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Review of
“New York and Slavery:
Time To Teach the Truth”

by William Loren Katz
New York, New York

As some southern legislatures, prodded by African American representatives, expressed regret over their states' role in slave trading and exploiting slave labor, a kind of “truth and reconciliation” movement has stirred educators. So far the focus has been on the southern states where African people were brutally exploited, their families sundered, resulting in a civil war and a nation wide system of racial inequality.

Now some educators who welcome this truth are claiming it omits the complicity of “the free North.” Prominent northern merchant, industrial and banking families built the ships, hired the captains and crews and financed the expeditions that snared millions of African men, women and children for forced labor in the Americas. Wealthy Northerners then used their profits to first fund the southern plantation system and then politically promote slaveholder goals. Northern capital, ships and business acumen carried cotton, sugar, rice and other plantation crops to world markets, and produced the chains and whips needed by planters and overseers. “I hear the sound of the hammer, I see the smoke of furnaces where manacles and fetters are forged for human hands,” said Senator Daniel Webster. He was standing in Boston when he spoke.

In New York and Slavery: Time to Teach The Truth, Professor Alan Singer of Hofstra University tells how he and his classes stood in today's Wall Street and pointed to buildings where New York's early entrepreneurs reaped the profits of human bondage.

Northern slavery began after the Dutch occupation and enslaved Africans became vital to the city's economy. Africans put up the first buildings, brought in the first crops, turned an Indian path into Broadway, and built the wall at Wall Street. In the British colony of New York its bankers and merchants so successfully invested in the international African trade they made it the slave-traders' leading port. After the Revolution, with the city leading the way, slavery and its profits grew in the land of the free. A greater percentage of white households in Brooklyn, Queens and Staten Island owned slaves than in South Carolina. The world's first stock exchange opened in New York in 1792 and half of its 177 stockholders owned slaves. Africans were auctioned to bidders at Wall Street and other city markets. Forced labor made the Empire State.    

New York and Slavery summons a host of reliable witnesses. There is the calm, confident, talkative Captain James Smith, a chillingly unrepentant slave trader. Sitting in a city jail serving a two year sentence and $1,000 fine for violating the federal law against slave trading, Smith tells a reporter he is proud of himself and the other “good men in the business.”  Smith states:

New York is the chief port in the world for the Slave Trade. It is the greatest place in the universe for it. Neither in Cuba nor in the Brazils is it carried on so extensively. Ships that convey Slaves to the West Indies and South America are fitted out from New York . . . .  New York is our headquarters.

Smith's simple truth, substantiated by Singer's statistics and documentation, has yet to find its niche in our school social studies curricula, in teacher college courses, and on Regents examinations. If we are ever to understand the roots of our economic and racial problems, he warns us, schools have to confront these issues. But since Captain Smith's interview New York students, instructors, teacher colleges, public school classrooms have ignored or denied this knowledge.

New York and Slavery indicts a host of prominent New York mercantile and banking families and corporations such as Citicorp which first made its name in the slave trade. Slaveholder names currently grace our buildings, bridges, parks, streets, and schools. This, Singer shows, teaches our children to celebrate men who benefited from the African trade, southern slavery and bondage in New York.

In 1860 Abraham Lincoln failed to carry New York City by 30,000 votes, and there was a good reason. By then the city's prominent businessmen, who also controlled leading politicians and major newspapers, had cemented an alliance with the southern planter aristocracy. The next year Mayor Fernando Wood, representing this business community, proposed New York rename itself “Tri Insula,” and continue to trade with if not secede and join the Confederacy.  His brother ran the Daily News, a racist, pro-Confederate mouthpiece.

In 1863, after pro-Confederate governor Horatio Seymore told Manhattan crowds that revolution "can be proclaimed by a mob as well as by a government," the white working-class exploded against Lincoln's new draft law. Tens of thousands of immigrants and other working people rioted against Lincoln's new law, terrorizing and killing citizens of color, anti-slavery whites, and even police who stood in their way. Seymour returned to three times address rioters as “my friends.”  This worst urban riot of the century was not subdued until the arrival of 43 Divisions from the Gettysburg battlefield [where they could have pursued General Lee's defeated army].

Professor Singer also makes clear there was a side to this history worth celebrating. New York was the home of such titans of the anti-slavery crusade as Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth and Harriet Tubman. Untold numbers of lesser known heroic New Yorkers, whites and African Americans, men and women, put their lives on the line to battle human bondage, help enslaved men and women escape, and fight racial discrimination. In their struggle against those whose wealth and influence made the city a leading slave trading port, they suffered many defeats and humiliations. White and black New Yorkers who assembled to protest slavery often faced racist mobs urged on by New York mercantile and banking elite, and their media.

Professor Singer, a city secondary school teacher, a professor at Hofstra, a prodigious researcher, and an indefatigable trainer of educators, is an accomplished hand at creating valuable teaching tools. New York and Slavery grows out decades of scholarly investigations, and includes examples of his many efforts to field test his materials in classrooms, in teacher training seminars, and includes an eleven page bibliography.

Fully documented, engaging and easy to read, New York and Slavery includes teacher suggestions for using memoirs, oral and local history -- and even provides student-created rap lyrics on its material. It is highly encouraging that the State University of New York published New York and Slavery. This should help achieve Singer's goal that this story reaches public school teachers and pupils, particularly in New York.

New York and Slavery is part vital information, part methodology for teachers and students, and part personal polemic. Singer airs opposing views and has a dialog with his material that can encourage teachers to offer controversial material in classes. Some readers may prefer the author less involved and or judgmental, but this is neither his style nor way of thinking.

New York and Slavery is a singular gift to New York teachers and children, and a milestone in the battle for historical truth. How else, Singer's book seems to ask, are we ever going to solve our racial nightmare, educate our children for a multicultural world, and provide future citizens with the knowledge they need? 

Can any New York teacher, college professor, or Board of Education member ever again say, “we did not know these facts” or “we did not know how to teach this”? Professor Singer, his helpers young and old, have done everyone's homework and deserve our thanks.

In a long, productive career in multicultural education this volume stands as Singer's best work. Hopefully it will encourage educators in other states to teach the truth about slavery.

William Loren Katz is the author of Black Indians and forty other history books. His website is

Published in In Motion Magazine October 13, 2008

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