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On Wall Street: Slavery Lost, Found, and Remembered

HNN   July 7, 2015

Related Link The Rise of Wall Street

Rememory is a word the Nobel Prize-winning author Toni Morrison used for historical events that have been lost and recovered.

On June 27, 2015 an original building was remembered. A plaque commemorating the slave market that stood in New York City on the East River at Wall Street was planted in the soil, erected at the site of the original building.

A Brooklyn councilman, community leaders, activist students and other New Yorkers contributed to making the city aware of its past. The mayor and his wife gave a speech at the dedication and an award-winning poet recited a poem to lost colonial-era ancestors and history, but none of these events were enough. So much more has to be done to recognize the contributions of people who passed through the slave market.

The plaque marking the site on Wall Street between Pearl and Water Streets was proposed by Brooklyn writer, artist and activist, Christopher Cobb. The language for the plaque was crafted by the New York City Parks Department and the City’s Landmark Preservation Commission, with assistance from Christopher Moore, former director of the Schomburg Center for Black Culture, the research branch of the New York Public Library in Harlem. Many people contributed directly and indirectly.

The plaque is important because when we lose a landmark, one such as the slave market, an image we can see at the Skyscraper Museum on Battery Place in New York City, it may be lost to history. When we lose a landmark we cannot see, smell and touch, it is necessary to create a truthful, dramatic experience that tells the story. Rememory. The artist, Kara Walker, created a dramatic installation in the sugar monument at the Domino Sugar Factory on New York’s East River in Brooklyn. Authors Sven Beckert, Eric Foner, Edward E. Baptist, Anne Farrow-Joel Lang-Jenifer Frank, and Michelle Alexander and others retold stories of wealth and growth in the western world in their recent books about slavery.

For years, I wrote about the slave market and other monuments in New York. But what struck me was the timing of the installation of the plaque, given what happened in Charleston, South Carolina when nine black people were struck down by a white supremacist in a domestic terrorist attack in their church at a Bible study group. President Barack Obama closed his eulogy to the struck down minister, Rev. Clementa Pinckney and the eight others, by leading not only the congregation, the city and the state but also the nation and the world in an inspirational rendition of “Amazing Grace.” But that tribute too was only a beginning. There is so much about American history that so many are unaware of.

Among the surprising commentaries surrounding the devastating event in Charleston was a television interview with a spokesman for a Confederate group, former Georgia congressman in the U.S. House of Representative and an actor on the Dukes of Hazard TV show. He said this about American slavery: “Slavery, it ain’t like it was a Southern sin. It was a national American sin. It built Wall Street and the American economy.”

So what did he mean? Let us reflect on what is said on the newly installed plaque, called, “New York’s Municipal Slave Market”:

On Wall Street, between Pearl and Water Streets, a market that auctioned enslaved people of African ancestry was established by a Common Council law on November 30, 1711. This slave market was in use until 1762. Slave owners wanting to hire out their enslaved workers, which included people of Native American ancestry, as day laborers, also had to do so at that location. In 1726 the structure was renamed The Meal Market because corn, grain and meal – crucial ingredients to the Colonial diet – were also exclusively traded there.

Slavery was introduced to Manhattan in 1626. By the mid-18th century approximately one in five people living in New York was enslaved and almost half of Manhattan households included at least one slave. Although New York State abolished slavery in 1827, complete abolition came only in 1841 when the State of New York abolished the right of non-residents to have slaves in the state for up to nine months. However, the use of slave labor elsewhere for the production of raw materials such as sugar and cotton was essential to the economy of New York both before and after the Civil War. Slaves also cleared forest land for the construction of Broadway and were among the workers that built the wall that Wall Street is named for and helped build the first Trinity Church. Within months of the market’s construction, New York’s first slave uprising occurred a few blocks away on Maiden Lane, led by enslaved people from the Coromatee and Pawpaw peoples of Ghana.

