Americans typically grow up believing that slavery was confined to the cotton fields of the South and that the North was always made up of free states. The fact that slavery was practiced all over the early United States often comes as a shock to people in places like New York, where the myth of the free North has been surprisingly durable. The truth is that New York was at one time a center of the slave trade, with more black people enslaved than any other city in the country, with the possible exception of Charleston, S.C.
The New-York Historical Society in Manhattan has set out to make all this clear in its pathbreaking "Slavery in New York," which ends in March. It is being described as the first exhibition by a major museum that focuses on the long-neglected issue of slavery in the North.
New York's central position in the slave trade was partially exposed back in 1991, when workers excavating for an office tower in Lower Manhattan uncovered a long-forgotten burial ground that may have originally spread for as much as a mile. It served as the final resting place for thousands of enslaved New Yorkers.
Among the bodies exhumed and examined, about 40 percent were of children under the age of 15; the most common cause of death was malnutrition. Some enslaved mothers appear to have committed infanticide, rather than bringing their children into what was clearly a hellish environment. Adults typically died of hard labor, dumped into their graves by owners who simply went out and bought more slaves.
Slavery was no less brutal in New York than in the South - and just as pervasive. At one point, about four in 10 New York households owned human beings. The free human labor that ran the city's most gracious homes also helped to build its early infrastructure and supplied the muscle needed by the beef, grain and shipping interests, which forestalled emancipation until 1827 - making New York among the last Northern states to abolish slavery.
Judging from the videotaped responses of visitors to the historical society, people who thought they knew New York's history well have been badly shaken to learn about the depth and breadth of human bondage in the city. As one distraught patron put it, "The ground we touch, every institution, is affected by slavery."
Historians who had expected to find early 18th century slavemasters agonizing over the moral questions associated with slavery were surprised in a different way. One researcher said the record before the Revolutionary War contained not a single scrap of paper to support the notion of guilt among the slaveholding classes.
By conveniently "forgetting" slavery, Northerners have historically absolved themselves of complicity while heaping blame onto the shoulders of the plantation South. This cultural amnesia will no longer be plausible after the country absorbs the New-York Historical Society's eye-opening exhibition, which vigorously debunks the myth of the "free" North.