The five boroughs of New York are filled with history as rich and diverse as the people who now call it home. While city officials have made little effort to preserve many of those diverse histories, their narratives can still be read in the brickwork and foundations of New York. The myth of progress as told by the glittering skyscrapers and manicured parks is challenged by the remnants of another story that peeks out from the edges.
If you look at the city from the right angle, you can find those remnants and uncover the story they’re trying to tell. One of those stories is the African American history of resistance, dating back to the 17th century. For visitors and residents alike, a tour of New York stopping at these seven sites will help you explore the dark realities of slavery in New York and the Black people who fought tirelessly and fearlessly to resist that reality and forge a new and better life for themselves and their descendants.
South Street Seaport District
While the exact date of the first arrival of abducted Africans to the New World is open to some debate, the systematic, racialized version of chattel slavery that would inflict unspeakable torture on more than 17 million people for over 400 years began in 1626 with the arrival of a Dutch West India Company ship carrying between 11 and 20+ (depending on your source) abducted Africans in what is now New York.
The South Street Seaport District, on the southeastern edge of Manhattan, is home to the oldest port in the city. To start your tour of New York’s history of Black resistance, you can stand on the shores of this historic district and imagine the looming slave ships that once heaved and creaked in the waters while docked here at this port.
While New York’s role in the slave trade was not to the scale of, say, Charleston, North Carolina, it held the largest slave market outside of the South, with as many as 42% of white households in New York owning slaves by 1730. Of the 17 million people abducted from Africa and forced into slavery around the world, approximately 7,200 would first set foot in the South Street Seaport District. At least 3,600 more would end up in New York, docking at this port, after first arriving in the Caribbean or South America.
After slavery was formally abolished in New York on July 4th, 1827, the city would become a dominant player in the illegal slave trade by financing slave plantations, outfitting slave ships, and trading goods produced by enslaved people.
The South Street Seaport Museum has preserved the 12-square-block area between Water Street and South Street in its historical form where possible. While Hurricane Sandy dealt substantial damage to the area in 2012, what remains of the historical architecture in combination with the museum’s exhibits will give you a sense of the old New York during the slavery period.
In order to learn about the Black history of the Seaport District, though, you’d need to reserve a spot on the museum’s “African Americans in Early New York City” walking tour—otherwise, the area provides little in the way of commemorating or memorializing the Black men, women, and children who first set foot here and who would ultimately build most of the major historic sites in the area including Trinity Church, Frances Tavern, and the wall for which Wall Street was named.
The Former Site of the Slave Market on Wall Street
On December 13th, 1711, between Pearl Street and Water Street, a slave market opened just a few blocks from the South Street Seaport. Slavery was already widespread in the city by the time this market was built but its purpose was to contain that existing trade.
The British who ruled the area by this time had implemented a series of increasingly strict slave codes which policed the daily lives of enslaved people, making any semblance of a normal life impossible. Among other restrictions, the slave codes meant the following activities were illegal for enslaved people:
- Gathering in groups larger than three.
- Leaving their owner’s property without a signed certificate granting permission.
- Trading or working with free Black people.
- Making noise in the street on Sunday.
- Going out after dark without a lantern.
- Holding funerals at night.
- Riding a horse “too fast.”
For violating any of these codes, the mildest punishment was whipping, but an enslaved person could be tortured or killed, according to the colonial officials’ discretion.
The New York slave codes also removed many pathways to freedom that existed under the Dutch, decreed that babies born to enslaved women were automatically enslaved for life, took away the right to own land from newly freed Black people, and levied large fees on slaveholders who granted freedom to enslaved people. Marriages among enslaved people were also rendered invalid in the eyes of the law and families were routinely split up as a means of control and punishment.
In spite of these existing restrictions, white New Yorkers still felt that enslaved people walked too freely in the city. By 1711, it was common practice for slave owners to send enslaved people out on the streets to look for work so that the owner could make extra money by taking the wages paid for these odd jobs. White citizens began to complain of the enslaved people walking the streets. The slave market was built so that this job-seeking activity could be contained to a single area.
Today, the area has been built over, but visitors will see a small plaque memorializing the site where the market once stood. The plaque is, perhaps not surprisingly, light on detail and fails to convey the brutality of the human trafficking that occurred on the site.
The Site of the 1712 Uprising on Maiden Lane
In the 18th century, New Yorkers prided themselves on the kindness and benevolence they showed to the people they enslaved. These New Yorkers who prided themselves on their kindness are the same New Yorkers who passed the harsh slave codes discussed earlier. There were the same New Yorkers who tore apart families, who maimed enslaved people for going outside without a lantern, who condemned newborn infants to a life of servitude just for being born to a woman that those same New Yorkers enslaved.
Thus, in spite of their “benevolence,” the enslaved people of New York would coordinate the first of many slave uprisings to come in 1712, just five months after the slave market was built and just a few blocks away from where the market stood.
On the night of April 6th, 1712, a group of about 20 enslaved and free Black people gathered together, armed with guns, hatchets, and whatever other weapons they could find. They set fire to a building on Maiden Lane, near Broadway. When white New Yorkers came to put out the fire, the group laid siege, killing at least nine and injuring about five or six.
When a militia was sent out to find those who coordinated the revolt the next morning, they arrested approximately 70 people, free and enslaved. Over half were ultimately acquitted or pardoned, but 25 were convicted.
Those who were convicted were executed brutally, publicly, and without the slightest hint of the “kindness” New Yorkers prided themselves on. Of those executed, 18 were hanged, four were burned alive, one was crushed by a wheel one was chained and left to starve to death, and a pregnant woman was kept alive until her baby was born, after which she too was executed.
