This past Easter weekend, I found myself in New York City – Brooklyn – visiting family and friends. New York City is one of those places that receives millions of tourists annually, coming to see the sights and sounds of the “City that never sleeps.” New York is Broadway where music lyrics profess a magic that builds hopes and dreams. New York is Times Square where the flashing lights and neon walls host New Years Eve shows, a place for aspiring entertainers. New York is Wall Street where fortunes are made as stocks, bonds and futures are traded. New York is also the Upper East Side where the haves live and the have nots clean.
This is New York for many, a place to visit, get pictures taken and fly home full of memories and empty wallets. Yes, “I love New York” is a marketing campaign that has overlooked the discomfort of the history of this city. Come, visit New York and see what is to be seen.
On this trip to New York, with 10 days to spare, I decided to go sightseeing to see Manhattan from a different angle, from the lens of the men and women who were Africans – slaves and free – in New Amsterdam before there was the financial district and the bright lights and the skyscrapers that create the skyline. This city of dreams was not a dream for all, dating back to those who were bought and sold on Wall Street, and the labor put into building the city into what it is today.
It was a beautiful Saturday afternoon in New York City. The sun was shining bright which meant the streets of the Financial District were crowded. Selfie sticks were numerous as crowds gathered to take pictures in the usual places. We exited the subway at South Ferry, past the line of cars waiting to board the Staten Island Ferry and the individuals selling over priced tickets for helicopter rides and tourist attractions in lower Manhattan. Yet, there was a time when none of the places that are now landmarks existed. There was a time long ago when there were no tall glass buildings reflecting the clouds and sky, no neon lights, just gas lamps, with slaves and the indigenous tribes of the area being bought and sold.
The New York Financial District is a place where fortunes have been made and lost. Wall Street is a symbol of the 1% who have amassed wealth and power in the United States and globally. This financial center has seen its fair share of scandals and corruption, tales of financial malfeasance and the exploitation of people and systems. Less known about Wall Street is its place in the trading of men and women during the Transatlantic Slave Trade. Instead, a narrative about this city of dreams and fortune prevails in quieting the role of New York (New Amsterdam) in the slave trade.
We decided to head north on Broad Street to find what remained of evidence that showed the presence of slaves on Wall Street in the Dutch Colony of New Amsterdam, later renamed New York. Our quest seemed simple enough, we were looking for a marker that commemorated the lives of the Africans who were slaves in early New York.
We stopped at the New York Stock Exchange with its security and barricades rising from the street to prevent automobile traffic from going past the building. The streets were full there too. Stock exchange selfies and pictures with George Washington were being taken by young and old alike. The New York Stock Exchange is one of those symbols that speak to the United States financial wealth and how that wealth was acquired and held. The stock exchange is as much about wealth as it is about Empire and oppression of peoples globally in the name of capitalism. This was my first time outside the Stock Exchange on foot. On a Saturday afternoon, even with the tourists with cameras and smiles, the streets were weekend quiet as they can be in a place where the hustle and bustle of the week lends to the energy of the frenzy on the trading floor.
After obligatory selfies and helping a tourist or two with their pictures we found a guard (mistaken for the “Information Booth”) at the corner of Broad and Wall Streets, standing across from Federal Hall and George Washington. I asked him about the “marker” that was dedicated by New York Mayor Bill De Blasio in 2015. He admitted he never heard of it. I asked if he gets a lot of questions given his location and whether he knew anything of the slave history of New York City. “Yes.” he answered lots of questions and “No, in all the years I have been here, no one has ever asked me that question.” We left with a wave and promise that we would let him know where the marker was located. We headed south on Broad back the way we came.
There is a rich history of colonial New York in lower Manhattan where the old meets the new with tall glass landscapers looming over colonial townhouses now homes to bars, restaurants and residents willing to brave the two and three floor walk ups with no elevators. There is very little that confirms any African American history or presence in an era where people were bought and sold, and at a time when one in five residents of the city was a slave. The city was very quiet in the shadows of the photogenic buildings, people, monuments, all overlooked by the steeple of Trinity Church at Wall Street and Broadway.
We walked finding many places and things that was were not looking for including the excavated 18th century well on Pearl Street, within its brick and brass facade for all to see and read. We also passed the Queen Elizabeth II September 11 Garden – also on Pearl Street, we had no idea it was there.
After what seemed like hours and a stop to re-read the article about De Blasio’s dedication, the plaque was found, in what my sister titled a “scavenger hunt.” This scavenger hunt, for this plaque was revealing of the disparity and inequity even in acknowledging the contributions of people of African ancestry to the wealth made and construction of many large cities in the U.S.
