Under British control, the slave population grew, and ultimately about 41 percent of New York households owned slaves. Typically one or two slaves lived in a home, staying in basements, attics or backyard kitchens. The small groupings often broke up families, separating mothers from children.
Although the treatment of New York slaves varied, overall living conditions were terrible and the labor extreme, Mr. Rabinowitz said. He said slave food in New York was likely worse than on Southern plantations and often led to malnutrition.
The exhibit also chronicles the period’s growing slave trade with an electronic version of a trading book from the ship “Rhode Island.”
Visitors can explore the book’s entries, which describe how it sailed from New York in 1748 loaded with items such as butter, cheese and rum to trade with merchants along the African coast for manufactured goods such as guns and pots and pans. The crew then traded for people and sailed back with 124 slaves; 38 died on the way.
Displayed advertisements from New York newspapers announce the new “Negroes to be sold.” One of the men behind the sale, Philip Livingston Jr., went on to sign the Declaration of Independence.
Another gallery focuses on the American Revolution and the years after the British captured New York in August 1776. More than 10,000 slaves fled to the city seeking freedom behind British lines and many joined them to fight the American forces.
When the British left, more than 3,000 slaves went with them, including Deborah Squash, who in British documents is listed as a former slave of George Washington.
“At the end of the war, fearing that Washington and others — which is a realistic fear — would come back and try to reclaim her, she went with the British troops off to Nova Scotia to a new life in freedom,” Mr. Rabinowitz said.
New York began a gradual emancipation with restrictions in 1799, but the shift to abolition was much slower than in other Northern states with smaller slave populations. Some forms of racism also worsened as the free black population grew.
The exhibit shows the role of black New Yorkers in the abolitionist movement and how freed slaves became entwined in public life, building homes and forming churches and schools.
One gallery is devoted to the celebration after the abolition of slavery in New York on July 4, 1827, and includes a panoramic display of a Broadway parade.
A final section explores why this history is not well-known and how the South became identified with slavery and the North with freedom.
Nearby, visitors can record video messages about their exhibit experience that become part of the show.
“Slavery was not a sideshow in American history. It was the main event,” Mr. Horton said. “That’s the story we want to tell.”