Analysis: The Comedian and the Congresswoman

Rep.Yvette Clarke may have had her facts wrong, but New Yorkers still need to know more about the history of slavery in the city

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    NEWSLETTERS

    TK

    Rep.Yvette Clarke may have become the butt of some jokes because of the televised interview in which she claimed that slavery still existed in New York in 1898.

              It didn’t. But perhaps by calling attention to the time when slavery did exist here she was doing us a service. New Yorkers need to know more about their history and, although the congresswoman got the dates wrong, it’s important for us all to remember that slaves were once held in New York -- and they suffered at the hands of white settlers.
              
    The Dutch began the use of black slaves in New Netherland, as the colony was called, back in 1626, according to historian Douglas Harper. The Dutch who came to America sought to make money in the slave trade but they didn’t want jobs as agricultural laborers. So the Dutch West India Company imported slave labor from its holdings on the African coast. Early white settlers, by exploiting slave labor, were able to make farming attractive and profitable.
              
    In the interview on Comedy Central, Stephen Colbert asked Clarke, if she could go back in time to 1898, what would she say to Brooklynites. She replied:  “I would say to them, ‘Set me free.’” Colbert wanted to know what she wanted to be set free from. Clarke’s reply: “Slavery.”
               
    Clarke became the butt of jokes. A little knowledge may be a dangerous thing -- especially for a politician. Yet the important thing is that Clarke is well aware of her heritage and the black people who have preceded her. She must want future generations to know more about the struggle for freedom and what they endured.
                
    Asked by Colbert, who would be enslaving you in 1898 in New York, Clarke said: “The Dutch.” It is a fact that the Dutch did much enslaving in the 17th century in New York, as the historian Harper noted. In 1644 alone, it’s recorded, the Dutch bought 6,900 captives on the African Coast. The company imported slaves to New Netherland to clear forests, build roads and houses and public buildings.
                 
    By the time the British took over the colony in 1664, slaves were selling for 300 percent more than in the previous generation. The Dutch were shrewd slave traders and they had much to do with the development of slavery in New York. In 1756, according to Harper’s study, titled “Slavery in New York,” slaves made up about 25 percent of the population of Kings, Queens, Richmond, New York and Westchester counties.

    By the time of the American Revolution, there was strong anti-slavery sentiment among American leaders but they were too busy with the war to deal with the issue. After the war, the leaders split. The moderates favored gradual emancipation. The hard-liners led by Aaron Burr wanted an immediate end to slavery.
                  
    The slave trade, in the 18th century was a cornerstone of the New York economy. In one rebellion, Harper relates, 24 slaves, deciding that death was better than life in bondage, ambushed some white citizens in an orchard. Several were killed before the rebels fled but they were soon hunted down in the woods of northern Manhattan. Leaders of the rebellion committed suicide or surrendered. 
                    
    Twenty-seven slaves were put on trial. Twenty-one were convicted and put to death. Some were burned alive or racked and broken on the wheel. The English governor praised the judges for inventing “the most exemplary punishments that could be possibly thought of.”
                      
    The history of slavery, even in New York, is not pretty. And Clarke, although she got her facts wrong, probably had her heart in the right place. Pundits or comedians like Colbert don’t necessarily possess all the knowledge. Even a congresswoman, with scant knowledge, may help educate us about the darker moments of our history.