I confess my sadness and disappointment when we found the sign outside of 100 Wall Street, on the corner of Wall and Water Streets. My sadness was for yet another place of encounter with the history of the Ancestors. My sadness was a for yet another time and place where the contributions and lives of people of African descent were “acknowledge” even as it was dismissed. I was disappointed that such important information was unknown, untold and suppressed even as it was posted in plain sight. I was disappointed at the size and placement of the sign. We stood on the corner staring at the sign, at each other and at the people who walked by us quizzically examining us as we stood beside that sign. How was anyone supposed to know the plaque was there to be visited?
This was not a sign for people to stop and examine. There was no brick to highlight its presence and no metal to protect its frame. The sign stood in a prepared garden site with a few other signs of various sizes, its message and importance lost on anyone who passed by. The text could not be read from any distance, curiosity and time were the two companions that would need to travel with this effort of Mayor De Blasio and the New York City Parks Department. This stood in direct contrast to the large marble monument to Harry B. Helmsley we found over on Broadway across the street from Zuccotti Park, home site of Occupy Wall Street for many months.
Thanks for the effort, but this too was a sign about the masking of what is and hiding in plain sight that which was to remain hidden. I was amazed. The sign spoke for itself. My heart was full and once more, I wanted to weep along with the Ancestors whose blood sweat and tears were the foundation on which Wall Street, Lower Manhattan and the development of Manhattan were built. Their lives were once again weighed in the balance on those scales of justice and found less than the named Whites who were immortalized in marble and stone, and given credit for their “contributions”.
I am thankful for this little known sign. There were no crowds stopping to take selfies, or to read the words and learn. There was no one there on that Saturday afternoon waiting as we read the sign, and meditated on these words and their implications. There was no one there to discuss with us why the sign was on the corner and not in front of the site that it marked. There were no tourists milling to have their pictures taken with this sign, with this history of New York. They were all down at Bowling Green bumping into each other in their attempts to have their pictures taken with the bull on Wall Street. Wall Street between Pearl and Water Streets has no room for a sign that points to a past that is the very present of the commodification of people and the greed that continues to denigrate human life so that the few can own the many. Wall Street real estate could not accommodate any reminders that that the money and greed are fractures in this society that run deep and points to disparities that are even evident in the signs.
I wanted to see a bigger sign with more marble and real estate than the sign they made for Harry Helmsley on Broadway (may he rest in peace). As is the way of selected memory, Harry is marbleized with words that no recollection of his charges on tax evasion or the allegations of accounting fraud that plagued his empire in his later life. His “richness of spirit and love for New York helped build this great city.” What of the hard labor that build this great city? What of the millions of dollars in slave labor upon which build this great city? There are no signs of gratitude on Broadway to witness to the men, women and children of African ancestry who built this great city. The signs say it all.
The signs are about the value of people and their worth in the eys of a nation. The empire of Harry Helmsley and his wealth, however amassed and attained are worth accolades. The poverty and exploitation of Africans in these Americas, is to be hidden. The hiding is no indication of guilt or remorse but is about the ways in which the lives of Africans, of slaves are not important then as now.
The signs are everywhere. The story of African peoples in New York is about visible and invisible signs. This history is about knowing where to look because the road signs and maps do not include the lives and history of these Ancestors who built not only New York City, but the United States of America. But why does finding that which is important to people of African descent have to take extra research and require extra effort to engage?
All 13 original colonies had slaves at various points. The north as a place of free states, places where slaves could free and achieve their freedom was a later status after the abolition of slavery. The United States Constitution itself speaks to this history and presence of slaves and their worth. The Three Fifths Compromise declared a slave to be three-fifths of a person. This too is probable the working work of signs and markers to the African Ancestors who built the United States and the wealth it amassed.
Walking northwest on Wall Street back toward Federal Hall, we decided we would go find the guard and tell him where the sign was located for any future visitors who wanted to know that Wall Street is not too far away from its past of selling people along with corn, grain and meal – commodities training of the 18th and 19th centuries. We passed the Deutsche Bank with guards standing outside. There was Tiffany and Company, as well as the Museum of American Finance. Across from the Tiffany Building was the Trump Building, just inside the second set of street barriers we had seen for the day. Of course, they all had good signage, it was hard to miss what they were on the outside, of course what these places represent is far more than any sign could hold.
As we stood on Broadway waiting to cross west into Trinity Church, a bus went by us, advertising Underground with #breakfree. Yes, that was appropriate and timely. It is time to break free from historic narratives that are half-truths and find truth for ourselves. Whether the history of Wall Street or that of other cities and countries, the African ancestors who were bought and sold into the Americas continue to speak. There are signs everywhere. They have much to say in thier presence and absences. Are we willing to listen?
Next: Mark Their Graves – a visit to the African Burial Ground Memorial