The Sins of the Father: Slavery in New York

After the passage of the historic Civil Rights Bill of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, Martin L. King, Jr and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference quickly turned their attention to other pressing issues – the rights to fair and equal opportunity housing and economic equality.

To highlight the housing issue King decided to spend a few months in Chicago. During one particular protest in the neighborhood of Cicero, a southern enclave of Chicago’s South Side, King met some of the worst protests he had seen in years. In fact, King once remarked he was more afraid for his life marching the streets of Chicago than he ever felt in the belly of the Jim Crow South of Mississippi and Alabama.

The fever of hatred of the idea of Blacks and Whites living together was so perverted in the city, it is hard to imagine it was located far above the Mason Dixie line in the comforts of what so many naive readers of history have come to know as the promised land North.

However, as a unique exhibit in New York City clearly illustrates, the tension and animosity of intermingled races was not just a Southern institution. The exhibit, ” Slavery In New York” opened this past weekend at the New York Historical Society.

One of the most disturbing notions one walks away from the exhibit with is how entrenched slavery was in all daily activity in New York. In fact, New York was a primary epicenter for slave trading and the use of slaves was designed for all manner of work. It were the slaves of New York who built the wall now land-marked as the center of the financial world – Wall Street. Nor was the treatment of slaves in New York any less harsh than other colonies. In the 1690s slaves could be legally whipped if they made noise on Sunday.

Such revelations can and probably will only add to the weight so many try and place upon the shoulders of past generations of sons. The so-called “White Guilt” sociologist discuss when issues of race emerges is founded upon this heavy load. Yet, others try and dismiss the notion signifying the son can no way be held liable for the sins of the father. It’s hard to argue when one says, “I didn’t own slaves.” Nevertheless, it is not impossible – particularly when the sons now have a level of status built upon their father’s sins. It is the basic concept of “White Privilege.”

This privilege may be playing out in the hallowed halls of the city King swore to never return to. In 2001 the city council of Chicago passed a law which stipulated any company, which wishes to do business with the city must research and disclose any historical links it has had to the peculiar institution.

For the most part the law has primarily affected financial institutions. The disclosure of connections by Well Fargo lead to the bank establishing scholarships at a couple of Historically Black Colleges in South Carolina.
The latest institution to have to disclose its historical links was Lehman Brothers.

Earlier this month, Lehman was forced to disclose its ugly past. What made Lehman’s acknowledgment worse was it became the first company to suffer from the disclosure. It was forced to give up a $1.5 billion dollar underwriting contract because it had initially withheld the information. After the public disclosure Lehman actually profited significantly from the sale of slaves it was further acknowledge Lehman’s founding fathers actually owned several slaves themselves.

Now, Lehman must pay a heft $500,000 fine. The galvanizing force behind the ordinance, Councilwoman Dorothy Tillman said after the fine was announced, ” If you tell the truth there is no penalty. If you lie there is.”

It is uncertain whether Lehman Brothers will be able to resubmit its forms or be able to re-apply for the hefty contract. However, was is certain – at least in Chicago and other cities which have adopted similar laws – sometimes the sins of fathers can cost their sons a lot more than embarrassment.

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