Photo of Harriet Tubman statue in Harlem via denisbin on Flickr
For over 200 years, and leading up to the Civil War, most of New York City favored slavery because the region’s cotton and sugar industries depended on slave labor. During the colonial era, 41 percent of NYC’s households had slaves, compared to just six percent in Philadelphia and two percent in Boston. Eventually, after the state abolished slavery in 1827, the city became a hotbed of anti-slavery activism and a critical participant of the Underground Railroad, the network of secret churches, safe houses and tunnels that helped fugitive slaves from the south reach freedom. While some of these Underground Railroad sites no longer exist or have relocated, a few of the original structures can be visited today, including Brooklyn’s Plymouth Church and the Staten Island home of staunch abolitionist Dr. Samuel Mackenzie Elliott. Ahead, travel along the Underground Railroad with 15 known stops in New York City.
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Draft Riots in New York (1863) via NYPL
Typically seen as a beacon of freedom and diversity, New York also served as the capital of slavery in the United States for nearly 200 years. Before the American Revolution, more enslaved Africans lived in New York City than every city except South Carolina, with over 40 percent of the city’s households owning slaves. However, the state eventually became an epicenter for abolition efforts, as well as a destination for many slaves escaping enslavement in the south. To further the public’s understanding of New York’s relationship with slavery, the John Jay College of Criminal Justice has created a searchable database of slaves and their owners (h/t WNYC).
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Plan of New York map courtesy of Curriculum Concepts International
In 1626, the Dutch West India Company imported 11 African slaves to New Amsterdam, beginning New York’s 200 year-period of slavery. One man in this group, Paolo d’Angola, would become the city’s first non-Native settler of Greenwich Village. As the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation (GVSHP) discovered, and added to their Civil Rights and Social Justice Map, as a recently freed slave, d’Angola was granted land around today’s Washington Square Park for a farm. While this seems like a generous gesture from a slave owner, d’Angola’s land actually served as an intermediary spot between the European colonists and the American Indians, who sometimes raided settlements. This area, in addition to Chinatown, Little Italy, and SoHo, was known as the “Land of the Blacks.”
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Map of freedmen’s farmland via Slavery in New York (L); Harper’s Magazine illustration of the New York City slave market in 1643 (R)
A stranger on horseback in 1650 riding up a road in Manhattan might have noticed black men working farmland near the Hudson River. It was not an unusual sight, and if he remarked on it at all to himself, he would have thought they were simply slaves working their masters’ land. But no–these were freedmen working land they personally owned and had owned for six years. It was land in what is now the Far West Village and it had been granted to eleven enslaved men along with their freedom in 1644.
In 1626, the year Manhattan was formally settled by the Dutch, these eleven African men had been rounded up in Angola and Congo and shipped to the New World to work as slaves clearing land and building fortifications. We know they were from there because the manifests of Dutch ships list them with names such as Emmanuel Angola and Simon Congo. Another of the eleven was named Willem Anthonys Portugies, suggesting that he may have been bought and sold in Portugal before reaching his final destination in New Amsterdam.
How did these men get the right to own land?
Behind all the banks, tall towers and tourists filling up FiDi is a dark past most of us know nothing about. Back in the 1700s, a corner of Wall Street at Pearl Street played host to the city’s official slave market. Though no real recognition has been given to those that suffered in the construction of Manhattan in its earliest days—rather, the area’s sordid past has for the better part been swept under the rug—WNYC reports that the city will finally pay tribute to these forgotten slaves, adding a historical marker to the site where the slave market once operated.
Find out more about the slave market here