In amongst the crass and glitzy tours offered in New York we found a gem, the New York City Slavery and Underground Railroad Tour, an initiative of two young women started only 2 years ago.
We met Stacey, our guide, ironically, on the steps of the old US Customs House (still not sure about Americans and irony). A grandiose imposing building built entirely on the profit made on every trade item, including the slaves, who had come through the port of New York.
It is now the National Museum of the American Indian – how’s that for irony?
From there we learnt that this harbour was originally settled by the Dutch as New Amsterdam. They built a wall across the tip of island now known as Manhattan to protect them from marauders and housed their eleven semi free slaves the other side as a buffer. This became known as Wall St. Right down the centre of the island was the trail used by the Lenape people. This they widened to handle the wagons trains and it became known as Broadway.
The British took the port over some years later renaming it New York. They also raised the bar of cruelty and inhumanity as they fostered the growing slave trade, a triangle of goods, slaves and produce between Europe, Africa and The Americas. More slaves were taken into Brazil than any other country. Some economists theorise that the profits made from free slave labour actually financed the industrial revolution.
Stacey walked us to sites and sometimes still-standing structures, homes and non-slave owned businesses of those who had risked life and limb and the lives those they loved to support the abolition movement. Who provided safe haven, known as stations, for the passengers on the underground railroad fleeing the horrors of the southern plantations. Women and men alike hiding 300 here, 1000 there in small groups or just one at a time. Profoundly moving stories, lives too short, too hard, yet dignified with a courage of which we were humbled to be reminded.
Our long walk culminated on the site of an area deemed outside all consecrated ground where an estimated 15,000 bodies of the slave population were buried. Recorded clearly as the ‘Negro Burial Ground’ on old maps it was information chosen to be ignored as over the following years the need for expansion saw buildings constructed and reconstructed on the earth above. Then in 1992 during excavations for new, deeper foundations bones began to appear. Few questions were asked and the digging continued. But word was out and finally reached the ear of a young man, a descendant of one of the original eleven Dutch slaves and a Lenape tribe member, who just happened to be a Fox TV presenter!!! At last the protest had a voice and the digging was halted.
419 bodies were removed with DNA testing showing genes from cultures and countries and beliefs from all over the world. A powerful re-internment ceremony was held. Under the care of National parks the Museum was set up and the most incredibly thoughtful monument we have ever known was created.
Straight sharp masculine planes of black marble were erected with moats on either side to represent the door in the forts in Africa through which a slave would board the ship transport. Known as ‘the door of no return’ where once through you would either be assessed as being fit for trade or killed off. This structure opened into a soft spiral feminine circle where etched into the walls was, not the flag or the national emblem, but the spiritual symbol of the people whose bodies had been laid here to rest. In the very centre was a particular circle where you could place your feet and when you spoke your voice would resonate back with all the depth of a cathedral, giving it the sense of a ritual with the power to be heard.
Need I say how touched we were by the experience.
Thanks to Stacey and her venture for the rawness of our encounter with the past… May we always stand for the right of every human heart for a life beyond the shackles of bigotry and arrogant righteousness.