Sunday, July 02, 2006

New York Museum has Slave Exhibit

Saturday October 8, 02:16 AM
Museum exhibit buries myth of slave-free New York

By Richard Satran
NEW YORK (Reuters) - Slavery was something that took place "down South," most New Yorkers would say, but a museum exhibit that opened on Friday shows that Manhattan was slave territory too.
"Slavery in New York," a $5 million multimedia show at the New-York Historical Society, provides vivid evidence that slaves came with the foreigners who settled Manhattan island more than 300 years ago.
"The Dutch settlers could not have survived without the input of slaves," said Leslie Harris of Emory University in Atlanta, an historian who contributed to the project. "The Dutch were living in dugout trenches until slaves built the first houses.
"The show explodes the myths about slavery as a purely southern phenomenon and that it was not that important here in New York, or that only whites were involved in settling America," said Harris.
Museum show designer Michael Roper said he tried to depict "the humanity of the slaves in the early era, so we are looking at real people, not abstractions."
At the entry to the exhibit are eleven wire sculptures representing the first eleven black settlers, whose names are known through historical accounts but about whom nothing else is recorded. Large portions of the show consist of similarly imagined works, recordings and dramatizations of early slave life. There are no first-person accounts or even painted likenesses of New York's slaves in the pre-Revolutionary era.
But the exhibit gives ample evidence of pervasive and brutal slavery from the city's early legal records, business transactions and newspaper clippings. The records show bloody slave uprisings, attempted runaways and violence.
The stark history is tempered with more whimsical views, largely aimed at educating young people: In one display, visitors can lean over a water well and, instead of seeing their own reflection, see and hear images of slave women talking about their difficult lives. "The well puts you into their shoes, it's a way to put people inside that experience," said Roper.
To highlight the economics of slavery, a computer screen that might be seen on a New York trading room scrolls headlines on the arrival of slave ships, as well as "ticker prices" of human transactions, resembling stock quotes. The economic theme resonates since New York, even in the earliest days, was the mercantile center of the nation. Indeed, the city always had an active slave market, though it never reached the scale of other cities.
But if it never matched the huge plantation dimensions of the south, it was at least as widespread. Nearly half the residents of the affluent island city owned slaves, nearly twice the proportion of the South, and the city's shipping and trading revolved around the cash crops produced by slavery.
"Everything was touched by slavery," says one display. The exhibit draws on the renaissance of study of New York's slave past sparked by the discovery of a large slave burial ground near City Hall in 1991. It became the focus of debate over slave reparations, racial equality and the teaching of black history in schools. "Even today one approaches this exhibition with discomfort," said a New York Times reviewer.
David Dinkins, New York's first black mayor, was on hand for the show's opening. "There is a legacy of slavery in this country and a failure to acknowledge it," he said. And the show holds realities that may hit close to home. The Historical Society itself was founded in 1804, 23 years before New York's slavery ban, by slaveholder John Pitard.

Slavery in the North