The South Carolina terrorist said he chose Charleston, South Carolina because it is the most historic city in his state. He said he was out-of-his-mind when he read that at one point in history there were more Negroes in South Carolina than there were whites. It was no accident that he attacked one of the most historic religious institutions not only in the South but in America — the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME), founded by enslaved, free and abolitionist African Americans, including Denmark Vesey, who rebelled against slavery in 1822.

We wonder what the terrorist would say if he read that at one point in Early American history, in 1650, the number of bondaged African Americans in New York was second only to the number in South Carolina, and in New York there were rebellions in 1712, 1741 and other years. So let’s review the words of the Wall Street plaque. Good people have to be aware of history because evil people are paying attention. (Maybe today someone will finally make the formerly enslaved abolitionist Denmark Vesey movie that filmmakers have been trying to make for so many years.)

My intimate knowledge of some of the ancestors in New York, having researched genealogy and combed the records for a book, is vivid. My maternal great-grandmother was Elizabeth Hunter of Jamaica. Governor Robert Hunter, British Royal Governor of the British Colonies in New York and New Jersey from 1710 to 1720, and Governor of the British Colony in Jamaica from 1727 to 1734 was her ancestor. The slave market was established under his watch. When Governor Robert Hunter was in New York, before he went to Jamaica, he was integrally involved in overseeing the monies used in the Colonies. He petitioned Queen Anne to have a smaller denomination of money for the merchants and their customers and decried what he called the “hard usage” of colonial African Americans.

I ignored Governor Hunter on our family tree, even after I found the genealogical records, but he resurfaced in my New York research when I researched entrepreneurial African American potters, and my Scottish and African American ancestors in Colonial New York. By hard usage, he and other colonials meant the use of free African Americans labor to transport the timbers that built ships, buildings and military forts in the city. The free laborers also built the businesses of the variety of entrepreneurs who owned them as enslaved people.

So view the plaque’s words, owners . . . hire out their enslaved workers. These and other slave owners were not average individuals; they were business people who hired out the humans they held in bondage. They not only pocketed the money their slaves earned and used the money to build a fortune, they also used the people’s free labor to build their own businesses. When President George Washington landed on the East River, a few blocks from the site of the former slave market where slavers still traded humans, he must have seen the hard usage. The Founding Fathers and Financial Founding Fathers owned slaves. They built the banks and created the nation’s currency. Enslaved people built the industries that built New York.

The banks were built on Wall Street during this era. In 2011, at a Wall Street festive gathering, a Financial Follies for financial reporters, BNY Mellon Bank taunted protesters outside in the Occupy Wall Street movement with a satirical promotional ad. The bank’s ad said: “We don’t mean to brag, but we’ve been Occupying Wall Street for 227 years.” Banks from Bank of America, J. P. Morgan Chase, Citibank, Wells Fargo, Mellon Bank and others had their roots in earlier banks on Wall Street during the slavery era.

So view the plaque’s words,the use of slave labor elsewhere for the production of raw materials such as sugar and cotton. The profits from sugar and slavery were not only produced elsewhere and used to build banks and businesses on Wall Street as the plaque says, but there were sugar mills at the edge of Wall Street. These New York merchants’ major commerce at the time was human cargo and sugar, imported from the Caribbean Islands. The sugar was stored in New York’s sugar houses owned by its leading families; sugar was refined in the refineries, and profitable liquor shipped to the other colonies and to Europe. A “Sugar House” stood on the south side of Liberty Street at Cedar Street, adjoining the Dutch Church, and another one stood one block north on Cortlandt Street in the 1700s. Liberty Street Sugar House was owned by Peter Livingstone, a merchant, and the adjoining one by John Van Cortlandt, a merchant. These and other names cover Manhattan, Bronx and Brooklyn. There were major sugar factories in Brooklyn, and that is why Kara Walker’s sugar installation is so significant.

