Daniel Trotta, Reuters, Nov. 16, 2006
New Yorkers proud of the city’s role in abolishing slavery may be disturbed to find that history reveals a more complex and racist narrative.
A New York Historical Society exhibit opening on Friday shows that political sentiment in the city remained heavily pro-slavery and anti-black through much of the 19th century.
“New York Divided,” which will run until September 2007, chronicles events from the abolition of slavery in New York state in 1827 until the end of the Civil War in 1865. It completes the story begun in a previous installment, “Slavery in New York.”
Today’s politics, with about 90 percent of African Americans voting for the Democratic Party, seem out of touch with the 19th century, when Democrats supported slavery and Republicans backed its abolition. Abraham Lincoln, the Republican president who freed the slaves, never won more than 35 percent of the vote in New York City.
The city at large profited mightily off the slave-dependent cotton trade, the exhibit shows. Even so, free blacks and morally outraged whites in New York led the abolitionist movement that historians see as the foundation for modern advocacy politics.
New York financed much of the southern plantation system and diverted a huge chunk of the cotton trade to New York Harbor, denying Southerners the chance to export cotton directly to Europe.
Even after the state of New York abolished slavery in 1827, the slavery issue became “more powerful, more politically significant,” said Richard Rabinowitz, curator of the exhibit. “New York’s economy is deeply invested in production and trade with the southern plantation economy.”
With free blacks walking the streets of New York while the financial and mercantile class grew rich off slavery, the city became more and more racist, giving rise to pseudo-scientific theories about racial superiority, Rabinowitz said.
The exhibit also teaches about a largely forgotten chapter of U.S. history: the forced migration of a million slaves from Maryland, Virginia and the eastern Carolinas to deep southern states such as Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi to expand booming cotton production. American Indians were forced out of those states to make room.
“Slavery was thriving in America and growing. That’s what generates this tremendous anxiety in the North,” Rabinowitz said. “The slave holders want to expand slavery throughout the country. And that’s what drives the Republican Party to victory in the North and leads to the separation and civil war.”