Wall Street was founded on slavery, as the trans-Atlantic slave trade built the foundation for modern global capitalism—a slew of current corporate behemoths got their start with profits derived from the selling of enslaved Africans. To repay the ancestors of these enslaved Africans for the vital role slavery played in the formation of Wall Street and the greatest economic force in the history of the world, the city of New York is preparing to present them with…a plaque.
It will happen sometime in June, when a marker will be finished and unveiled, perhaps even on Juneteenth to coincide with the commemoration of the day Southern slaves were emancipated.
The historical marker, recently approved by the New York City Council, will be installed a block from where the slave market once stood that established Wall Street as the center for economic activity in New York.
“The slaves of that time and place helped build City Hall,” City Council member Jumaane Williams, the principal sponsor of the bill that established the marker, told WNYC. “Their lives should be celebrated and their deaths should be mourned.”
Not only did they build City Hall, but the enslaved Africans who were first brought to New Amsterdam—as New York City was initially called—in around 1627 actually built the wall that gives Wall Street its name. Historians say it was intended to form the northern boundary of the colony to ward off resisting natives who wanted their land back.
That means from its very beginning, the wall was a hedge ensuring the survival of whites and white supremacy.
These are the kinds of facts that serve as the impetus for the modern Black reparations movement. The erection of the plaque means lawmakers are willing to acknowledge that the free labor of Africans— who were ripped away from their homes to work in European colonies in North and South America and the Caribbean—built the massive fortunes of white families and companies that became the basis for economies across the world. So why aren’t these companies and their governments willing to repay the ancestors of these Africans?
Slavery became the backbone of New York’s economic prosperity in the 1700s. To normalize this massive trade in human beings, in 1711 New York officials established a slave market on Wall Street. Slave auctions were held at Wall Street selling enslaved Africans as property to traders wanting to buy them. Wall Street was also the marketplace where owners could hire out their enslaved by the day or week. About 40 percent of white homes owned slaves at the time, according to historians from Columbia University.
Throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, as writer Phyllis Eckhaus points out, New York had “the largest urban slave population in mainland North America.” Therefore, New York was a crucial location in the trans-Atlantic slave trade, which soon established New York as the world’s financial capital.
“In Lower Manhattan, with the exception of the African burial ground memorial, there are no reminders of the slave market and the incredible injustices that happened there and have been unrecognized by our city,” James G. Van Bramer, chair of the City Council’s Committee on Cultural Affairs, said at a hearing last year. “We must never forget what happened, and it is important that native New Yorkers, tourists and everyone alike be reminded of what happened there. And that we mark the contributions of enslaved Africans who built our city, including our City Hall and the wall that would give the name to Wall Street.”
Columbia historians say the market was built in 1711 in response to the anxieties of white, middle-class New Yorkers who feared that the presence of so many Black slaves looking for work on the streets might raise the risks of an insurrection.
Unlike Native Americans and other white Europeans, free African labor was plentiful (if one died, that person could be replaced with another from Africa), Africans had no connections to American lands, and they knew how to grow essential cash crops like cotton and sugar that grew in Africa, the Caribbean and the southeastern United States. These factors made Africans the perfect slave labor force for European colonial powers.
Many well-known companies and financial institutions benefitted from the trans-Atlantic slave trade, including Lehman Brothers (which went bankrupt in 2008), J.P. Morgan Chase, Wachovia Bank of North Carolina, Aetna Insurance, Bank of America and the Royal Bank of Scotland. Banks, such as Wachovia’s predecessors Bank of Charleston, South Carolina, and the Bank of North America, and J.P. Morgan Chase’s predecessor banks, made loans to slave owners and accepted the enslaved as “collateral.” When the slave owners defaulted on their loans, the banks became the new owners.
The enslaved, along with performing many other services, were used to produce commodities that were sold in international markets for a profit (a characteristic of modern capitalism). In addition, the enslaved themselves were considered property and sold on markets. The benefits of this went to slave owners and investors — not the enslaved. As a result, wealth was transferred from Black African enslaved people (and their descendants) to white European slave owners and other whites who benefitted from this system.
This laid the foundation for the current wealth inequality between whites and Blacks and ensured that Blacks would remain socioeconomically subordinate to whites for generations to come.