The discovery of the African Burial Ground is being called the most historically important urban archeological find in U.S. history, not only because of its unexpected size but in the way it has influenced people to educate themselves about the long-neglected history of people of African descent in New York City. According to one historian, this information gap is no accident, “It is not only forgotten but purposefully ignored in keeping with the fiction that slavery existed only in the South.” The amnesia also extends to the history of our own neighborhood. Thomas Janvier, author of the 19th century classic, In Old New York, makes a single reference to black people in his chapter on Greenwich Village. Het does not mention, or perhaps didn’t know, that African slaves were its original occupants, living in a farming community along the Minetta Waters, where they grew produce for the colonists of New Amsterdam. “Old New York” can’t get much older than that.
The good news is that people are beginning to put the full story together at last, introducing us to a number of African Americans, unknown or long-forgotten, who once lived here and did astonishing things that changed the course of history. One of the historians who have recently broken new ground in previously uncharted territory is Graham Russell Gao Hodges, author of David Ruggles: A Radical Abolitionist and the Underground Railroad in New York City.
The Slave-Catchers’ Hunting Ground
Most people are not aware that for two hundred years the slave trade was a mainstay of New York City’s economy, or that it continued to be a highly profitable business even after the state abolished slavery in 1827. Although the slave market at the end of Wall Street was demolished, the outfitting of ships for the slave trade continued in secret on nearby piers. Under federal law, slave-catching also continued. People in slave-holding states paid as much as the equivalent of three years’ wages for the capture of one healthy young runaway. Nor did anyone involved in the practice need to worry about local illegalities as fugitives were not “persons” but “errant property” and therefore had no right to a trial by jury. Manhattan’s 14,000 newly emancipated black citizens were also at risk. They could be kidnapped in the morning, identified as runaways before a complicit judge in the afternoon and shipped South that evening, before anyone even knew they were missing. When kidnapping soared along with slave prices in the South, no amount of abolitionists’ moral outrage could stop it. There was just too much money to be made.
Into this dangerous situation arrived David Ruggles, a young mariner-turned-journalist and free-born black from Connecticut, and he immediately plunged into the abolitionist movement. He brought to it some valuable assets. One was his close ties to antislavery communities upstate and in New England. Another was his acquaintance with free black sailors in the South, which was particularly useful as many fugitives arrived in New York by boat and were sent north up the Hudson or on coastal waterways. Ruggles’ contacts helped develop a vast East Coast network that connected Underground Railroad stations from the deep South to Canada.
Ruggles also forged a new direction for the movement, which he called “practical abolition.” It was clear to him that protesting the immorality of slavery did little to protect the people who needed it most – ugitives and free blacks – and to provide that defense he formed the Committee of Vigilance, the first group to openly practice civil disobedience and defy property laws. He brazenly published the names and descriptions of slave-catchers, kidnappers and the blacks who worked for them as well as corrupt constables and judges. He boarded clandestine slave ships and personally arrested their captains. He turned his abolitionist bookstore and reading room on Lispenard Street into a major Manhattan depot, giving refuge during the 1830s to as many as 600 fugitive slaves before sending them on their way with some cash and a letter of introduction to the conductor at the next station.
“A Whole-Souled Man”
One of these refugees was Frederick Douglass, 20 years old and newly escaped from Maryland. He had been taught to read by a slave master’s wife, but according to his autobiography, “Learning how to read had become a curse rather than a blessing. It had given me a view of my wretched condition without the remedy.” The literature in Ruggles’ reading room provided Douglass with that desperately needed remedy, as did conversations late into the night with his new mentor, whom he called “a whole-souled man. Though watched and hemmed in on every side, he is more than a match for his enemies.” Having absorbed this crash course in the antislavery movement, Douglass envisioned a new future: instead of going to Canada he took Ruggles’ advice and joined the movement in New Bedford, Massachusetts, an abolitionist stronghold, and the rest is history.
Biographer Hodges describes Ruggles’ contribution to that history as “crystallizing a movement that would eventually shake the nation – direct action to aid fugitive slaves and battle kidnappers, the movement known as the Underground Railroad.” Yet to be revealed are the contributions that were undoubtedly made by the large African American community in Greenwich Village. Meanwhile, it’s gratifying to learn that the nonviolent civil disobedience of the Civil Rights Movement began on the streets of Manhattan, as perilous then as the latter-day streets of Montgomery or Selma. Gratifying to know it was part of the trajectory of that history, the long arc of which, in the words of Martin Luther King, “bends toward justice.”