Marker commemorating the work of slaves planned

Herb Boyd | 5/14/2015, 3:33 p.m.

Two weeks ago, the City Council did something that has been in the works, so to speak, for years: a monument or marker will be placed in the Wall Street area in tribute to the slaves’ role in the founding and the economy of the city.

Many Americans and even New Yorkers are not aware that the city had a huge slave population, with numbers at one time comparable to those in South Carolina. The city, thanks to abolitionists such as David Ruggles, was also a terminus for the fabled Underground Railroad, through which hundreds, if not thousands, of runaway slaves traveled seeking freedom.

Although the marker will be placed and unveiled sometime this summer during the Juneteenth celebration, according to Council Member Jumaane Williams of Brooklyn, who played a pivotal role in the initiative, the actual location has not been determined.

There are 38 such markers around the city, mainly in lower Manhattan, none more famous than Fraunces Tavern at 54 Pearl St., where Gen. George Washington had a farewell dinner in 1783. The tavern was owned by Samuel Fraunces, a Black man, and it remains a mystery the extent to which his daughter Phoebe saved Washington’s life by foiling a plot to have him killed.

Slavery ended in the state in 1827, the same year John Russwurm and Samuel Cornish founded the first Black newspaper in the nation. But slavery remained a burning issue up to and beyond the Civil War. In 1861, Fernando Wood, serving his second term as mayor, sought to secede from the Union and declare New York City a free city, thereby enabling it to continue the cotton trade with the Confederacy. Later, Wood’s brother, Benjamin, would express his opposition to the 13th Amendment and play a critical role in attempting to block it as a member of Congress when the vote was called in 1864. This is just a slice of New York’s connection to slavery, to say nothing of the rebellions that occurred in the city’s early history.

A monument will keep these memories alive for future generations, but we should not ignore the artists in our community who have devoted so much time and energy to doing similar things without recognition or financial support. One important marker related to slavery features Frederick Douglass, which stands in the circle at 110th Street and Frederick Douglass Boulevard. This was done by noted sculptor Gabriel Koren, who also created the statue of Malcolm X at the Malcolm X and Dr. Betty Shabazz Memorial Educational Center.

It’s splendid to learn that a marker will be placed to commemorate the distant past and the blood, sweat and tears of our ancestors, but we have to ensure the existence of our current artists, many of whom are struggling to survive. Koren, for example, is on the verge of eviction from her studio, which will endanger all of her past works and several that she’s working to complete now.

Yes, it’s good that the council has made a step toward honoring the uncompensated workers of the past, but something must be done to help the contemporary artists, particularly those who are concerned with memorializing our freedom fighters, many of them unknown.