Walk down the canyon of Wall Street and you'll come across several of Lower Manhattan's 38 historical markers, most of them celebrating achievements in fields like finance and skyscraper-building. But soon a new marker will raise a more ominous subject: how, for centuries, New York City was built on the backs of slaves.
It will be the city's first acknowledgement on a sign designed for public reading that in the 1700s New York had an official location for buying, selling, and renting human beings.
City officials say the marker is in the final stages of preparation. It will likely be unveiled on Juneteenth (June 19), also known as Freedom Day, which dates to the emancipation of African-American slaves in Texas and throughout the Confederate South. The marker will be freestanding and located in a pocket park on the northeast corner of Wall and Water Streets, a block from the historic location of the slave market.
"The slaves of that time and place helped build City Hall," said City Councilman Jumaane Williams, a sponsor of the legislation that led to the creation of the marker. "Their lives should be celebrated and their deaths should be mourned."
Williams said the project will cost about $5,000. "In the $70 billion city budget, that's like losing a quarter," he said. "And the significance of it is priceless."
Not a Feel-Good Story
The city's slave market stood at the corner of Wall and Pearl Streets and operated from 1711 to 1762. Today, the spot lies several blocks inland. But it was once on the East River waterfront, where oceangoing ships unloaded their goods. The market was a wooden structure with a roof and open sides, although walls may have been added over the years. Renderings show that it could hold perhaps 50 men.
Over the course of those 51 years it operated, the market trafficked in thousands of slaves: men and women, shiploads of children, even captured Indians.
"It's not a feel-good story," said Thomas J. Davis, a professor at Arizona State University who writes about slavery in the north. "It's not a story that people have wanted to hear." Davis and other historians say Americans in the north tend to think of slavery as a fever that gripped the south — a fever cured by the Civil War.
But New York and other northern cities accrued vast wealth from slave labor and profited for centuries from dealings in the slave trade. Africans who passed through the Wall Street slave market contributed to the prosperity of some very famous companies, some of which are still around: Aetna, New York Life and JPMorgan Chase, to name a few. Various units of these and other financial companies bankrolled southern plantations, insured slaves as property, and used slaves as collateral for loans.
WNYC has obtained a draft of the historical marker's text. It includes the phrase, "Slavery was introduced to Manhattan in 1626." The date is important because it's less than two years after Dutch settlers first arrived at the tip of what is today known as Manhattan. That means white Europeans and enslaved Africans arrived in New York — then called New Amsterdam — at essentially the same time.
Professor Davis believes that fact should be better known. “Folks need to 'fess up and understand the long, black roots that New York has," he said.
By the year 1700, New York had 5,000 people. At least 750 of them were slaves — a number that increased by several thousand over the next 50 years. Many slaves were sold and taken elsewhere. But some stayed and did the heavy work of constructing Lower Manhattan: clearing land, building the port, widening Native American trails and creating roads like Broadway — even constructing the wall that Wall Street would be named after. Women slaves worked as domestics and white colonial families bought black children to help with household chores.
How The Market Got Started
Christopher Paul Moore, a senior researcher at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, said it was also common practice at the time to send slaves into the street to hire themselves out. "Slave owners made additional profits by short-term and even long-term rental of their enslaved property,” he said. But the city fathers started hearing complaints from their fellow white colonials about the African laborers walking around and mingling with each other, which some feared could lead to a slave rebellion.
Moore said it was then that the Common Council, an early version of our City Council, stepped in to bring order to the business. "In 1711, a wooden pier was set up at the corner of Wall Street and the East River and that became the acknowledged New York City market," he said.
Moore said enslaved Africans would disembark from the boat that had just carried them from Africa or, more likely, the Caribbean, and be marched through "the cacophony of an early trade town" to be sold at the Wall Street market. Slaves were considered merchandise so buyers could simply inspect them. "Some of the male slaves were asked to flex in various ways to show how sturdy they were," Moore said. "And the females were touched in private places. It was an ugly experience."
Many Ways To Make Money from Slavery
Chris Cobb, an independent scholar who contributed research to the historical marker, testified at a City Council hearing last year about the legacy of slavery in New York. Cobb pointed out that the city directly benefited from the business. "It was a city-run slave market because they wanted to collect tax revenue on every person who was bought and sold there," he said. "And the city hired slaves to do work like building roads."
Professor Alan Singer of Hofstra University said New York City businesses profited from the slave trade for centuries in ways beyond direct labor. "It’s not just that Africans built the infrastructure of the city, New York City was a major stop on the transport of sugar and cotton," he said. "So New York bankers and New York merchants were making money on the transport and the sale of slave-produced commodities."
By the 1800s, New York City was as important as Charleston, South Carolina, to the Triangular Trade, which sent slaves and the goods they produced in a constant flow around the Atlantic Ocean from England to Africa to North America.
Singer noted that the Domino Sugar Factory in Brooklyn refined sugar cane and the molasses produced by enslaved Africans in the Caribbean. The owner of the plant, William Havemeyer, became the mayor of New York City in the years before the Civil War. He was followed in office by Fernando Wood, who believed emancipation would be bad for business, which prompted Wood and his allies to lobby hard for avoiding war with the South. "They wanted Lincoln to compromise because New York City bankers and merchants are so tied in with slavery, cotton and sugar," he said. Once the war started, Wood proposed that New York City secede from the Union.
The city's deep ties to the slave trade only ended when slavery was abolished after the Civil War. By then, the Wall Street slave market was long gone — removed for the same reason that a lot of stuff gets torn down in New York: it was blocking a nice view of the river and bringing down real estate values.
Alana Harper contributed reporting to this story.