Exhibit Reveals History of Slavery in New York City (N-YHS)





GWEN IFILL: There are many myths about slavery: that it was confined only to the Civil War era; that it only occurred in the South; that all Northerners were abolitionists.

History tells another story, much of it now on view at the New York Historical Society in the exhibit New York Divided: Slavery and the Civil War. The exhibit showcases the contributions of more than 200 scholars, historians, and academics. And it continues through next September.

James Oliver Horton, a professor of American studies and history at George Washington University and historian emeritus at the Smithsonian, is this exhibit's chief historian. He joins me now.

Welcome, professor Horton.

JAMES OLIVER HORTON, Historian Emeritus, National Museum of American History: Well, thank you.

GWEN IFILL: So, it turns out slavery was actually abolished in New York City in 1827, but it took many more decades for that to be real.

JAMES OLIVER HORTON: No, actually, the first gradual emancipation law went into effect for New York in 1799. That law said that a person born after the 4th of July in 1799 had to spend a number of years in slavery. And it differed, depending upon whether you were a male or female, but in the 20s, 20, 25 years in slavery.

But, then, in 1827 -- again, on the 4th of July -- a law went into effect that said, slavery is over. So, as of the 4th of July, 1827, slavery was officially abolished in New York City and State.

GWEN IFILL: So, if it was abolished, if it was over many years before the Emancipation Proclamation, when people think of the end of slavery, what was the division in New York over slavery?

JAMES OLIVER HORTON: Well, of course, slavery was ended in New York State, but it was very much alive in the American South, and even in some, what we think of today as Northern states. Delaware, for example, had slavery well until after the Civil War.

And the last 16 slaves in my home state of New Jersey were freed by the 13th Amendment in 1865, so that there were still some slaves scattered in various places in the North, but that the stronghold of slavery was obviously the American South.

Now, New York was involved, in many ways, with the South, but, most importantly, economically. I mean, New York really provided much of the capital that made the plantation economy in the South possible. It not only bought the cotton. It loaned money for the growing of cotton. It handled the foreign distribution of cotton. It was very much involved in cotton -- in the cotton production.

GWEN IFILL: And the cotton -- and king cotton was the big commodity at that time. It was, like, oil is today?

JAMES OLIVER HORTON: Absolutely.

On the eve of the Civil War, the American South produced seven-eighths of the world's cotton. And, when we think about how powerful that made the South, because it was in control of this cotton economy, you realize, in the 72 years between the election of George Washington and the election of Abraham Lincoln, 50 of those years sees a slaveholder as president of the United States, and, for that whole period of time, there was never a person elected to a second term who was not a slaveholder, it gives you some idea of how powerful cotton and the cotton South was.

GWEN IFILL: So, because of that, you're saying that, even though slavery was abolished, the slave economy, as it -- as it was practiced in the docks of New York, flourished?

JAMES OLIVER HORTON: Absolutely, the slave economy, and as the slave economy affected New York's economy.

Now, so, you had a substantial proportion, especially the business interests in New York, focused on Southern plantation society. But, at the same time, you had an important anti-slavery movement which was growing in New York. The foundation of that movement was the Free Black Society in New York, that is, in New York City and in New York State.

But there were a substantial number of white allies who were part of the anti-slavery movement. And this integrated movement in opposition to the institution of slavery was very important. And that's the thing which made New York a divided place, with anti-slavery on one side and pro-slavery on the other....


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