Profits from sugar, cotton, slavery and slave ships created fortunes. Entrepreneurs who used free slave labor as “hard usage” were called merchant, sea captain, tavern owner, brewer, lawyer, minister, politician, governor, mayor, distiller, vintner, doctor, baker, shopkeeper, shipowner, silversmith, sailmaker, victualler, cordwainer, watchmaker, insurer. The whole insurance industry worldwide was started and built on slavery. Edward Lloyd started Lloyds in his storefront in London in 1688 when he posted the list of ships and took bets on which ones would survive. Insurance was a main business of the men who sat in the taverns on and surrounding Wall Street and who traded at the slave market. The American insurance industries from Aetna to Hartford have their roots in Wall Street-financed slavery.

This is the place where the economic, social and civic foundations of the nation originated. Tenant farmers from the Hudson Valley supplied the colonial city with produce at the Oswego Market on Broadway. The farmers protested the inequities and unequal treatment by one of New York’s largest landowners, Stephen Van Rensselaer IV, in 1845. The Stock Exchange at Wall and Broad Streets was formed in 1792, and there was already an Exchange, the first Exchange on the East River at Broad and Dock Streets, today’s Pearl Street. This is the site of the current slavery plaque. That site has been a trade location since the era of the Dutch and the British, when shipping and slavery were the world’s major commercial businesses.

The wealth that empowered the colonists to revolt against Britain during the American Revolutionary War came from the labor of people who cleared the forests, built roads. The governors bargained with the Mohawks and other Native Americans upstate, whose timbers were transported by slaves to the city.

View the plaque’s words,enslaved people from the Coromatee and Pawpaw peoples of Ghana. I have documented ancestors from the 1600s and 1700s who were Coromantees from Ghana, West Africa. I researched and traced how they survived, how they received the name, Coromantee. Koromantyn was the name of the village from which they came.

This plaque recently placed on Wall Street describes people who have deep roots not only in America, but also in the world.

Pearl Duncan has two upcoming books, one about the DNA roots of African American ancestors and another about colonial ships, Wall Street and New York and New Yorkers.

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DisunionIn the waning days of the Civil War, as a Northern victory became both obvious and inevitable, the Confederate government of President Jefferson Davis financed what it hoped would be a drawn-out war of attrition, with the intention of driving President Abraham Lincoln to the bargaining table. A large part of that strategy involved members of the South’s Secret Services, who hatched a series of plots against Union territory that featured Canada as their operations site and relied on an impressive network of hundreds of soldiers, agents and operatives. Their most ambitious plot? To burn New York City.

The South hoped to foment an uprising of disenchanted Northerners: Copperheads, the rabidly anti-Republican Order of American Knights and its subset, the Sons of Liberty. To this end, the Davis government sent weapons and money to ensure support in several of the North’s major cities. The plan was for this alliance to first make itself known in Chicago and New York City in early November 1864 – on Election Day. With the promised support of New York’s Democratic governor, Horatio Seymour; the former New York City mayor Fernando Wood; and the Illinois Democratic Congressman James C. Robinson, squads of handpicked Rebel operatives traveled from Canada to New York and Chicago, to rally their supporters.

According to the plan, several small fires were to be set, to distract the authorities while the Rebels and their Northern sympathizers seized each city’s treasury and arsenal and liberated Confederate prisoners of war – from Fort Lafayette in New York, and camps Chase and Douglas in Illinois.

Eight Rebels, all veterans, had been assigned to New York under the command of Col. Robert Martin, a hard-core combat officer. As Martin saw it, “The way to bring the North to its senses [is] to burn Northern cities.” Although the original plan had called for several small distraction fires, Martin planned to burn Gotham to the ground, and he determined to wait out federal troops under the command of Gen. Benjamin Butler. John W. Headley, a member of the team, later wrote that they were resolved in “our purpose to set the city on fire… and let the Government at Washington understand that burning homes in the South might find a counterpart in the North.”

The Rebels had secretly contracted a retired druggist to make 12 dozen four-ounce bottles of the volatile incendiary substance known as Greek fire. Headley later recalled that with their 144 bottles, “we were now ready to create a sensation in New York.” They planned to set fires in the various hotels, “so as to do the greatest damage in the business district on Broadway.” According to Headley, they agreed to begin the operation at 8 p.m., to give the hotel guests the opportunity to escape, “as we did not want to destroy any lives.”

