The New-York Historical Society (N-YHS) will open “New York Divided: Slavery and the Civil War,” the final exhibition in its groundbreaking series on slavery and its impact on the people, landscape, institutions and economy of New York, on November 17. The exhibition runs through September 3.
“‘New York Divided’ provides a bold look at one of the most challenging periods in our city’s history, when it was torn by the violence of the 1863 draft riots, produced some of the most significant figures in the Abolitionist movement and became the economic engine of the country,” says Louise Mirrer, president and CEO of the New-York Historical Society. “The ideas and stories that are part of our American history have the power to challenge conventional wisdom and provoke new thought and action.”
The exhibition explores the dual role New York played as a key commercial and political bulwark of slavery in the South — following emancipation in the state — and as a major center of the nation’s abolitionist movement.
Through a range of original historic documents, objects and interactive displays, the show will examine one of the most important periods in American history, enhancing the visitor’s understanding of the great struggles of the time, and the crucial efforts of New Yorkers — black and white — in the fight for freedom and equality that bore fruit at the close of the Civil War and in the Thirteenth, Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments.
New York banks financed Southern cotton merchants. New York insurers protected them from loss. New York ships carried their goods. New York was on the route of many cotton shipments to Europe, if only to take the cargo off one ship and load it on another. Even shipments that bypassed New York were linked to the city’s merchants and bankers.
Shortly before the Civil War, one Southern editor gloated that New York would be nothing without slavery and the cotton trade. “The ships would rot at her docks; grass would grow in Wall Street and Broadway, and the glory of New York, like that of Babylon and Rome, would be numbered with the things of the past.”
This quote was repeated frequently, but it was not accurate. New York did not owe its wealth to cotton and would not have collapsed without it, as proved during the Civil War. But cotton did bring something critical to the city: a pro-Southern, pro-slavery attitude that seeped into its cultural, political and social life.
At the same time, it was the cradle of the abolition movement, with black and white abolitionists pushing for the end of slavery in America. The Civil War brought that conflict to a head within New York, where tensions between Democrat and Republican, black and white, rich and poor, immigrant and native were already high.
“New York Divided” is drawn principally from the New-York Historical Society’s rich collection and features precious and never before publicly displayed historical artifacts, American art, newspapers, pamphlets and other material documenting the history of the united States and New York, such as one of the only surviving lottery wheels that “started” the Draft Riots; newspapers, addresses and pamphlets of the Anti-Slavery Society; and photographs of the Colored Orphan Asylum.
The exhibition consists of five galleries and has three major themes: New York and the Cotton Trade, Abolitionists and the Fight for Freedom, and New York and the Civil War.
The visitor experience begins with the story of the early years of the American republic, underscoring that emancipation was expected everywhere, in the South as well as the North, by slaveholders like Washington and Jefferson as well as by northern republicans and merchants.
The New-York Historical Society is at 170 Central Park West. For more information, www.nyhistory.org or 212-873-3400.