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A history of slavery and abolition

Review by Michele Showman | January 19, 2007 | Page 13

New York Divided: Slavery and the Civil War, 1815-1870, New York Historical Society, 77th Street and Central Park West, exhibit runs until September 2007. Visit www.nydivided.org.

NEW YORK Divided: Slavery and the Civil War is the second and final installment of the landmark "Slavery in New York" exhibit. The show, which runs until September 2007, is a thorough examination of the role of slavery in the U.S. economy on both sides of the Mason-Dixon line.

Thirty-eight cents of every dollar spent on cotton ended up in the accounts receivable of New York counting houses, the precursors of today's Citigroup and Brown Brothers Harriman.

The abolitionists of the 1840s worked hard to popularize their ideas in every literary form available: journalism, children's books, pamphlets secular and religious, broadsides set to music and novels such as Uncle Tom's Cabin. The wealth of writing attests to the vitality of the abolitionist movement: a piece of American history long overdue for sympathetic public review.

The exhibit gives a sharp look at the preconditions for the cotton trade: the inventions of mechanized weaving and cotton seed pod removal and the engineering enhancements to the packet ships which transported the cotton across the Atlantic, where they were woven in textile firms like the one managed by Frederick Engels in Manchester, England.

Once the technical equipment was ready, imperialism did the rest, cleansing modern-day Mississippi, Alabama and Florida of their American Indian inhabitants, and expropriating the grounds where they'd hunted for millennia. The planter oligarchy snatched up the lands for cotton and then marched nearly a million slaves into the labor vacuum, while the registers of the New York counting houses chimed again on the sales profits.

Here were born the dividing issues that American capitalism uses today to withering effect: setting working-class whites against Blacks, and women against men to undermine the healthy alliance between female suffrage and abolitionism.

The dependence of enslaved Blacks on emancipated family members suggests the division between the documented and undocumented in immigrant families today. We even see a sample care package sent by a freed African American woman in the North to her enslaved kin.

On the culture front, there emerged racist, black-face minstrelsy, as well as "Master Juba," a freed slave choreographer who fused the rigid, upright torso of Irish step dancing with the swooping movements of western African folk dance, a dress rehearsal for what would become tap and jazz dancing. The anti-abolitionist attacks of 1834 and the draft riots incited partly by a New York pro-slavery mayor are examined through contemporary journalism and imagery.

The exhibit is a lively and rigorous look at slavery's past. The price is $10, with free admission on Fridays between 6 and 8 p.m.

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