1) Culpable Amnesia
The New York streets that we ingratiatingly walk through everyday hold thousands of unknown anecdotes. Here and there names or monuments appear giving us clues that help shed some light on certain parts of history. These choices of historical figures and dates obviously hold nothing innocent. Similar to what we do with our own conscience, the societies that we live in try to uphold those memories that do not involve our past wrongdoings. This idea is symbolized by the fact that, for example, a country like France can feel totally comfortable commemorating the French victims of World War II (totally normal) but remain silent when it’s time to discuss the French colonial massacre of the Bamiléké people of Cameroon which took place a few decades later on March 2nd 1960.
Our history books are for the most part incomplete — the goal being to get rid of the inconvenient memories by letting those memories die with their last survivors. Often, this plan works and societies lose large segments of our history. Who profits from this crime? The answer is unequivocal. Those who write the history profit from the crimes. But who writes the history ? The majority of the population being without access to the book or the pen, it is undoubtedly the ruling classes who ultimately decide what is important to keep in the common registers and what deserves to be discarded in the wastebasket of history.
Nonetheless, due to their controversial nature and the way that they often erupt into our present, certain facts of the past arise to destabilize the mechanism that the ruling class has put into place. Suddenly the ruling class must asks itself the question – what should they do with inconvenient facts that force them to see the imperfections in the mirror that they normally refuse to examine? This same question that was posed to the U.S. federal government in 1991.
2) Lower Manhattan : When the spirits of the deceased slaves resurrect in the present
The federal administration acquired land in Lower Manhattan in 1990 to develop into federal buildings, and the investigation site revealed the remains of 419 slaves and free black people, who had been laid to rest underground in a former black cemetery. While some feigned surprise at this discovery, the reality was that the existence of this cemetery was only half a surprise. Several old maps of New York pointed out the existence of a black cemetery in this particular section of lower Manhattan. But the Historic Conservation and Interpretation (HCI), the organization in charge of the site investigation of the federal land, had assumed that the slave cemetery was no longer there as a result of time and ongoing construction that had taken place in that area during the 19th and 20th Centuries. The problem was their assumption was wrong and the federal administration felt embarrassed in front of all of these slaves’ remains which appeared and highlighted one of the worst periods of our inhumanity.
The stance adopted the federal government adopted in the face of this sensitive question was to send the human remains to Lehman College, a place where they would be kept safe and studied. Clearly suspending the construction was not an option that was once considered. This attitude triggered a strong reaction from the black community of New York, first because the federal government did not inform them about this discovery of their ancestral remains, and second because the desire to remove the bones to continue construction was the ultimate symbol of disrespect to the deceased slaves who were now experiencing the disruption of their supposed eternal rest.
The resentment of the black community was further enhanced by the fact that the bones were often wrapped in newspapers and transported from the sacred site to Lehman College in rudimentary boxes.
Overwrought by the disrespect shown to their ancestors, some black associations decided in the beginning of 1992 to protest by blocking access to the construction site; such behavior heightened the contradictions. The atmosphere became untenable, a fact that pushed the House of Representatives to hold a hearing on the very topic. During the hearing, questions on the ownership of the land and the rights attached to it were discussed. It appeared that if the federal administration was the owner of the land it had absolutely no rights to move or remove the bones. Finally the decision to stop the construction was made. “In October 1992 former President Bush signed Public Law 102-393 which ordered GSA to cease construction of the planned pavilion and instead that a memorial museum museum be built. (https://www.ocf.berkeley.edu/~arihuang/academic/abg/controversy/controversy.html)
Regarding the human remains, the study was transferred from Lehman College in New York to specialists at the Historically Black College of Howard University in Washington, D.C. When Howard University completed its study in 2003, members of the black community organized a funeral to rebury the bones.
In 2010, a cultural center opened one block away from the African Burial Ground Memorial sealing the victory of the black community to make their voices heard and their ancestors respected. Rarely mentioned in the tourist books, the African Burial Ground Memorial is an important site for people who are interested in a global understanding of New York’s history. If the South naturally comes to mind when we approach the slavery question, the North, and more specifically New York, have a word or two to say.
3) New York: An overlooked slave past
In 1703, 42% of New York households owned slaves — only Charleston, South Carolina was doing better in this sinister competition. Slaves had been present in Manhattan since the beginning of the 16th century because of the Dutch colonization. It is really interesting to learn, for example, that the street name Wall Street comes from a wall built by slaves that were owned by the Dutch to ensure their protection against the attacks of the English and Indigenous populations. When the English took control of Manhattan, they established a slave market at the crossroads of what became Wall Street and Pearl Street and easily rivaled the slaves market that were present in the South.
Numerous old writings mention the slave cemetery at the southern tip of Manhattan where more than 20,000 souls rested. The cemetery was hidden and destroyed by the different construction projects that were completed during the two last centuries. But if New York benefited from the slave labor within its own territory, its bourgeoisie also benefited from the slave labor in the South and in the Caribbean that helped the city to become a strong financial center – a status that remains unchanged today. Plenty of great fortunes still present on the front of the stage today took advantage of slavery to accumulate large amounts of money that continues to grow, such as Brown Brothers and Harriman (BBH), the oldest and most important private investment bank in the U.S.
Founded in 1818, its founders, slave owners themselves, started to build their fortune by making loans to the Southern plantation owners while their brokers speculated on the evolution of cotton prices. New York bankers, shipping merchants, and brokers were among the professions that were intimately linked to the triangular slave trade. At that time, only banks located in New York and London were able to provide the cash that was needed by the plantation owners to plant crops, harvest crops and acquire slaves. Most of the time the slaves were financed by loans, loans wherein the slaves themselves were to be used as collateral. It was not rare that banks became slave owners due borrowers defaulting on their loans. It happened, for example, to J.P. Morgan Chase (which had a different name at that time) which after a default suddenly found itself owning 1,250 slaves in 1865.
In response to a class action law suit initiated against J.P. Morgan in 2002 that was ultimately dismissed, J.P. Morgan tried to clean its name by apologizing and allocating a scholarship of $5 million dollars to black students in Louisiana in 2005. But what are these excuses really worth? Apologizing in the present when everyone now condemns what you did in the past might be necessary, but the question of the apology’s sincerity remains pending. Between laws and morals there is this no man’s land that the banks like to navigate. While J.P. Morgan apologized in 2005, it was unfortunately unsurprising to see the bank was heavily involved in the subprime mortgage crisis which reminds us that the main objective of banking activity remains opportunism.
By helping to create vast fortunes in the North, slavery allowed the capitalists in this part of the country to prepare for the industrial turn. The industrial turn was one that the South could not resist and that would propel the U.S. into becoming the country sheltering the largest industry in the world. This fact reinforces the myth of a country offering opportunities to the ones having the audacity and a hard work ethic. Yet this myth fails to mention that the prerequisite of wealth accumulation to industrial development found its source in the inhumane forced labor that was imposed on the African Slaves and the massacre of the indigenous populations.
On top of their near extermination, a partner of misfortune in this destructive odyssey is the fact that the indigenous populations still struggled to rid themselves of a name (Indians) that is the legacy of a navigational error. The indigenous population, which is consistently denied access to the mass media and others opinion makers, weighs very little in a country where Christopher Columbus is celebrated by a banking holiday in his honor. Silence is not always an oversight, silence is often culpable amnesia.