New York slavery era revealed

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NEW YORK - In a city known for fighting to abolish slavery, there is another story: the tale of the slaves who built the road that became Broadway and the wall that namedWall Street.

“When most Americans think about slavery, they think about ‘Gone with the Wind’ and cotton plantations in the South immediately before the Civil War,” said Richard Rabinowitz, curator of the “Slavery in New York” exhibit that opens Friday at the New-York Historical Society.

“This exhibit breaks new ground because it focuses on slavery in the North,” he said. “Most people really don’t know that story. It’s going to come as a great shock.”

The exhibition, set to run through March 5, is the largest for the 201-year-old historical society and one of the biggest ever devoted to slavery. The 9,000-square-foot project includes about 400 historical objects, documents and re-creations, along with multimedia and interactive displays.

A rare handwritten draft of Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation will be displayed through Oct. 15.

Across nine galleries, the exhibit spans the period from the early European settlements of the 1600s to 1827, when New York abolished slavery. In between are British Colonial times when one in five New Yorkers was an enslaved African and the city’s slave population was second only to Charleston, S.C.

“New York had slaves longer than it’s had freedom,” Mr. Rabinowitz said.

The society’s 18-month slavery project also includes lectures, tours and programs for children. A second exhibit to open by early 2007 will explore New York’s central role in both fighting and funding slavery in the decades leading up to the Civil War and Reconstruction.

“The investment in slave labor and slave trading built many of the fortunes of the city,” said James Horton, the exhibition’s chief historian.

Mr. Horton said New York’s elite were so financially involved with Southern plantation slavery just before the Civil War that city officials considered having New York City secede from the United States along with Southern states.

A surge of scholarly interest in New York slavery began in 1991 after construction workers in Lower Manhattan unearthed an African burial ground dating from the 1700s. About 400 sets of remains were removed for study and were reinterred in 2003.

A permanent memorial is planned for the burial ground, now designated a historic landmark.

The historical society began work on its exhibit a year ago, using its large collection, which includes paintings, abolitionist documents, ads seeking runaway slaves and coroner reports stemming from a 1712 slave revolt.

The exhibit also includes wire sculptures of slaves that the society describes as evoking “the toil of the faceless, voiceless peoples whose histories were [nearly] erased.”

Among the first displays are materials from when New York was still the Dutch settlement of New Amsterdam. One document describes the Colonial governor granting “half-freedom” to 11 slaves, who later created the first free black community in North America in the areas of Manhattan now called Greenwich Village and SoHo.

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