave Abolitionist Movement in New York's past. Though slavery was not abolished in New York until 1827, freed blacks lived and worked in the city since the 17th century.

Frederick Douglass, a former slave, writer and reformer, lived in New York City. Runaway and freed slaves often worked as mariners or oystermen. Others were entrepreneurs.

One of the final stops on the tour is the site of two businesses owned by free black entrepreneurs in the early 1800s. Boston Crumell owned a tavern and Thomas Downing owned an oyster house patronized by the city's financial and political elite. Ms. Wexler says blacks were barred from the oysterhouse, but in the basement, thousands of fugitive slaves from the south found refuge on their way to freedom through the so-called "Underground Railroad."

"These two businesses, being owned by free blacks, operated here and show the importance of free blacks in contributing to the city's cultural and economic life, even before slavery was outlawed in this country," she explains. "And it also showed how they were able, in the thick of the elite heart of the city, they were able to still resist and support other Africans who were still enslaved."

Ms. Wexler says some of New York's black churches date back to the time when freed blacks and slaves lived in New York. The community also created its own theater groups, insurance societies, and newspapers. Tour organizers say they hope markers will soon be placed at sites throughout the city to honor the legacy of slaves and freed blacks in New York.