Occupy Wall Street Supporters Hope To Shed Light On Wall Street's Slave Past

Near the corner of Wall and Pearl streets, where businessmen and tourists plod below the towering office buildings and banks that loom over the East River, are the buried bones of one of the nation's most loathsome trades.

The American economy, a vast pool of unevenly distributed wealth, was built on the backs of enslaved Africans and hundreds of years of their forced labor. Few places benefited more directly from the awful business of slavery than Wall Street.

Tuesday marked the 300th anniversary of New York's first official slave market, which was established on Wall Street near Pearl and Water. But these days, little tangible evidence remains of Wall Street's slave-peddling past -- no plaques, no markers or statues, just grainy old maps in city archives and long-forgotten documents detailing who could be bought and sold.

But a small group of mostly white Occupy Wall Street protesters and a black city councilman from Brooklyn are working to change that.

"You almost cannot understand economics in America without understanding the role of slavery. Unfortunately, I think that's been missing from the equation," said Chris Cobb, an Occupy Wall Street protester who has organized a petition to urge the city to commemorate the site of Manhattan's first slave market and other nearby sites of historic significance.

On Tuesday, City Council member Jumaane Williams stood with Cobb and a group of protesters who braved the cold wind whipping off the river. This is the area of the city where thousands of African slaves were once brought in by ship, off-loaded and marched from New York harbor to Wall and Pearl streets, then sold.

Today, the area's most notable features include the 24-story Citibank tower, a Starbucks and a Verizon Wireless store. A few blocks away sits Tiffany's, a brand synonymous with wealth and luxury, the New York Stock Exchange and Federal Hall, the building where President George Washington took the oath of office. Federal Hall was built by slaves.

At the event on Tuesday, Williams gazed across Wall Street at the location of the old slave market and for a moment let it all soak in.

"America and the wealth that it has -- all would not exist without slaves. New York City wouldn't be what it is, Wall Street wouldn't be what it is, nothing would be what it is without the role of slaves," said Williams. "Yet we seem to downplay it and not try to address it or give it the respect that it deserves.

"When it comes to slavery and racism and people of color, for some reason it's okay to forget and push aside, and that's not right," he added. "To know that a people who look like me and created this place are lying under here, right where we stand, it's disturbing."

In 1989, just about a mile from the slave market site, the remains of more than 400 men, women and children were discovered during excavation for a new federal office building. A subsequent investigation revealed a 6.6-acre burial ground for free and enslaved 17th- and 18th-century blacks who lived in New York. Activists and members of the community had to fight for the city to acknowledge the find's significance. But the site was eventually marked with a $5-million memorial and designated a national monument.

Historians estimate that the bones of 15,000 to 20,000 free and enslaved Africans may be buried beneath lower Manhattan's foundations.

Williams said he plans to draw up legislation to have markers erected at some of the still-unrecognized historic sites in lower Manhattan, including the locations of the former slave market and of the 1712 slave revolt on nearby Maiden Lane.

During the revolt, more than 70 armed slaves set fire to a building and attacked the white settlers who arrived to extinguish it. Nine whites were killed. Twenty blacks were eventually hanged, and three burned at the stake.

The history connected to the slave market is essential to what the nation's economy has become, Williams said.

Between 1711, when the slave market was fully established, through the period just after the Civil War, the value of enslaved people was in excess of the cumulative value of all the railroads in the United States and seven times the net worth of all its banks, said Khalil Muhammad, director of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem.

"It is America's biggest conundrum. The American success story was founded on the ideology of freedom and liberty, but then there is slavery. And reconciling that conundrum that fueled the American success story is not something the nation has ever faced with any consistency or any courage," Muhammad said.

According to Christopher Moore, a historian and researcher with the Schomburg Center, Africans were first brought to Manhattan in 1625 as part of the work crew of the Dutch West Indies Company. They were essentially the city's first municipal labor force.

In 1709, the Common Council, that era's version of the city council, approved construction of a privately owned market where grain, meal and humans could be bought and sold.

The law read:

That all Negro and Indian slaves that are lett [sic] out to hire within the city do take up their Standing in Order to be hired at the Market house at the Wall Street Slip until Such time as they are hired, whereby all such persons shall require and also Masters discover when their slaves are so hired and all the inhabitants of this City are to also take notice hereof accordingly.

Two years later, the market at Wall and Pearl streets had been constructed and was known around town as The Meal Market, said Eric Robinson, a reference assistant at The New York Historical Society. An ad published in the May 13, 1751, edition of The New York Post-Boy, made clear the kind of brutal capitalism being practiced there: "To be sold on Friday the 17 ... A number of likely Negro slaves ... lately imported from Sloop Wolf (a ship), directly from Africa."

During that period, approximately one in five New Yorkers was black.

New York was a major hub for the slave trade in North America, Moore said. Slave auctions were held regularly throughout the city. Most of the slaves who were transported to New York were eventually redistributed to the Virginia or Carolina markets, Moore said. Often New York received shipments of African children under the age of 13. A slave's monetary value was typically based on their "temperament" and known skills. The market value of a human being imported directly from Africa was -- in business terms -- unproven.

"In a cruel way, an auction was seen as a great way for the seller to operate," said Robinson. "They didn't have to provide answers to detailed questions [about the slave] before a sale."

Today, the same principle is applied when surplus government property, foreclosed homes and other goods are auctioned.

The nature of urban slave work permitted slaves some discretion to move about the city to handle business on behalf of their owners, which freedom also meant that they made some decisions on their own behalf, not subject to their master's will. This created opportunities for slaves to barter, trade and express religious sensibilities, said Muhammad. It also created fear.

Colonial New York enacted some of the most draconian slave laws during the colonial period, which provided a model for limiting black lives across the country for centuries to come, Muhammad said.

"Those laws helped to ratchet up the punitive treatment of black people everywhere in the 13 colonies, as well as to shape the limited freedoms that black people experienced in the 18th and 19th century," he said.

On Tuesday, while Cobb and Williams stood among a circle of protesters recalling the sordid history of the old slave market, Lenessa Favorite stood at the harbor a few blocks away.

"I really had no idea what used to go on down here until somebody handed me a flyer about the slave market last year," said Favorite, who is 32 and black. "I shouldn't say I was surprised, but it's pretty incredible to think people were sold almost right here."

A year ago, when Favorite took the flyer back to work and left it on her desk, several of her white colleagues mentioned it when they stopped by, but few showed any interest. On the pier on Tuesday, Favorite was the only one of five people interviewed by The Huffington Post who knew anything about Wall Street's slave-trading past. The couple arguing about their sex life at the other end of the pier and the young professionals eating bag lunches all said they had never heard of The Meal Market or what went on there, even as they sat just yards from where slave ships once docked and unloaded human cargo.

Cobb, who is white, said he sees clear connections between Wall Street's role as an engine of the slave trade, the public's ignorance of that history and what he describes as corporate America's current exploitation of poor and middle-class workers.

As Occupy Wall Street protesters have been evicted form public spaces across the country, the movement has shifted from static occupations to sporadic actions. Those efforts include occupying vacant and foreclosed homes, as well as attempts to shut down ports and to call attention to the situation of workers inside such esteemed intuitions as the auction house Sotheby's.

"We were in the theory phase before the raid [on Zuccotti Park]. Now we are in the action phase, responding to the theory we were talking about," Cobb said.

Cobb sees the move to recognize and mark the slave market space as a natural next step in the effort to expose the evils of economic inequality.

"It's hard to talk about race with white people in general, because there are a lot of misunderstandings," said Cobb. "But I think there is a place where a conversation can begin, and that is with fairness. It's only fair that there be some recognition here."