Every modern American school child is raised with an awareness of the dark underbelly of American history.
We know our nation was built on the backs of slaves and this truth is becoming more and more highlighted in public discourse, especially over the past few months. However, when one thinks of slavery in the colonies and early Americas, the image of a Southern plantation is generally what springs to mind. It is important to recognize that even liberal Northern cities like New York city have widespread slavery at their foundation. Many don’t realize how integral slavery was to the colonial economy as a whole, or that slaves built the actual wall after which Wall Street is named.
In 1625 the settlement of New Amsterdam was established by the Dutch West India Company. Among the first inhabitants were slaves from Congo and Angola who worked to clear the land, build the forts, trading posts, houses, churches and lay roads. In 1664 records show that a quarter of the inhabitants were slaves. That was around the time the settlement was conquered by the British and was renamed New York. By 1741, 40% of New Yorkers owned slaves and one in five households owned at least one slave. The slave labor was also utilized to build a 10 foot wall made from wooden planks, intended to keep out Indian invaders. This wall would later give New York City’s famous Wall Street its name.
Today, in the heart of the financial district of Wall Street you can find a large granite monument dedicated to the lost African Burial Ground. An estimated 15,000-20,000 slaves and free blacks were buried in the 17th and 18th centuries in the area of Duane, Chambers, Lafayette and Broadway. These are literal skeletons buried in New York’s proverbial closet and the majority of the graves remain buried under buildings and busy roads, forgotten by the passage of time.
Another striking monument to the city’s troubled past is found only two streets away from the current New York Stock exchange and it commemorates the slave market where men, women and children were bought and sold. The connection between Wall Street and the slave trade is not merely symbolic. The trade was essential to establishing American financial systems. New York received 40% of the cotton revenue earned through financial firms, insurance and shipping companies. In the famous slavery triangle i human labor was brought from Africa to the cotton, sugar, and tobacco plantations in the Americas, whose goods were sold to the Northern colonies and Europe. The profit was used to fund further expeditions to Africa to gather more humans to traffic into the slave trade. This growing economy didn’t exist in a bubble. Expanding plantations needed financial backing and investors. The US banks and financial institutions thrived.
American banks were happy to accept the growing capital of the plantation owners and enslaved people were counted as financial assets. JP Morgan Chase accepted slaves as collateral for loans. Its subsidiary banks in Louisiana ended up taking around 13,000 slaves as collateral and owning 1,250 slaves. The predecessor to Citibank located on Wall Street was founded by a Moses Taylor, a man deeply entrenched in the financing the illegal slave trade in the 19th century of smuggling Africans into Cuba. At his death he was one of the wealthiest men of his century with a fortune amassing what in today’s standards would be approximately 1.6 billion. Slave AuctionThe Wall Street slave market itself was one of the biggest slave markets in the country at one time. US banks also began selling “securities” as a form of insurance for lost slaves at sea to balance the risk and help expand the slave market. The banks also advanced credit to Southern plantation owners to allow them to purchase land and labor.
It is important to recognize that the slave trade in America wasn’t a regional problem. New York city cannot erase the slaves that lived within its borders and actually built the city. The Northern States can’t wash their hands of the past, and neither can our nation’s financial institutions. The American economy was built on the backs of slaves and our major banks profited and grew in this economy, benefitting from the symbiotic relationship with the Southern plantations. One thing is certain, the proximity of the New York Stock exchange to one of the nation’s largest historical slave markets on Wall Street is not a mere coincidence.