Whether under Dutch, British, or American control, New York’s early development was supported by slavery. The Municipal Slave Market on present-day Wall Street between Water and Pearl streets operated from 1711 to 1762, and over three centuries since it was founded this history is finally recognized on an official city plaque.
The marker at Wall Street and Water Street was dedicated on Saturday, June 27, by Mayor Bill de Blasio. It was initially conceived back in 2011 during the activism of Occupy Wall Street, when Brooklyn-based artist and writer Chris Cobb began to research the site. Reaching out to places like the African Burial Ground National Monument which coordinated tours of Lower Manhattan including sites lacking markers, and Christopher Moore, former director of research at the Schomburg Center for Black Culture, Cobb helped develop the background information and advocate for the marker.
“The slave market was known about, but people really did not know too much about it,” Cobb told Hyperallergic. One gap was a visual of the place. “When I was researching it, I also realized that there must be some image of it somewhere, but it took me several years of hunting to find the only documented eyewitness drawing of it,” he explained. That moment finally came at the New York Public Library, with a 1716 map by William Burgis where he’d drawn every building on Manhattan’s East River shore. When the five-foot wide map is reproduced, the slave market is usually tiny, and as the center point it often gets caught in a book’s spine.
“I made an appointment with the rare books division at the New York Public Library and they brought out the map, and I saw it immediately at the foot of Wall Street with Trinity Church in the background,” Cobb stated. “It was an amazing moment. There it was. The invisible suddenly became visible again. So I photographed it and in Photoshop removed the ship that obstructed the market. That clear view of the market, unobstructed, is what is on the marker.”
The marker is nestled between some slender trees in the canyon of skyscrapers on Wall Street, a street named for a wall that was partly built through slavery. The text alongside the Burgis map image, prepared by Moore of the Schomburg Center and the Parks Department and Landmarks Preservation Commission, states in part: “Slavery was introduced to Manhattan in 1626. By the mid-18th century approximately one in five people living in New York City was enslaved and almost half of Manhattan households included at least one slave.” It adds that although slavery was abolished by New York State in 1827, it wasn’t until 1841 that all enslaved people were freed due to enduring rights for non-resident slave owners.
At the dedication, Parks Commissioner Mitchell J. Silver stated: “Caring for our city means understanding its history — including its darkest periods.” Despite the numerous historic plaques in the city, with over 500 in New York City parks alone, much of this dark history goes overlooked. For example, just down the street from the new slave market marker are scars on the J. P. Morgan building from a 1920 bombing that killed 39, something only touched on in an informational plaque further down the street. The city’s history of slavery, which finally got major recognition with the unearthing of the African Burial Ground in 1990, remains significantly under recognized, such as the Second African Burial Ground which is without any sort of memorial beneath Sara D. Roosevelt Park.
“The market was the most significant to me because it was a metaphor for a lot of what is wrong with modernity in general, that linear narratives always favor the storyteller,” Cobb said.
The marker for the Wall Street Slave Market is located at Wall Street and Water Street in Lower Manhattan.