It was the war between North and South, between slavery and freedom, between New York and ... itself. A new exhibit explores how slavery — while outlawed in New York state in 1827 — continued to be an incredibly divisive issue, pitting the economic powerhouse of New York City's connection to the cotton trade against the moral outrage of white and free black New Yorkers disgusted by the institution.
"New York Divided: Slavery and the Civil War" opens Friday at the New-York Historical Society and runs through Sept. 3. It follows an exhibit from last year that looked at how important slavery was to the building of the city and state until it was made illegal.
New York was integral to both sides of the slavery issue in the decades leading up to the Civil War, the exhibit's organizers say. Cotton from Southern slave-holding plantations was a massive American export, and New York business helped keep it that way — lending money to plantation owners, taking delivery of the raw material and shipping it to Europe. For every dollar made off cotton, New York City got 38 cents.
"This becomes so vital to white merchant New York that New York becomes loyal to the South," said Richard Rabinowitz, the show's curator. "The entire political structure and culture of New York is deeply pro-Southern, pro-slavery."
But New York City in the mid-1800s also was a center of the anti-slavery and abolitionist movements, where whites and blacks worked both separately and together to bring publicize slavery's immorality.
"The abolition movement drew its strength from grass roots community support and especially African-American community support. The African-American community in New York was particularly important," said James Oliver Horton, professor of American Studies and History at George Washington University, who consulted on the show.
It was that New York City free black community that was home to people such as James McCune Smith, the first black doctor in the United States, an ardent abolitionist who with his compatriots promoted the idea that all people were due equal rights.
The abolition movement was "really the first type of advocacy politics in American life," Rabinowitz said.
Focus on King Cotton
The show — using soundscapes and video re-enactments of essential scenes of the day — opens with visitors entering the first gallery under huge bales of cotton. The opening segments focus on King Cotton, using historical documents to show how important it was to the nation's economy and how important New York was to it.
Another segment looks at the impact that connection had on popular culture and daily life. Since New York was so pro-slavery, visiting Southern plantation owners found warm welcome in hotels and vacation spots. Newspaper editorials praised slavery and criticized slaves. Another part of the show focuses on the rise of minstrel shows and other stereotypical images of blacks, all of which were intended by whites to further demean blacks.
The abolition movement is the focus of another part of the show, with a room dedicated to Smith, as well as editorials from famed editor Horace Greeley.
The years leading up to and during the Civil War make up another section. Here visitors will see a draft wheel, used to conscript whites into the Union army. It was anger over the drafting of New York City white men into a war that many didn't support that touched off the 1863 Draft Riots, a few days of violent unrest that saw deaths, injuries and massive property damage.
No changes overnight
The final part of the exhibit looks at the years after the Civil War, and shows that the federal outlawing of slavery didn't change people's feelings overnight. One of the final items in the show is a resolution of the New York State Legislature, taking back the state's ratification of the 15th Amendment that granted black American men the right to vote.
Louise Mirrer, president of the Historical Society, said she hoped visitors would leave the show with a better understanding of the conflict between economic success and moral imperative that underscored the war, and how New York struggled to find a way to resolve it.
"You have the most visible signs, in one very small space, of two arguments — commerce and conscience," she said.
The show will not travel. An exhibit of contemporary artists examining the legacy of slavery, which opened in June, runs with "New York Divided" through Jan. 7.