Remembering the slaves who built Wall Street: A summer ‘azkore’ on Tisha B’av
Unlike for the rest of the world, summer is when Jews mourn — the destruction of our last ancient Temple, our subsequent diaspora, and our most recent devastating near-ruin.
It is also the season when African Americans commemorate the Juneteenth anniversary of their freedom on these shores — and slavery’s catastrophic legacy.
There’s a place in this city where these two narratives collide.
Once upon a time, in November 1923, Forverts founding editor Ab Cahan returned from a working tour of Europe with nothing less than a photographic replica of Jewish enslavement for his readership. He gifted the Forverts Art Department with a print of the Arch of Titus.
And so it came to pass, according to Forverts lore, that the first acquired artwork consequently published in our paper drew keen Jewish eyes to it in fascination and sorrow. But it was also a declaration of our people’s pluck and determination.
The image would have to suffice, for until the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, local Roman rabbinate law forbade Jews from so much as strolling beneath the real non-print version in Rome.
The Roman arch depicts the gutting of Jerusalem in 70 CE, the enslavement of the Jews, and our drift into exile. New York City’s Wall Street, where in the 1700’s, a thriving slave market existed, seems blank and voiceless in comparison.
Welcome to the Financial District of Nay York, where we are currently still publishing. Our Forward offices, currently located on Maiden Lane, are on the unmarked street site of the first recorded slave uprising in New York City in 1712. A mere couple of blocks away, where Maiden meets Broadway, a building was burnt to the ground. Here, memory mostly carves out space in the shape of historic buildings from our colonial days, sometimes even paired up neatly with matching cobblestone streets. So it shouldn’t have been such an iberashung, such a jolt, to find the cost of freedom on this June 19th was as nearby, as the ground literally beneath us.
The early revolt didn’t manage to undermine the slave trade, and New York eventually became the second largest slave trade capital. The street captivating the hearts of capitalists the world over — Wall Street — was built by the labor of enslaved Africans — to protect the Dutch settlers.
Good ol’ Pier 17, onto which busloads of international tourists pour out in a daily ritual, was once the arrival site of African slaves. In fact climbing off your tour bus you’ll step onto the asphalt now covering landfill also built by slaves. You are now touring the site of America’s worst unacknowledged historical crime.
There’s no plaque commemorating that, or the uprising, nor at other spots built with slave labor all the way up to Trinity Church, one of the few sites down here to offer visitors this piece of history as part of the cost of its freedom.
There is yet to be federally recognized recompense or commemoration. New York City, home to all us immigrants and refugees, landed gentry, white shoe lawyers, JP Morgans, robber barons, US Steel magnates, proud landed Pilgrims, washed-ashores, halal and bhan mi food truck chefs and all manner of artful grifters – at one time also dominated the international slave trade.
So nu, tayere turistn, ambling around down here, selfie-shtekn in hand, and those of us worker-types, sitting in any ol’ office here blocks away from where General G. Washington first found shelter in the city, before there were ever any Air B n B’s: Know the cost of freedom is literally buried in the ground.
And maybe next year, come join us on Juneteenth, the day of commemoration and celebration of the end of slavery in America, for an azkore, a memorial, followed by a reflective celebratory nosh.
Or just walk on past Pier 17, further down the road to Water and Wall Streets, where finally, finally, finally there is a marker commemorating New York City’s slave market.
Reading the twee official city signage, small as the font is, discreetly placed at the corner, one cannot help but be catapulted back to the resonances of the O’Jays piece depicting the hold of a slave ship on their album “Ship Ahoy.”
The sound of the creaking wood on the water, the sound of the bitter winds above those of the intonation: Ship Ahoy, Ship Ahoy, Ship Ahoy. The sound of the whip cracking overhead like the snapping of crisp US dollar bills that cannot yet carry the likeness of heroic slave liberator Harriet Tubman.
The Forverts did not hesitate or debate about sharing a term they knew encompassed a shiftless, hateful, prejudiced mob. An immigrant’s newspaper, written in what some called a Jewish ebonic dzhargon, in the days of lynching in America, the Forverts termed this heinous act a pogrom.
Tayere turistn, If you’ve enjoyed bagels, pierogi and more, if you’ve let yourself shape shift to all the ways the city jazzes, then you’ve also likely absorbed the sound of the whip cracking over somebody’s head in flight. Though not shipped here as slaves, so many of us arrived here with imprints of dreaded legends of the past and the sound of whips overhead.
It is New York City we’re talking about, but it could be beautiful Latvian Riga I’m walking around, looking for the site of my late mother-in-law’s enslavement in Kaiserwald Concentration Camp. And it’s the ol’ local man we ask for directions to —yes — Kaiserwald Concentration Camp, when he stops for a moment to lay his packages down, and points straight down to the ground. It was here. Right here.
Find the cost of freedom buried in the ground. So we do know what it’s like to have no memorials, no decent site to light a candle to bear witness as the city, any city, continues to rush around you while you’re having your devastating moment of that time your destruction was sought.
