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Unmasking Wall Street: Tracing the Shadows of Slavery in New York City's Financial District

New York City is a bustling hub of commerce, culture, and ceaseless innovation, yet beneath its sparkling facade, it harbors a past that remains largely unseen and under-discussed: the city's deep entanglement with the slave trade.

Wall Street sign

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Let's transport you to the intersection of Pearl and Water Streets, circa 1711. Here, on what was then the city's waterfront, the first official slave market in New York City opened its doors, under a wooden structure with a roof and open sides. A marketplace for the buying, selling, and renting of human lives.

It's a common misconception that slavery was exclusive to the South, but let's shatter that illusion. Slave ownership in New York City was commonplace, with over 40% of households owning enslaved people by 1730. By the 1800s, the city held power in the slave trade comparable to Charleston, South Carolina.

New York City, as we know it, was shaped and constructed by slave labor. The roads you walk on, the land cleared uptown, the ships on the East River, the food that filled the tables of white families, and the buildings that mark the cityscape - all are a testament to their forced labor. The city thrived, collecting tax revenues, while these humans bore the brunt of the work that propelled the city's earliest successes, their contributions often forgotten and certainly uncompensated.

Evidence of the slave trade is embedded in the very fabric of the city, from the remnants of the Domino Sugar Factory in Williamsburg, Brooklyn - a plant that refined slave-harvested sugar cane - to the streets of the Financial District.

Remember that any responsible understanding of a city should include the whole story, not just the glittering highlights.

Discover more local history with our New York audio walking tours, and see which nearby New York City neighborhoods you want to learn more about next.


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