But when the time came to actually bear arms, few stepped up. And, as had happened in earlier plots, word of the planned revolts leaked, all the way to Washington. Secretary of State William H. Seward sent a telegram to New York City’s mayor on Nov. 2, advising him of “a conspiracy on foot to set fire to the principal cities in the Northern States on the Day of the Presidential election.”

Shortly thereafter, thousands of federal troops marched into New York with General Butler, who established a perimeter around the city. The troops were supported by gunboats stationed at various points on the rivers surrounding Manhattan. Meanwhile, in Chicago, a former Confederate spy informed on the agents positioned there, and most of the ringleaders were captured. Ancillary plans for fires and rallies in Boston and Cincinnati were betrayed and abandoned as well. By Nov. 15, General Butler reasoned that New York was secure from sabotage, and marched his troops out of the city.

The New York raiders weren’t done, though. They got back together, and agreed to attempt their strike again in another 10 days, by which time two of their number had lost heart and deserted. The remaining plotters would each be responsible for burning four hotels. Each man was to place 10 bottles of Greek fire, wrapped in paper, in his coat pockets. At the appointed time, they would go from hotel to hotel, firing the rooms and escaping before the alarm sounded. They would meet again the next evening, and make their way back to Canada.

The scheme was a sound one. As The New York Times later observed, “The plan was excellently well conceived, and evidently prepared with great care, and had it been executed with one-half of the ability with which it had been drawn up, no human power could have saved this city from destruction.”

On Nov. 25, James Headley began his part of the operation in his room at the famous Astor House. He later described the event in great detail, illustrating how he “hung the bedclothes loosely on the headboard and piled the chairs, drawers of the bureau and washstand on the bed.” He covered everything with newspaper, doused it in turpentine and emptied a bottle of Greek fire on the pile. Immediately, the bed was aflame. Headley rushed out of the room, locking the door behind him. He followed the same method at the City Hotel, the Everett House and the United States Hotel. Looking back at the Astor House, Headley could see flames in the window of his room. By this time fire bells were sounding all over the city, “great crowds were gathering on the street, and there was general consternation.”

To Headley’s surprise, a fire had also been set in Barnum’s Museum, across the street from the Astor House. Apparently, Capt. Robert Cobb Kennedy had strayed from the plan. Kennedy, it seems, was a drinking man, and after firing rooms in three hotels, he paused for a libation in a local saloon. Inspired by drink, he wandered into Barnum’s, threw down a bottle of his Greek fire, and exited as the stairway became engulfed in flames. Panic ensued. There were 2,500 people in the museum, attending a play in its lecture hall. Miraculously, no one was killed.

The raiders had set fires in enough hotels to keep the alarm bells ringing and the firemen busy for hours. Pandemonium ruled in the streets – but the young plotters had made a crucial mistake. None realized that the incendiary liquid required oxygen to spread, and in their ignorance, they had closed the doors and windows of the various rooms in which they set their fires. The lack of oxygen made the fires easy to contain and extinguish; some merely went out on their own. In the open spaces where the liquid was thrown, such as Barnum’s Museum, the fires had a greater opportunity to spread. Over all, however, the plot resulted in costly but limited property damage, no loss of life, and a city that was singed but certainly still standing.Fort Sumter

The next morning, all of New York City’s newspapers ran front-page accounts of the raid, as well as physical descriptions of the raiders, the fictitious names they had used to register and the promise that they would all be in custody by the end of the day. Gen. John A. Dix, commander of the New York-based Eastern District, made it clear that any conspirators he caught would be tried by military court and hanged within hours. Incredibly, despite the intense manhunt being conducted throughout the city, Martin and his party were able to purchase tickets the next day and board a train for Albany, and from there to Toronto. All the saboteurs made it safely across the border.

Two days later, several New York detectives arrived in Toronto. With the attack on New York, Canada had ceased to be a bastion of certain safety, and some of the Rebels made immediate preparations to return home. All made it but one. Robert Cobb Kennedy was arrested by two detectives at a railway station outside Detroit. Kennedy was tried and convicted in New York, and on March 25, 1865 – just weeks before the cessation of hostilities – he was hanged at Fort Lafayette, in New York Harbor (built on an artificial island, Fort Lafayette was later demolished to make way for the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge). Kennedy was the last soldier of the Civil War to be executed. Before the hood was placed over his face, Kennedy tremulously sang an old Irish drinking song ironically titled, “Trust in Luck.”

Fort Lafayette in New York Harbor, where Robert C. Kennedy was executed.

Fort Lafayette in New York Harbor, where Robert C. Kennedy was executed.Credit Library of Congress

Reactions to the raid were universally harsh. All the Northern papers, including the Copperhead organs, condemned it. The Confederate government at Richmond disavowed any involvement. Even The Richmond Whig, which had once called for the burning of the city, now protested, “If there is any place in the North that ought to be spared, that place is New York.”

The failure of the raid, along with the widely negative response it engendered, all but ended the possibility of future operations out of Canada. Indeed, the entire Confederate secret war had proved an almost total disaster, doomed by inexperience, naïveté, bad luck and betrayal. As John Headley later recalled, “There appeared nothing to do now, since all our attempts everywhere had failed.” For the Confederacy, the end was scant months away.

Follow Disunion at twitter.com/NYTcivilwar or join us on Facebook.


Sources: Nat Brandt, “The Man Who Tried to Burn New York”; James W. Headley, “Confederate Operations in Canada and New York”; James D. Horan, “Confederate Agent”; Robert R. Mackey, “The Uncivil War”; Jane Singer, “The Confederate Dirty War”; Mason Philip Smith, “Confederates Downeast”; William A. Tidwell, “Come Retribution.”


Ron Soodalter

Ron Soodalter is the author of “Hanging Captain Gordon: The Life and Trial of an American Slave Trader” and a co-author of “The Slave Next Door: Human Trafficking and Slavery in America Today.” He is a frequent contributor to America’s Civil War magazine, and has written several features for Civil War Times and Military History.

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Maryland Man May Have Found Two Lost of Forgotten Photos of Lincon´s Funeral Procesion

Michael E. Ruane

Washington Post   March 19, 2014

In the first photograph, the crowd outside the church seems to be waiting for something to come down the street. Children stand up front so they can see. Women, in the garb of the mid-1800s, shield themselves from the sun with umbrellas. White-gloved soldiers mill around. And a few people have climbed a tree for a better view.

(Mathew Brady/The National Archives)

In this second shot, some heads are bowed. Men have taken off their hats. And the blur of a large black object is disappearing along the street to the left of the frame. What the scene depicts, why it was photographed, or where, has been a mystery for decades, experts at the National Archives say. But a Maryland man has now offered the theory that the two photos are rare, long-forgotten images of Abraham Lincoln’s funeral procession in New York City.

(Mathew Brady/The National Archives)

Paul Taylor, 60, of Columbia, a retired federal government accountant, believes the scene is on Broadway, outside New York’s historic Grace Church.

The day is Tuesday, April 25, 1865, 11 days after Lincoln was shot at Ford’s Theatre in Washington.

 And the crowd is waiting for, and then seems to be paying homage before, a horse-drawn hearse, whose motion makes it appear as a black blur as it passes by in the second picture.

If Taylor is right, scholars say he has identified rare photos of Lincoln’s marathon funeral rites, as well as images that show mourners honoring the slain chief executive.

Plus, it appears that the photographs were taken from an upper window of the studio of famed Civil War photographer Mathew Brady, which was across the street from the church.

“It’s a big deal,” said Richard Sloan, an expert on the Lincoln funeral ceremonies in New York. “What makes it even a bigger deal is to be able to study the people. Even though you can’t see faces that well, just studying the people tells a story.”

Sloan added, “It’s as if you’re there, and you can see the mood.”

Many people, including children, are in their Sunday best. A few look up at the camera. Flowers are in bloom. But there is no levity.

Sloan said he is convinced that the pictures show the funeral scenes: “There’s no doubt about it.”

