“Slavery was not a side-show in American History. It was the main event.” So says James Oliver Horton, history professor at George Washington University. Mr. Horton is also Chief Historian on the Historians’ Council for New York Historical Society’s groundbreaking exhibition Slavery in New York, which most certainly takes Mr. Horton’s statement to heart. The exhibition is designed to educate visitors about the integral role that slaves played in building New York and the important role that slavery played in shaping not only the national psyche but the local ethos in colonial and post-Revolution New York.
Visitors are expected to leave having shed their preconceived notions of slavery as an exclusively Southern institution. The facts included in the exhibition’s pamphlet are immediately incriminating. Before we are even inside, we learn that “before the Revolution, there were more slaves in New York than in any other city except Charleston, South Carolina.” Slaves made up 20% of the population of colonial New York, compared to 2% in Boston and 6% in Philadelphia, which might explain in part why slavery was not abolished in New York until 1827. The exhibition not only turns upside down the geographically pedagogic dichotomy of slavery, it puts New York front and center in a far more intricate story. With these actions the exhibition earns every bit of praise it has received for being something new, innovative, and groundbreaking.
This idea of bringing slavery closer to home, more than any other, seems to be the guiding force behind the exhibition, which at its core is an extraordinary excavation project, but one that is often unsure how deeply it wishes to probe into an ugly history.
The exhibition begins in the 17th century with the Atlantic slave trade in New Amsterdam. Scattered throughout the first big room are thick-wire sculptures of slaves doing all sorts of work. Bordering on the grotesque, these figures are some of the more confrontational pieces the visitor will encounter throughout the exhibition. The rooms and structures of the exhibition have a distinctly modern feel, with bold-colored walls, big titles in plain fonts, and audio-visual supplements, but these features are complemented by a great deal of original documents and reproductions. Most often we know where we are in history based on huge illustrated maps of an evolving New York that are placed throughout the exhibition.
The most novel teaming of old and new that I saw throughout the entire exhibition was here in the blue rooms of English New York – in a widescreen monitor displaying in CNBC fashion what the slave market might look like today, with up-to-the-minute slave prices scrolling down the screen, a ‘stock’ ticker running across the bottom, and blurbs documenting the latest slave sales cycling every few seconds. Mixed in are facts about slavery and slave labor as well. This display transports slavery into the 21st century, encouraging us to realize, without shedding our own outrage at the practice or forgetting that not everyone approved of slavery in these times, how tragically normative and business-like the slave markets were.
The life of the slave was unimaginably hard. As the hunched wire figures remind us, slavery was a physical assault on bodies. However, we mustn’t ever forget that it was more significantly an assault on the mind and the soul, a fact that is often lost on this surprisingly detached exhibition that often takes for granted just how horrible slavery was.
On to the room of the Revolution, where we find another wire figure. This time, instead of a broken laborer, we encounter an upright soldier with his rifle, standing at attention. We soon learn of the earliest emancipation proclamations, issued by British forces in an attempt to trade American slaves’ military service for freedom. In this room, we are quickly confronted by two juxtaposed timelines, one titled “War for American Independence” and one titled “Struggle for Black Freedom.” This exhibition’s project, with its “main event” ethos, is to get its patrons to think about not just putting parallel timelines together, but incorporating previously unheard, unknown, or ignored histories into the main narrative as crucial components to the story.
The exhibition’s red rooms are its most interesting, as they document New York at the turn of the century and the first three decades of the 19th century, a time when free blacks played an increasingly prominent role in public life. The red rooms offer a great deal of specialized stations dealing with a variety of topics such as black civic participation, fugitive slaves, the depiction of blacks in paintings, and ethnic caricature drawings, among other things. But it was at the listening stations that I found the closest thing the exhibition offered to conveying the fears, anxieties, and threats facing both free blacks and slaves under the peculiar institution.
The listening station offers four stories, and documents the slow, stubborn death of slavery and the survival of the virulent racism in its wake. Richard Rabinowitz, one of the chief producers of the exhibition, tells the listener in his short introduction that the tales are “neither pretty nor inspiring.” Indeed, if the rest of the exhibition is a bit sanitized, these stories of rape, whippings and white dominance are nothing of the sort.
The seeds of abolitionism had certainly been sown in New York between 1815 and 1825, but it was emancipation, not equality, that they sought. Emancipated slaves and previously free blacks found their opportunities for civic engagement and their prospects for citizenship diminished, as even those in favor of emancipation could not conceive of a system of laws that treated free blacks and white as equals.
The exhibition concludes with near-life-sized figures, backed by large glass stands, standing among the patrons. Included in this diverse group of black New Yorkers of the 1820’s are Mary Simpson Washington (a street vendor), Samuel Cornish (preacher and editor of the first black-owned newspaper, Freedom’s Journal), Catherine Ferguson (a philanthropist), and Caesar (still a slave). Beyond these figures is a large semicircular screen depicting New York’s emancipation day parade in 1827. The exhibition concludes on this positive note. The images of the parade and audio clips of slave recollections are the last things patrons will see before traveling down a long hallway littered with the quotations from famous scholars of race and slavery such as Ulrich B. Phillips, W.E.B. DuBois, and Ira Berlin. These statements reflect the evolving historiographical approaches to American slavery and racism throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. Beyond the hallway is the museum’s gift shop, perhaps the only place in the world where you can buy an Abraham Lincoln finger puppet.
As I struggled with the idea that the exhibition exposed slavery in New York without thoroughly interrogating the hideous facets of slavery itself, one woman commented on screen that the exhibition could upset people too much if it were too graphic, but that we could all “talk about it in little doses.” If little doses are all we can bear as a society of people with varying personal connections to the legacy of slavery but an equal stake in the future of this nation, then that must be the way we come to terms with slavery. But we mustn’t be afraid of exposing and examining the capacity of humans to hate and oppress each other, especially to the point where we suppress and sanitize the past in favor of a more positive story. Excessively graphic and unpleasant displays may seem in poor taste, but then again, so was slavery.
While this exhibition is historical in nature, it stands to have profound consequences on a nation that still struggles with the legacy of slavery almost 150 years after emancipation. Slavery in New York is chiefly a historical project, but it is also a social one. The exhibition guide’s welcome message states, “In revealing the legacies of this historical period, helping us understand our past as a city and as a nation, we will have taken a step toward promoting racial understanding and a shared future defined by greater tolerance.” Despite this hope, the exhibition does not come across as heavy-handed. If anything, it announces, “It Happened Here,” and asks its visitors to both individually and collectively decide what to make of this discovery. For New Yorkers, for Americans, for anyone, it is undoubtedly a challenge worth taking up.
Slavery in New York will conclude its extended run on Sunday, March 26. For more information on the exhibition, visit HYPERLINK “http://www.slaveryinnewyork.org” www.slaveryinnewyork.org. The New York Historical Society is located at 170 Central Park West at 77th Street. Museum hours are Tuesday – Sunday 10 AM to 6 PM, Fridays until 8 PM.