Few people know that for the first half of the 18th century, New York City was the home of a slave market. That will soon change when a marker is posted at the corner of Wall Street and Water Street, acknowledging the existence of a slave market that was the “official location for buying, selling, and renting human beings.”
The marker will be unveiled at the 150th anniversary of the Juneteenth Celebration on June 19, 2015. “The slaves of that time and place helped build City Hall,” city councilman Jumaane Williams told WNYC. “Their lives should be celebrated and their deaths should be mourned.” The project will cost the city around $5,000. “In the $70 billion city budget, that’s like losing a quarter,” Williams said. “And the significance of it is priceless.”
Early 1600s in New Amsterdam included enslaved Africans
Many companies we are familiar with today, like New York Life and J.P. Morgan Chase profited from the city’s slave trade which was in existence two years after the first Dutch settlers arrived in 1626. In 1626, The West India Company brought 11 African slaves to New Amsterdam. This bit of information may shock many, but it is true that white Europeans and enslaved Africans arrived in New York, then called New Amsterdam, at about the same time.
By the time 1700 rolled around, there were 5,000 people in New York, and 750 of them were enslaved Africans. But the numbers were to grow as the city grew. Over the following 50 years, several thousand slaves were added to the population. Slavery built Lower Manhattan, literally, from the ground up.
It was the slaves that cleared the land, widened Native American trails, turning them into roads, like Broadway, and constructing the wall that would become Wall Street today. Women slaves worked as domestics, and many slave children were bought by white colonial families and taught to do household chores.
Bringing order to the business – How the market got started
New York fell under British Control in 1664, and proved to be even bigger traders in human cargo, so that by the end of the century, there were 10,727 blacks in what is now New York City and Westchester County, with 77.3 percent of them being slaves.
You will notice from the above figures that not all the blacks were slaves. A small number were actually freedmen. New Yorkers in later years would say with a certain amount of pride that they treated their slaves with compassion and benevolence, much different than the slaves held by Southerners.
During this period, many families, to make extra money would send their slaves out into the city to rent themselves out, for short-term labor, and sometimes, for periods of several days. But city officials began to hear complaints from some of the whites that there were too many of the black laborers walking around on the streets, mingling with each other, and there were fears a rebellion could be brewing.
City fathers took the problem to heart and by 1711 had put an end to slaves roaming around looking for work for their master’s profit. A wooden pier had been constructed at the corner of Wall Street and the East River. It was soon to become known as the city’s slave market. Ships coming from the Caribbean would dock and the slaves would be marched through the streets to be sold at the Wall Street market. That market was to run for 51-years.
Because slaves were considered property, and were sold as such, interested buyers, and those “just interested,” could inspect the goods. This would lead to men inspecting the musculature of the men and doing a lot of inspecting of the women in their “private parts.” It was surely an indignity and ugly experience for the slaves.
New York City’s involvement in the slave trade rivaled the South
Chris Cobb, is an independent scholar, and contributed his knowledge in preparing the marker to be unveiled next month. Last year, he testified before City Council about the legacy of slavery in the city. Explaining how the city profited from the slave market, he said, “It was a city-run slave market because they wanted to collect tax revenue on every person who was bought and sold there,” he added, “And the city hired slaves to do work like building roads.” The slaves were a valuable asset, both for their monetary value, and the work they did.
Some people have even proposed that the city has benefited from the slave trade in many other ways over the centuries. Professor Alan Singer of Hofstra University points out that besides the Africans being responsible for building the city’s infrastructure, as in roads, canals, bridges and more, He says the city was a “major stop on the transport of sugar and cotton. So New York bankers and New York merchants were making money on the transport and the sale of slave-produced commodities.”
By the 1800s, before the start of the American Civil war, New York City was as important as Charleston, South Carolina in the Triangular Trade, a network that sent slaves and the goods they produced in a continuous journey across the Atlantic to England, then Africa and again to North America. New York’s ties to the slave trade only ended with the end of the Civil War.
But the slave market had been long gone already, for much of the same reasons that something considered an eyesore is demolished today. Back then, the slave market blocked a nice view of the river and was bringing down property values.