The Legacy of Enslavement in New York City

On October 20, 2021 our class, Slavery and Resistance, took a walking tour titled the NYC Slavery and Underground Railroad Tour. There were seven stops in total, such as Foley Square and the African Burial Ground. Before taking the class and tour, I personally didn’t know much about New York or its gruesome history of enslavement. I thought slavery was most common in the South, not in New York, let alone Manhattan. However, from the tour I walked away understanding that New York had extensive ties to the enslavement of African people.

As our tour approached the notorious execution site, Foley Square, we were greeted by the cast and crew of “Law and Order: SVU” filming in the center of the site next to a sculpture called “The Triumph of the Human Spirit.” The sculpture, created by Lorenzo Pace, depicts a slave ship and symbolizes the “freedom and endurance” of African people in the face of enslavement’s brutality during the Middle Passage and on land. Furthermore, the sculpture has come to also symbolize the brutal executions of enslaved Africans at that same site. However, without reading the sign and due to the abstractivity of the style, the art is hard to interpret. Nonetheless, it’s significance in being situated in New York City as the site of the brutality of race-based slavery.

Foley Square has a sordid history of slavery in New York City and the site of horrific executions of enslaved Africans in 1741. Known by many as “The Great Panic of 1741,” many enslaved and some white people were suspected to have set fires to 11 buildings in Manhattan, one including Fort George which was the main military center of the Northeast at the time. After the fires were extinguished and “investigations” closed, 30 enslaved people were burned at the stake and lynched in Foley Square.

Foley Square was the city’s center in the mid-eighteenth century and the site of public executions. What is currently overlooked is a circular plaque installed in 1800 that is embedded in the ground which thousands of people walk over on a daily basis, probably without even reading it. The writing on the landmark is small, and worn down by footprints. Within the plaque, there are several medallions, one of which depicts the brutal lynching of enslaved men and women; and another showing African people burning at stake due to their supposed involvement in The Great Panic of 1741. This shows how New York plays such a significant role in the enslavement and brutality towards people of African descent.

Another site that resonated with me was the African Burial Ground. The site shocked me because the site is located in the heart of NYC: Broadway. Between 1630-1795, an estimated 15,000 unidentified bones of free and enslaved Africans were buried. Half of the 15,000 bones are those of children under 12 years old. Instead of being buried in a cemetery, these people were disrespectfully buried in one giant, unmarked hole. The site was discovered in 1993, during the construction of a federal government building. Originally the construction crew was going to cover the bones up by disposing of them in a dumpster, or sending them to the Bronx Zoo—as if they were animal bones and not human re- mains. However, in 2006 it became a national monument under the National Park Service. The interactive features of the African Burial Ground were impactful. The immersive feature allows visitors to walk through the Ancestral Chamber that conjures feelings of “the door of no return.” There are waterfalls outside the doorway symbolizing the Atlantic Ocean and its connection to enslaved Africans, as they would not cross it again to return to their homeland. When my class and I stepped out of the tunnel, we arrived at the Circle of the Diaspora and the sunken, circular monument, the Libation Court. On the granite walls, the Circle of the Diaspora represents the removal of Africans from their homeland, and the multitude of faith practices and symbols that they relied on to survive enslavement. These symbols represented guardianship, endurance, religion, and life. A heart-shaped symbol of the word Sankofa on the side of the monument signifies “the importance of learning from the past to prepare for the future.”