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Slavery's Invisible Past

By Leah Reddy

RELATED: Watch The Shadow of Slavery, a documentary that explores the legacy of slavery in New York City and the different ways slavery affected the ministry of Trinity Church.

Lower Manhattan is filled with memorials and monuments: Castle Clinton, the Irish Hunger Memorial, streets named for prominent early New Yorkers, and the 9/11 Memorial to name just a few. The past is present in our landscape and our language. But the past we speak and see isn’t the whole story. Thousands of slaves lived and died in Manhattan, and most have no plaque or statue to remind us of them. Here are three such stories that are easy for modern eyes to overlook.

Location 1: Slave Market, Wall and Water Streets, facing west

 In 1711, a slave market was built on Wall Street between Pearl and Water Streets. The city had a population of 6,400, about 1,000 of whom were slaves. Young enslaved men were typically taught their master’s trade, and when not needed were hired out at a lower daily wage—paid, of course, to their owners. Before the slave market was built, these slaves often walked the streets seeking work. White citizens feared a slave uprising, and the city passed a law requiring that all hiring, buying, and selling of slaves take place at the market. The city collected taxes on each transaction involving the sale or purchase of a slave, and even hired slaves to work on city streets. The slave market closed in 1762. In the summer of 2015 a small historical marker was placed in a park across the street from the slave market.

Location 2: Elias Neau’s grave, Trinity Churchyard

Elias Neau, born in 1662, was a French-born Huguenot who, after capture by Catholic privateers, was sentenced to galley slavery and later imprisoned for his faith. He was released after six years and returned to New York and, perhaps sensitized to the plight of the city’s enslaved, asked the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel to appoint a “catechist to slaves.” Neau himself was assigned the task and, with the support of Trinity Church (he converted to Anglicanism in 1704) was a tireless educator. He soon had hundreds of pupils, and translated the Lord’s Prayer into several African languages. His work was not popular among slave owners, and he was (incorrectly) blamed for a 1712 slave uprising.

Neau’s work was motivated by his strong faith, but he never called for an end to slavery. Justice would have to wait for the next life. Enslaved students, who worked long days and devoted their evenings to study, found value in his work: perhaps they saw it as a way to raise their status, or enjoyed the intellectual opportunity, or gained insight from Christian spirituality. The story of Neau and his students provides a chance to meditate on the intersection of faith, power, literacy, and race in colonial New York.

Location 3: Execution Grounds, Foley Square

In April of 1741, after a cold, difficult winter, a series of arson fires broke out in New York. The fires were blamed on slaves, a feared “Negro uprising.” (Something was going on, perhaps involving stolen property, but the specifics are lost to history.) A number of slaves were imprisoned, and a grand jury was convened. The first witness called to testify was Mary Burton, the sixteenyear-old indentured servant of a tavern owner. She testified that her employer, a member of the white working class, an Irish prostitute pregnant with a slave’s child, and a number of slaves were behind a conspiracy to burn and take over New York. This began a cascade of wild accusations, false confessions, and a naming-of-names around this largely unbelievable conspiracy. Daniel Horsemanden, a Trinity vestryman, presided over the trials. By summer’s end, thirty enslaved persons (both African-American and “Spanish Negroes”) and four white persons had been executed, many of whom were innocent of the charges against them. Some of their bodies were left hanging or otherwise displayed.

 

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