A new state commission will study the impacts of slavery on Black New Yorkers

Credit: Fibonacci Blue/Flickr

Some New Yorkers may not fully understand the impact of slavery in New York. The truth is, slavery has played a tremendous role in making New York a premiere economic and cultural hub of the world.

It is well-past time to reckon with that history. Last year, New York joined California as the only other state to pass a bill that establishes a commission to study the lingering impacts of slavery.

Over the next year, the reparations commissioners – who were appointed by the governor and the leaders of the state legislature – will examine the institution of slavery in New York and its legacy of discrimination against Black New Yorkers. The commission must then draft a report that includes remedies and recommendations to address these historic wrongs

That’s what reparations are: a way to make amends for slavery and the ongoing harm to Black New Yorkers. These harms go beyond dollars and cents. Today, Black communities face systemic racism in education, employment, health, housing, and over-representation in our criminal legal system. These present-day problems have their roots in slavery’s legacy.

The forced labor of enslaved Black people provided the economic foundation for New York’s economy. Wall Street was a thriving hub where slave traders bought and sold Black people.

After slavery was officially abolished, New York unlawfully continued to dominate the illegal international slave trade, trading enslaved people to the American South, Brazil, and Cuba for decades. New York-based beneficiaries of this illicit business, which powered the southern cotton and sugar industries, included insurance companies like Aetna, and New York Life as well as banks like JP Morgan Chase.

The forced labor of enslaved Black people didn’t just enrich Wall Street. It directly benefited the state of New York and its white citizens. Enslaved Africans constructed Fort Amsterdam and its successors along the Battery. They built the wall on Wall Street. And they constructed the roads, docks, and some of the foundational buildings, including the city hall, prominent churches, the city prison, and the city hospital. This infrastructure was essential for the functioning of New York, but slavery deprived generations of Black New Yorkers of the fruit of their ancestors' labor.

Some might think of New York as a “free” state, where slavery wasn’t allowed. But in 1730, 42 percent of New Yorkers owned enslaved people, a higher percentage than in any other city in the country except Charleston, South Carolina. New York wasn’t home to plantations, but enslaved people did virtually all of the domestic work such as chopping firewood, hauling in the water, and providing essential services to craftsmen and manufacturers.

This shameful history has concrete consequences today. White New Yorkers have 15 times more wealth than Black New Yorkers. This gap has its roots in slavery’s brutal history and in the stark policies and laws designed by those in power to stifle, segregate, and oppress Black New Yorkers afterwards.

That’s what reparations are: a way to make amends for slavery and the ongoing harm to Black New Yorkers.

The enormous wealth gap between Black and white New Yorkers, for instance, can be explained in significant part by massive disparities in access to home ownership. Owning a home is a major driver of wealth for middle class New Yorkers, as many people pass on their homes – and the accumulated wealth they represent -- to their children.

But a centuries-old web of policies and practices has made it far more difficult for Black New Yorkers to own a home. In some cases, laws even outright forbid Black home ownership. This history includes the destruction of the thriving Black community known as Seneca Village and the decades of redlining, exclusionary zoning, and blatant racial restrictions.  

Indeed, our modern highway system was built to run straight through the middle of dozens of once thriving working and middle class Black communities in dozens of cities across the country including Syracuse, Rochester, Buffalo and, of course, New York City. As a result, Black New Yorkers have been displaced, blocked out of neighborhoods, and denied home ownership, and the potential for intergenerational wealth that comes with it.

Slavery also laid the foundation for the excessive incarceration of Black people, particularly Black men. The Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments of the U.S. Constitution – at least in theory – ended slavery, granted equal citizenship, and bestowed voting rights to formerly enslaved Black men, respectively. But in 1865, laws targeting Black New Yorkers, and only Black New Yorkers, began to surge.

These Jim Crow laws included criminal codes to punish offenses white politicians believed freedmen could easily be charged with, including bigamy, vagrancy, and petty theft. Lawmakers designed the codes to prevent Black people’s freedom of movement and their ability to vote.

The Nixon Era “war on drugs” that spawned decades of mass incarceration was expressly designed to incarcerate

Black people and destabilize Black communities. Black New Yorkers are still disproportionately arrested, prosecuted, and incarcerated by the criminal system today. In the ten most populous counties in our state, where about 70 percent of New Yorkers reside, Black people were more than 13 times more likely to be convicted for felony drug offenses than their white counterparts. In New York City, for years before the legalization of cannabis, over 90 percent of people arrested for possession were Black, and almost all of those were Black men.

This is true even though studies show white people and people of color use drugs at similar rates.

Criminal convictions create a cycle of harmful side effects, with consequences for individuals and their families that last a lifetime. They make it harder for people to qualify for educational loans, obtain jobs, and get professional licenses, which stifles their ability to make a living and only increases the wealth gap. And they can also mean family disruption – children losing parents and siblings – land destabilization, loss of housing and the economic and psycho-social trauma that goes with it.

Finally, conditions inside our state’s prisons and jails can be directly tied to a critical carveout from the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The text of the 13th Amendment outlaws slavery, except as a punishment for crime. New York officials have used that exception to effectively force incarcerated people to work for extremely low wages. The NYCLU and others are fighting to end this coerced labor in New York’s jails and prisons.

Addressing the many harms slavery caused is no simple task. But we are strongest when all our communities have the resources they need to thrive. We are hopeful the commission will put us on a path towards understanding the legacy of slavery and building a shared appreciation across all communities of both the need for and the righteousness of reparations. This is critical for building a more equitable and stronger New York.