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'Complicity': How the North Profited from Slavery


For many Americans, the word `slavery' conjures up the plantations of the South, and freedom, the Underground Railroad to the North. Now a new book challenges that notion. "Complicity: How the North Promoted, Prolonged and Profited from Slavery" reveals the history of the Northern slave markets and those who were bought, sold and survived. Co-author Anne Farrow joins us from WNPR in Connecticut.

Welcome to the program.

Ms. ANNE FARROW (Co-Author, "Complicity"): Thank you so much.

CHIDEYA: Let me ask you about a specific moment in time. Manhattan, having transferred from the Dutch hands into the English hands, becoming its own force in the East Coast of the United States--what was slavery there, and what happened to really mark slavery in the North in Manhattan?

Ms. FARROW: Slavery was very substantial in early Manhattan. Very early on, the populations of enslaved people began to grow. By 1740, enslaved people were one-fifth of the population of the early city, and enslaved black men were one-third of the work force. They were a very powerful and angry presence in the city. They had already rebelled in 1712 against the terms and the strictures of their bondage, and in 1741, they rebelled again.

CHIDEYA: What form did that rebellion take, and what was the response?

Ms. FARROW: Well, the response was ferocious. Just to back up, the black men who were enslaved plotted to burn down the city. They succeeded in burning down the fort and several other buildings. This was in the early spring of 1741. The city reacted. The city fathers, the white fathers, reacted with fury, and very quickly hundreds of black men were imprisoned. There was a lethal series of conspiracy trials. Men were hanged, burned at the stake and exiled by the dozens to the Caribbean.

CHIDEYA: So we have here a series of myths that the South was the only place where slavery occurred, that the North was only a place of freedom and that African-Americans or Africans were happy slaves.

Ms. FARROW: Right. One of the many myths in the North about enslavement is that there weren't very many captive people and that they were--that they lived with the family, that they were kindly treated. At its height, the enslaved population in the North was over 40,000, and if you look at the places where they lived and the places where they were held, it was very, very rude and mean and cold. They suffered every privation.

CHIDEYA: You just mentioned that the slave rebellion in New York took place in the 1740s. When did slavery fade out in the North?

Ms. FARROW: It began--you know, in Massachusetts, it faded out after the American Revolution. Really, by 1820, there were not significant numbers of captive people in the North. But what's important to remember is that the prejudice against them was intense. They were relegated, by and large, to the worst jobs, to the worst of everything, discriminated against in terms of housing, education, all the good things of life.

CHIDEYA: Let me ask you a little bit about what lessons we need to draw specifically about slavery in the North. There has been a lot of talk recently; Ruth Simmons, the president of Brown University, has been doing an extensive amount of research into her university's history of profiting from the slave trade. She, of course, is African-American. What happened in Rhode Island? What kind of plantation system existed?

Ms. FARROW: Tiny Rhode Island, later the Ocean State, was the epicenter of the Colonial slave trade in America. Of the documented voyages, slaving voyages, that left from the American Colonies and went to Africa, Rhode Islanders were at the helm of almost 90 percent of them. And one of the things that we learned in doing our research is every place you see a port with deep connections to the Caribbean and to the slave trade, you also see elevated populations of captive people. And that's what was going on in Rhode Island. Coastal Rhode Island--Bristol, Newport, the cities in between--were so heavily involved in the slaving trade; they were also bringing many people back to Rhode Island to do work.

CHIDEYA: I was in the Capitol recently, the US Capitol--gorgeous building--and much of the building was built by enslaved Americans...

Ms. FARROW: Yes.

CHIDEYA: ...who laid the stones and who even built the magnificent dome...

Ms. FARROW: Right.

CHIDEYA: ...and poured the metal for the statue of freedom on top of the US Capitol. Given that there is so much symbolism around freedom in this country, and also so much history with slavery, what do you--what one thing should we take away from the knowledge of the Northern slave trade as we read your book?

Ms. FARROW: I think the important thing to take away is everywhere you look, you will find evidence of black labor and black oppression. The remarkable thing is that history has been so hidden.

CHIDEYA: And finally, what do governments owe or corporations owe that have profited from the slave trade to the descendants of the slave trade, if anything?

Ms. FARROW: Well, I think we're at the very beginning of that story. We need to see and to understand that our businesses, our farms, our early commerce of every kind was built on the backs of black people. Once we see that, once that's out there in the public, then we can say, `Here's what needs to happen to create a just society."

CHIDEYA: Anne Farrow is co-author of "Complicity: How the North Promoted, Prolonged and Profited from Slavery."

Thank you so much.

Thanks for joining us. That's our program for today. To listen to the show, visit npr.org. If you'd like to comment, call us at (202) 408-3330. That's (202) 408-3330. NEWS & NOTES was created by NPR News and the African-American Public Radio Consortium.

I'm Farai Chideya. Ed Gordon will be back tomorrow. This is NEWS & NOTES. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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