On June 19th of this year, we did hereby acknowledge the pain and pogrom visited upon our African American brider un shvester un kinderlekh, the men women and babies taken into bondage, and we committed to recall their unholy slavery here in this land, here in this city, here in this neighborhood. Here at this very site.
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Today is Juneteenth — the holiday that recalls and celebrates freedom from chattel slavery. June 19, 1865, was the day that the final enslaved African Americans were freed. “No one had bothered to tell the slaves,” Tamar Manasseh writes for the Forward opinion section. The freeing of these slaves, in the state of Texas, came 2.5 years after the Emancipation Proclamation, which had not been enforced under the Confederacy. Not only were the final victims enslaved, they were enslaved in a country where slavery had become illegal… . The Forward staff gathered today just yards away from our office, where the first slave market in New York once stood, to say the Mourner’s Kaddish. The area where human beings were bought and sold is commemorated by an unremarkable sign, which was erected in 2015. The United States has no national memorial in honor of the victims of American slavery… . #juneteenth #blacklivesmatter #jewsofcolor
It’s New York City and it’s Water and Wall with their riverbanks, those muses, the waters that hold unmarked graves for those whose died in torturous dank ship holds during the Middle Passage. Even the Statue of Liberty’s in view here, where the ungodly slave market was held.
Come down here, tayere turistn, to say kaddish and to lay red roses down before the puny, the smallest, the only sign commemorating the New York City slave market at Water and Wall. And watch over them for a moment while the water of the East River beats at the edges of the city as it continues to make capital gains.
The rain came down the day after Juneteenth this year and the day after that too. And the flowers endured, as a wreath beneath that least possible sign signifying New York City’s historic participation in White supremacy.
And despite the rain the yortsayt candles remained lit — the white one typically used for a Jewish memorial service, and the red one symbolizing the blood spilled for centuries of slavery and the resilience, the perseverance.
Opinion Editor Batya Ungar-Sargon who called us to action, reminded us of the ongoing duty of passing the story onwards, for generations. Once there were slaves in New York City.
Among the remembering we were tasked with, I recalled this too: That once a Yiddish newspaper that started their ‘picture library’ with an image of their own enslavement, was founded, a mere three decades after the first Juneteenth liberation of 1865.
That our people experienced destruction and enslavement in the modern era. And we still publish and we still exist, in Yiddish and in English that language of our current longest diaspora that feels like home.
That in 1923 the Forverts published, in an early English language insert in our Yiddish paper, an interview with African American intellectual leader Dr. W.E.B. Du Bois discussing racial prejudice amongst immigrants here in America. “The Negro Race Looks To Jews For Sympathy and Understanding” was the title of the piece that said so much more. L. Honors, the writer granted the interview with Du Bois, offered this: “If there is any race that has suffered and bled and been persecuted as much as the Jew, it is the Negro race. Yet, how many of us know the Negro?”
Du Bois speaking directly to Forverts readers suggested we be aware of the “poisoning effects” the typical Americanization has on newly arrived immigrants, causing them to “absorb current prejudices against Negroes.”
On this past Juneteenth azkore, at Water and Wall Streets, I was reminded of the revolutionary task of a free press to express human dignity. And I did recall then that the first African American press began decades before Juneteenth. And that there were news-pamphlets by freed African Americans, as early as 1794.
And that an astonishing story appears on the front page of that first edition of Freedom’s Journal Newspaper in 1827: “On the first of the present month of August, 1811, a vessel arrived at Liverpool with a cargo from Sierra Leone; the owner, master, mate and whole crew of which are free blacks. The master, who is also owner, is the son of an American.”
And so the newspaper presented readers the memoir of Captain Paul Cuffee, master and owner of the vessel, noting that, “It must have been a strange and an animating spectacle to see this free and enlightened African entering as an independent trader, with his black crew into this port which was so lately the nidus of the slave trade.”
Beneath the smallest, the most nishtik of city signage, our memorial took root. No evening street cleaner, no city inspectorate, no neighboring business — nobody removed the ritual objects nor extinguished the lights for a couple of days after we left them there at Water and Wall. As it had rained the day after, somebody must have re-lit the candles.
Like turistn ourselves we wonder: How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?
Upon learning the horrifying news of the capture and sentencing to a French dungeon of Haitian hero of the colonial slave uprising there, General Toussaint L’Ouverture, British poet Wordsworth published words of elegy in London’s Morning Post newspaper in 1803:
“Thou hast left behind Powers that will work for thee; Air, earth and skies; There’s not a breathing of the common wind That will forget thee”
For those who didn’t make it into the freedom of Juneteenth, who remain nameless beneath our feet and for the ongoing struggle for justice on behalf of descendants of slaves in New York, America, and the world: We will remember.
Ship Ahoy. Ship Ahoy. Oy, Ship Ahoy.
Chana Pollack is the Archivist for the Forward