Despite these barbaric executions and the even harsher slave codes that were implemented after the event, enslaved people in New York would continue to fight for their freedom, launching repeated revolts in the years after this uprising and escaping bondage to found free towns outside the city limits which became a refuge and beacon of hope for other enslaved people who risked their lives to escape slavery.
Today, no memorial exists to commemorate those who fought for their freedom here, but visitors can walk from the site of the initial fire on Maiden Lane up Broadway toward the African American Burial Ground, which was also home to a marshy pond known as Collect Pond where those who organized the 1712 uprising sought refuge after it was over.
The African American Burial Ground
A five- to six-acre cemetery near Collect Pond (which has since been filled) became the final resting place for an estimated 15,000 free and enslaved Black people between 1712 and 1794 who were barred from being buried in the city’s cemetery. Here in this cemetery, the timing and gathering size of funerals were limited by the slave codes, but the funeral rites were not. People were able to bury their loved ones according to the traditions of their own culture. As a result, those buried show evidence of a diverse range of cultural practices from throughout Africa.
After the cemetery closed in 1794, city officials developed the land with complete disregard for those buried beneath it. Eventually, the cemetery was forgotten until October 1991 when the U.S. government discovered human remains while surveying the area for construction of a federal building.
Initially, the government wanted to ignore the significance of the discovery and proceeded with the excavation and construction. However, Black New Yorkers wouldn’t tolerate this utter disregard for their ancestors. They launched protests, organized awareness-raising campaigns, and tirelessly fought the city’s plans to once again disrespect the dead buried here by building on top of their graves.
Amid these ongoing protests, the government finally halted construction in 1992 and turned the site over to a team of archaeologists and anthropologists lead by Michael Blakey from Howard University, a historically black college.
Blakey’s team analyzed the remains of the approximately 400 individuals that the government excavation team had exhumed and then reinterred them in seven burial mounds at the right edge of the memorial site. After research was completed, a monument was built on the area in 2006 to memorialize those buried here and a ceremony was held to mark the reburial of those ancestors that had been exhumed.
Visitors today can pay their respects to those 15,000 souls buried here by taking a moment for quiet reflection at the monument or by leaving flowers at the burial mounds. After leaving the burial ground, head back downtown toward South Ferry to catch a free ferry to Staten Island. This will drop you on the north end of Staten Island, from which you’ll either drive or take the bus down to the south end to reach Sandy Ground.
Sandy Ground, Staten Island
In 1828, slavery had just been formally abolished in New York a few months prior, but the newly freed Black New Yorkers still faced harsh restrictions on their rights and equally harsh discrimination by white New Yorkers who were less than thrilled with abolition.
To escape the cruel conditions of life in New York, a group of free Black people settled an area in Staten Island, where they would ply their trade as oyster harvesters in the rich oyster beds of what would soon be named Sandy Ground. The free Black people of Sandy Ground would flourish here on the southern shores of Staten Island, building a town complete with a church, a school, and a thriving, successful community.
That church, the American Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, would grow to become the hub of the community, hosting dances and barbecues, serving as the meeting place of abolitionists and revolutionaries, and eventually becoming an important stop on the Underground Railroad.
The current building that houses the church was built in 1897 about a block away from where the original building once stood. Visitors can still see the old church cemetery at the original site—which is where those escaping slavery in the South would have stayed when the church was operating as a stop on the Underground Railroad.
Today, many of the Black residents living here can trace their family tree back to these original Black settlers of 1828, making Sandy Ground the oldest continuously inhabited free Black town in America.
Visitors today can picnic at one of the ponds where oysters were once harvested, stop by the church which once counted Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglas among its congregation, walk over to the old church cemetery, and visit the Sandy Ground Historical Society where the history of the free Black town is preserved.
When you’re done exploring the town, head back to Manhattan and make your way to Harlem to see Hotel Theresa.
This 13-story hotel opened in 1913. From its opening, it was a whites-only hotel like many others during this segregationist era. That ended in 1937 when a Black businessman by the name of Love B. Woods bought the hotel and abolished its segregation policy.
After Woods opened the hotel to New Yorkers of all races, it became a center of Harlem’s social life, and the prestigious hotel was nicknamed the “Waldorf of Harlem.” During this period, Black New Yorkers from all walks off life, whether affluent businessmen or struggling musicians mingled in the bar and lived side by side in the rooms above.
Malcom X was counted among the regulars at Hotel Theresa and world leaders like Fidel Castro, Abdel Nasser, and Khrushchev would visit the hotel while in New York to attend sessions at the United Nations. Langston Hughes and Allen Ginsberg also visited.
This mingling of world leaders, revolutionaries, and artists made Hotel Theresa a pivotal meeting ground that helped spark civil rights movements and revolutionary groups like the March on Washington Movement and the Organization of Afro-American Unity.
When the hotel fell under new ownership in the 1960s, the exterior was preserved in its original form, but the building was turned into offices. Despite its official name changing to Theresa Towers, locals still call it Hotel Theresa and the original Hotel Theresa sign is still painted on the side of the building.
Today, visitors can admire the hotel’s original exterior before heading on to the Studio Museum a few steps further up the same street.
Studio Museum in Harlem
Opened in 1968, the Studio Museum was the first of its kind to showcase art created by local Black artists and Black artists from around the world. At the time (and to this day), Black artists struggled to have their work accepted by other galleries and museums in the city.
In addition to being the only gallery that celebrated Black artists, it became a creative gathering place where artists both new and established could come to paint, print, sculpt, record, and collaborate on art projects.
More than 50 years on, the Studio Museum has held on to that mission to champion and empower Black art. Visitors can admire the permanent collection along with a rotating collection of new work, and emerging artists of African or Afro-Latinx descent can still participate in their Artist-in-Residence program.