Yesterday I commented on the importance of understanding Northern antebellum attitudes regarding the anti-slavery movement by acknowledging the distinction between slavery and race. I thought I would follow that up by mentioning the new exhibit at the New York Historical Society. The NYHS has been working hard to explore the connection between its history and the way in which slavery both shaped race relations and fueled the state’s economy. Their first exhibit, "Slavery in New York" surveyed the history of slavery up to its abolition in 1827. Their most recent exhibit, "New York Divided: Slavery and the Civil War" explores the history of the state between Emancipation and Reconstruction. Edward Rothstein offers an interesting review of the exhibit in the New York Times. It looks like the exhibit does a good job of exploring the ways in which New York City and the rest of the state was both economically and culturally connected to slavery and the South:
But the commercial lure of the South must have still been phenomenal. One
gallery stresses the way New York hotels offered Southern-style hospitality to
Southern guests, and it quotes a lawyer of the period referring to New York as
“virtually an annex of the South.” What accompanied all this, the exhibition
then shows, is racial caricaturing in popular culture: in P. T. Barnum exhibits,
minstrel shows and dance clubs.
Now that I find interesting.
The cataclysm of the Civil War approaches, but it leads to no clear
resolution. In 1861 the city’s mayor, Fernando Wood — about as far from an
abolitionist as a New Yorker could be — suggested that New York City should
declare independence from both the North and the South, and serve both. The
city’s real allegiance might seem evident: New York was becoming a center of the
Union economic and military effort; ships were built at the Brooklyn Navy Yard,
uniforms were supplied by the nascent garment industry, bankers were assuming
large amounts of Union debt, and New York lost more soldiers in the Civil War
(46,434) than any other state. But there were also countervailing forces. A
featured speaker at the postwar 1868 Democratic National Convention, held in New
York, was Nathan Bedford Forrest, a founder of the Ku
You move through the exhibition’s documents and objects (including a Union
jacket made by Brooks Brothers, a store looted during the draft riots) and try
to come to clarity, but contradictions persist. On the one hand, in 1864 a black
woman whose soldier husband was killed in the war was asked to leave a railway
car in the city to sit in spaces approved for colored riders; on the other hand,
she sued the railroad company and won. On one hand, city officials refused to
allow blacks to march in Lincoln’s funeral procession; on the other hand, the
secretary of war intervened in their favor, though they were permitted only to
bring up the long, trailing rear.
The exhibit ends in a period in which the ideals of the 13th, 14th and 15th
Amendments, which sought to undo slavery’s social evils, work their halting and
stuttering effect (with New York State actually rescinding the ratification of
the 15th); meanwhile large-scale immigration and the birth of modern urban life
transform other elements in the racial equation. There is no sense of triumph
here: one knows how much is yet to come.
But it is also clear just how immense and remarkable this long conflict
against slavery and its heritage has been: a singular enterprise, quashing an
ancient evil in its singularly modern form. To feel the weight of such forces
and begin to sense the complications that gave them shape in a city like New
York, is to begin to feel the pulse of history itself, which is precisely what a
historical society might well set as its goal and which is, here, handsomely
Looks like the exhibit is well worth a visit so if you have an opportunity take advantage of it. As I stated yesterday it is important to break down our traditional distinctions if in doing so we come to a better appreciation for the way in which slavery and race shaped the entire country in the years leading up to and through the war.