New York and Slavery

Just returned from a wonderful trip to the “Big Apple” with my wife.  We caught two excellent jazz shows featuring guitarist Mike Stern at the Iridium Club.  Both shows featured some excellent players, including Sonny Fortune (sax), Buster Williams (b), Victor Wooten (b), Dennis Chambers (dr) and Randy Brecker (trumpet) and Jimmy Cobb (dr).  We tried to see the exhibit at the Tenement Museum, but it was too crowded.  Be smart and buy tickets in advance.  Unfortunately, I completely forgot about the slavery exhibit at the New York Historical Society.  I’ve read nothing but positive reviews of the exhibit and even though scholars have been writing about slavery and race in the North for quite some time it is a topic that is sorely misunderstood by the general public.  Hopefully we can catch it next time we are in town.  For now check out this wonderful introductory video of the exhibit.  I love the creativity and the way they utilize the old lithographs.

By the way, there is a brand new book on the subject that is slated to be published in the coming weeks that looks to be very interesting.

Civil War Memory has moved to Substack! Don’t miss a single post. Subscribe below.

16 comments… add one
  • Sherree Jan 6, 2010 @ 10:37


    I had to chuckle as I read this post. I, like you, love New York. My husband, who grew up in Brooklyn during the Depression, and whose father grew up in Hell's Kitchen before “gentrification” took place , has a totally different take on the city, however. He couldn't wait to get out, and took the first opportunity that came his way to do so, after his hitch in the air force during WWII.

    All of my husband's mother's kosher cookware, and her throws and quilts that she made, surround me–all of them quite beautiful–and all out of the context of their original use. I can only reconstruct this woman's life as I know it through my husband, and through stories that she, herself, told me before she passed. (Her ancestors were from Russia, and she told one story, passed down to her by her grandmother, about her grandmother watching Russian soldiers march past her home)

    This made me think about the study of history, and how it should be approached with care. One day only fragments of our own past will be left, and hopefully future generations will attempt to understand who we were outside of their own needs to construct a past that fits their present narrative of who they are.

    The partisans on both sides of this debate do a great disservice to the past. The Lost Cause myth has done incalculable harm to our nation. Likewise, the myth of a monolithically virtuous North has harmed many. It is almost inconceivable that one of our nation's greatest cities has, at its foundation, an intricate history tied to slavery and the slave trade. Nevertheless, it does, and we need to understand that history. Maybe in the process of achieving that understanding, we can avoid either “falling in love with dead people”, as one historian who is a frequent commenter on your blog has stated, or “beating up on dead people”, as another historian has stated. Neither approach is helpful, or even accurate. Men and women are much more complex than that, and men and women make history. Thanks, Kevin.

    • Kevin Levin Jan 6, 2010 @ 16:26

      Very thoughtful comment and one which I agree with.

      • Sherree Jan 6, 2010 @ 16:44

        Thanks, Kevin. I know that you do agree on this point. I look forward to what you have to say this year. Sherree

        • Kevin Levin Jan 6, 2010 @ 17:42

          As am I. 😀

          • Sherree Jan 22, 2010 @ 7:38


            As a follow up to this post, there is an article by CS Manegold in the Boston Globe, January 18, 2010, entitled “New England's Scarlet 'S' for Slavery.” The article is very informative and may be of interest to your readers.

            • Kevin Levin Jan 22, 2010 @ 11:54

              I am about half-way through the book.

              • Sherree Jan 22, 2010 @ 13:56

                I haven't read the book yet, but from what I have read of Manegold's writing, I find Manegold to be insightful. I don't agree with everything said in the article referenced, but many of Manegold's observations about race in New England match my own observations made during the five years I lived there.

                • Kevin Levin Jan 22, 2010 @ 14:19

                  It's actually a very difficult book to read. She is an excellent writer, but fails to deal with central issues related to slavery in the North. The author says next to nothing about the relationship between slavery and Puritanism. There are other issues as well.

                  • Sherree Jan 22, 2010 @ 14:54

                    Thanks for your input, Kevin. I'll keep what you have said in mind when I get the chance to read the book.

  • LynneF Jan 3, 2010 @ 19:48

    Thank you for this intro video…I also liked the creative way it's done. (Liked the music also!) Very informative. It also reinforces the idea that you can't really take sides in the study of this war. As with most history of this sort, it can only be studied as a whole picture with each side having its strengths, weaknesses & hypocrisies.

    • Kevin Levin Jan 3, 2010 @ 20:08

      There are way too many partisans in this field who view the past through a narrow lens. The history of northern slavery and racism is incredibly difficult to get at, in large part, because of the way we are taught American history from an early age. We tend to think of slavery as confined to the South and racism as a problem during the Jim Crow Era. Obviously, it's a much more complex story. I highly recommend Ira Berlin's two-volume study of slavery as well as Thomas Sugrue's recent study of the Civil Rights Movement in the North. Good stuff. Glad to hear that you are enjoying the blog.

  • Bob_Pollock Jan 1, 2010 @ 19:00

    I envy you, Kevin, I've never been to New York. Did you go to Grant's Tomb?

    I like the video, brief as it is. Of course, with all the competing native and immigrant groups, it was all far more complex than the video implies. One book I like very much on New York is “The Devil's Own Work: The Civil War Draft Riots and the Fight to Reconstruct America” by Barnet Shecter.

  • woodrowfan Jan 1, 2010 @ 18:34

    The Lower East Side Tenement Museum is absolutely my favorite museum. Have been there twice and hope to take my class there this Spring( from Northern Va.)….

    • Kevin Levin Jan 1, 2010 @ 19:46

      I feel like an idiot for not purchasing tickets in advance. We ended up taking a nice walk through Soho.

  • jfe Jan 1, 2010 @ 16:24

    Very nicely done, IMO.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *