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New York Slave Market

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The_first_slave_auction_at_new_amsterdam_in_1655
The first slave auction in New Amsterdam in 1655, painted by Howard Pyle, 1917

Glad to see New York City finally acknowledging its long history as a slave market.

The city’s slave market stood at the corner of Wall and Pearl Streets and operated from 1711 to 1762. Today, the spot lies several blocks inland. But it was once on the East River waterfront, where oceangoing ships unloaded their goods. The market was a wooden structure with a roof and open sides, although walls may have been added over the years. Renderings show that it could hold perhaps 50 men.

Over the course of those 51 years it was operated, the market trafficked in thousands of slaves: men and women, shiploads of children, even captured Indians.

“It’s not a feel-good story,” said Thomas J. Davis, a professor at Arizona State University who writes about slavery in the north. “It’s not a story that people have wanted to hear.” Davis and other historians say Americans in the north tend to think of slavery as a fever that gripped the south, a fever which was cured by the Civil War.

But New York and other northern cities accrued vast wealth from slave labor and profited for centuries from dealings in the slave trade. Africans who passed through the Wall Street slave market contributed to the prosperity of some very famous companies, some of which are still around: Aetna, New York Life and JPMorgan Chase, to name a few. Various units of these and other financial companies bankrolled southern plantations, insured slaves as property, and used slaves as collateral for loans.

New York was the center of northern slavery, both in the Dutch patroon estates of the Hudson Valley and in the city itself. In 1703, 42 percent of New York City households owned slaves, the 2nd highest slave concentration of any colonial city, only behind Charleston. Around 20 percent of the city’s population during the late colonial period were African slaves.

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