But experts at the Archives caution that although the theory sounds good, there could be other explanations, and no way to prove it conclusively.

The digital photographs were made from some of the thousands of Brady images acquired by the federal government in the 1870s and handed down to the National Archives in the 1940s, according to Nick Natanson, an archivist in the Archives’ still-picture unit.

Next year is the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s assassination.

The two photos in question, both captioned “scene in front of church,” apparently had gone unnoticed for decades.

“We’ve had many inquiries about many images in the Brady file,” he said. “I can’t remember . . . any inquiries about these two particular images. I don’t think I ever noticed them before.”

But something about them intrigued Taylor when he saw them among the hundreds of Brady photographs posted on an Archives Flickr photo-sharing site in January.

Both were unusual four-image pictures — four shots of the same scene grouped together.

“I was just struck by the scene,” Taylor said. “That is not your normal scene in front of church. There’s just people everywhere: the streets, the sidewalks, the roof. They’re in the trees. This is not your normal Sunday.”

In the second picture, “I saw this black streak,” he said. “When I looked at it closer, I saw what it was. It was a funeral vehicle. . . . I knew it was Lincoln. It had to be. It couldn’t be anybody else.”

Natanson, of the Archives, was skeptical. “It still strikes me as odd that . . . there wouldn’t have been some mention or some hint [in the caption] of the monumental nature of the event,” he said.

There could have been other events, “maybe even other processions, maybe even other funerals” during that time period, he said. “I don’t think its possible to establish this without any doubt.”

But if Taylor is right, it could be an important discovery, Natanson said: “It isn’t as if there are dozens of images of the funeral procession anywhere.”

The funeral observances for Lincoln, who was assassinated by actor John Wilkes Booth on April 14, 1865, went on for more than two weeks. During that time, the president’s body was moved by train on a 13-day, 1,600-mile journey from Washington to Springfield, Ill., where he was buried May 4.

Along the way, the train stopped in over a dozen major cities, and his coffin was removed for numerous processions and elaborate tributes.

Washington historian James L. Swanson has called the funeral journey a “death pageant” that was viewed by millions of people and that helped create the image of Lincoln the martyred president.

New York was the fourth major stop on the journey, after Baltimore, Harrisburg, and Philadelphia.

The president’s coffin, with the lid unfortunately open, was placed on view in New York’s City Hall on April 24, according to Swanson’s account. Lincoln had been dead for 10 days, and his face was “not a pleasant sight,” the New York Times reported.

The next day, with the lid closed, the coffin was borne through jammed streets aboard a black hearse decorated with flags and black plumes and drawn by a team of 16 horses shrouded in black.

A half-million people lined the route, much of which was along Broadway.

“Thousands and thousands of these lookers on were too young . . . and were doubtless brought in order that in old age they might say they saw the funeral procession of Abraham Lincoln,” the Times wrote the next day.

Taylor said his investigation of the photos began Jan. 4, when he first noticed them. The captions didn’t give him much to go on. The problem was that the original glass negatives probably didn’t have captions on them, said Brady biographer Robert Wilson. And by the time the government acquired the negatives, any caption information that went with them was probably lost.

Taylor turned to the Internet for images of historic churches, to see whether he could find the one in the Brady images. He looked up historic churches in Baltimore. No luck. Then he tried historic churches in New York.

That search brought up Grace Episcopal church, the 168-year Gothic edifice on Broadway at Tenth Street.

“I’m looking at it, and that was it,” he said. “I had it.”

He e-mailed his findings to the Archives on March 3.

Taylor, who said he has long been fascinated by historic photographs, said he does not think the images have ever been published before.

Bob Zeller, president of the Center for Civil War photography, agreed, but he wrote in an e-mail: “There is always a slim chance that somebody somewhere has recognized and printed [them] in some obscure . . . publication.”

“Either way, it’s incredibly historic, (a) totally fresh piece of our American photo history,” he wrote. “Even if someone materializes, that still means 99.9 percent of us, enthusiasts and historians, have never seen it.”

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