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New Exhibit Examines Slavery in New York City

ED GORDON, host:

And if you're traveling through the northeast in the next several months, you may want to visit the "Slavery in New York" exhibition at the New-York Historical Society. The new nine-gallery project features hundreds of historical objects, documents and recreations. Together, they tell New York's critical, but often less familiar role in the American slave trade. James Horton is the exhibit's chief historian. He's also a professor at George Washington University in Washington, DC. Horton says the exhibition shows slavery was more than just a Southern problem.

Professor JAMES HORTON (George Town University; Chief Historian, "Slavery in New York" Exhibition, New-York Historical Society): It was a central issue to the entire nation. The original 13 colonies, every one of them was a slave-holding colony. Slavery was tremendously important in Boston, in Newport, Rhode Island, and certainly in New York City, and all of the outlying areas in those colonies becoming states.

GORDON: And it brings us to the exhibit, "Slavery in New York," which really can be seen as a microcosm to some degree, as you just illustrated there, that slavery had deep roots in the North. Talk to us about what people can see and find in this exhibit.

Prof. HORTON: Well, first of all, in looking at the state of New York, you'll find a variety of types of slavery that in many ways represent the types of slavery in the nation as a whole. I mean, if you look at the Hudson River Valley, you look at Long Island, you'll find the kind of plantation slavery that you're used to if you know something about Southern slavery. If you look at New York City, you find urban slavery. In fact, during the colonial period, there was a long period of time when New York was the largest urban slave-holding center in the country outside of Charleston, South Carolina.

GORDON: Yeah, I was going to say that if we look at New York, as we still do, and certainly at that time--the influence of New York in terms of being an economic center--we can not minimize the importance of the slave engine to all of what New York ultimately became, can we?

Prof. HORTON: No. In fact, I think if we start to understand that the economy of New York and much of the North receives a really important infusion of cash from trade and so on--the trade that I'm talking about here is the slave trade or products that the slave trade depends on. For example, many places in the North are building the ships that become the slave traders, the ships themselves. And, of course, many of these places are providing the capital which finances the slave trade; you know, insurance companies which insure the slaves so that you can invest in slaves and be assured that even as they make their way across the Atlantic, insurance companies that insured your merchandise allowed slave traders, slave buyers, to safeguard their profits. And the profits were spectacular.

GORDON: Now while I encourage adults, obviously, to go see this--and as I said, most people don't know enough about slavery in this country--it's imperative to get our young people educated about this. And what's interesting about this exhibit, and we know this to be true for young people, they really need to become engaged ofttimes something more tangible than just the word on the page. They'll be able to see a number of things, including bill of sales of human slave trade, advertisements offering rewards for runaway slaves. Things like this will be on exhibit here.

Prof. HORTON: Absolutely. And more than that, they'll be able to understand that these slaves, these people held as property, never gave up their humanity; that they had a variety of ways where they could support one another and build communities and maintain families, even under circumstances that would be impossible to do these things. One really interesting part of the exhibit is the well, where you can go to the well--you know, there were laws saying that slaves could not gather in groups because they were always afraid that slaves were going to plot revolution. Well, that was one of the few places where you could gather in groups legally. And so you can stand at the well and you can listen to conversations going on, conversations that tell you a lot about what's happening in the slave community, about what people are planning, and about the ways in which they are supporting one another.

GORDON: We should note that the exhibit runs through the 1st of March--March 5th, to be exact--but one of the things that will only be on display until October 15th is an original draft of the Emancipation Proclamation handwritten by Abraham Lincoln will be on display here.

Prof. HORTON: Yes, and that is, of course, something well worth seeing. You know, it's one thing to see these in books or to see it even on the Internet, but to actually see the document itself and realize that a person wrote this, and the thing that this person wrote has affected all of our lives. This exhibit is not just about African-American history. You know, one of my things that I say as often as I get the chance to, is that African-American history is American history. It is made by Americans and it's made in America.

GORDON: Well, the exhibit is "Slavery in New York." It opens at New-York Historical Society and runs through the beginning of March.

James Oliver Horton, thank you so much for spending time with us.

Prof. HORTON: Well, thank you very much. I've certainly enjoyed it.

GORDON: Thanks for joining us. That's our program for today. NEWS & NOTES was created by NPR News and the African-American Public Radio Consortium.

I'm Ed Gordon. This is NEWS & NOTES. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.