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Slavery in NY

02/26/07 12:00AM By Allen Gilbert
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(HOST) February is Black History Month, and commentator Allen Gilbert recently attended an exhibit exploring the lives of African Americans in New York state after abolition. He came away from it with plenty to think about.

(GILBERT) New York didn't abolish slavery until 1827. Two years ago the New York Historical Society mounted an exhibit that revealed the role that slavery played in that state's early development. Now there's a follow-up exhibit at the society's New York City Museum. It's called "New York Divided," and it explores how New York African-Americans were treated after abolition, and how New York financiers continued to profit from slavery.

It's a fascinating exhibit, as unsettling and full of surprises as the first one. I was reminded how race prejudice continued long after slavery ended. And it's jarring to learn how deeply woven the slave system was into this country's early economic life.

Slaves made possible the large-scale production of cotton in America's South. And cotton - King Cotton, it was called - was the cash crop that fueled the country's economy. The United States supplied almost ninety percent of the world's cotton.

New York merchants and financiers were an important part of the Southern cotton trade. They provided capital for all aspects of the trade system - cash advances to Southern planters while their crop was being marketed, credit to buy European goods, the building and operating of ships to carry the cotton. New York bankers financed land deals; for example, they bought large quantities of land that had been siezed by the U.S. government from the Chickasaw Indians in northern Alabama. They then resold it to Southern planters. And there was more than cotton that came north. Sugar cane from Louisiana or the Caribbean, produced by slave labor, was brought to New York for refining.

With their profits coming from the slave system, New York merchants were not keen to see the system upset. Abolitionists were driven from the city when that movement grew vocal in the 1830s. Merchants supported the compromises and concessions that were made to keep the South within the Union, including the infamous Fugitive Slave Law of 1850. New York City even considered joining the South when the Civil War began. It's hard to believe, but the mayor actually proposed proclaiming the city's independence.

Blacks in New York were poorly treated. Discrimination was rampant. A celebrated legal case of 1855 has an interesting Vermont connection. A black woman was thrown off a streetcar; she was told she had to wait for a car allowing "coloreds." The city's "Legal Rights Association" took up her cause, and a young Vermonter - Chester A. Arthur - represented her. Arthur actually won a court order that said, "Colored persons, if sober, well-behaved, and free from disease," had the same rights as others to ride the city's streetcars. It wasn't until 1873, however, that New York officially prohibited discrimination on public vehicles.

Despite this treatment, during the Civil War, blacks supported the Union. More than seventy percent of eligible Northern black men between the ages of eighteen and forty-five enlisted in the Union army. But sadly, New York City officials seriously considered prohibiting black soldiers from marching in the victory parade up Broadway in 1865. They eventually relented, but, as the title of the exhibit suggests, New York was indeed a city, and a state, divided.

Allen Gilbert is a former journalist, teacher, and consultant currently serving as executive director of the ACLU of Vermont.

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