Underground Railroad: On a New York Underground Railroad Tour, Lessons in Resistance
At the intersection of Water and Wall Streets, we come to the place where one of the biggest markets in the world once stood — New York City’s first slave market. Standing beside a plaque memorializing the spot, we get a brief (and as child-friendly as possible) history of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, from the late 16th century to the early 19th century. We hear more about the triangular trading system that carried enslaved people, manufactured goods and cash crops between West Africa, the Caribbean, America, Europe and the British colonies, learning how the enslavement of African people was part of the world’s economy.
In an attempt to make a life-to-text connection, I whisper to my daughter that she read about this in Ta-Nehisi Coates’s “Between the World and Me.” Radio silence and eyeroll — which mean I’m getting through to her. Throughout the tour, Sean counters the brutality and inhumanity of enslavement with information about the constant uprisings and opposition. Because this is a tour company that also provides educational tours to school groups, Sean’s clarity engages my son, who by this point is walking beside him.
We move on to 5 Broad Street where we stand in front of the former location of Downing’s Oyster House, where Thomas Downing, the son of freed slaves, catered to aristocracy in his lush restaurant, while his son, George, helped hide runaway slaves en route north in the basement.
Bounty hunters, or “blackbirders,” as we learned they were called, roamed Manhattan in search of escapees. Even though slavery was abolished in New York in 1827, not all black folks living in New York were free. And the Fugitive Slave Act didn’t help!
Then Sean lets us know that while Alexander Hamilton was a man of manumissions who had a complicated history with slavery, the family of his wife, Eliza, were slaveholders. The disappointment in Eliza is clear on the faces of both children. In “Hamilton,” she is beloved, a hero. But on the tour, by my children, not so much anymore.
There is something else going on. I watch my children beginning to understand the complexity of the city they’ve always known and loved deeply. They are coming to know that the history of their New York speaks to an even deeper history of their country, and to the fact that only a few subway stops away from our Brooklyn home, we can walk the same streets our ancestors walked — freely.
From the slave revolts of 1712 and 1741 to the notorious “Bonfires of the Negroes” (where enslaved people, rumored to be planning an uprising, were publicly burned) at Foley Square to David Ruggles’s rescue of Frederick Douglass to the Draft Riots of 1863, this tour was nothing short of amazing.
So amazing, that a few days later I tried to track Sean down to thank him. My message landed in the hands of the owner of Inside Out Tours, Stacey Toussaint, a young mom, a graduate of Packer Collegiate Institute and of Columbia Law, the daughter of Haitian immigrants.
Ms. Toussaint began the company with her friend, Sheila Collins. The plan was to give socially responsible and thoughtful tours of this great and complicated city. Her wealth of knowledge, her cleareyed approach, her stories and passion and honest commitment to African-American history reminded me of some of my best teachers in high school — the ones who made me laugh while learning, the ones who made me hungry for more. I saw this in the faces of my children. As Sean told the story of Ellen Craft, a light-skinned enslaved woman who escaped with her husband, William Craft, into freedom by passing as a white man and posing as his master, I saw my daughter smile — a smile that spoke to the pride of coming to this moment through a history of resistance.
“Sankofa” is a Twi word from the Akan tribe in Ghana. The translation is “go back and take what is at risk of being left behind.” As my partner and I endeavor to raise thoughtful and engaged children, we know a deep knowledge of this country’s past will help them not only survive this moment but realize a future beyond it. The history of New York’s Underground Railroad — the financial and physical ramifications of enslavement here, the streets we walk on every day and the bodies that built them — is a narrative we all need to know as we move toward this country’s future. When I asked my children what they thought of the tour, both said, “It was good.” Which is teen and ’tween for, “It was really good.”
As a person of color, as a woman, as a body moving through this particular space in time, I realize the streets of New York tell the story of resistance, an African-American history of brilliance and beauty, that even in its most brutal moments, did not, could not, kill our resilient and powerful spirit.
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