Jessica Leigh Hester is a former senior associate editor at CityLab, covering environment and culture. Her work also appears in the New Yorker, The Atlantic, New York Times, Modern Farmer, Village Voice, Slate, BBC, NPR, and other outlets.
A walking tour and graphic novel series memorialize Manhattan’s earliest African residents.
Kamau Ware surveys the East River. As the sun sinks behind the towers of the Financial District, trucks grumble past, cyclists ding their bells, and a ferry slices by. He encourages the seven people who are following him to tune all this out and imagine what the view might have looked like 300 years before, when the harbor was likely speckled with galleons and sloops—many carrying slaves. “How does it feel in your stomach?” he asks.
Ware is leading a walking tour, one prong of Black Gotham Experience, or BGX, an evolving and immersive storytelling project that aims to bring to life the history of black people in early colonial New York—starting before the city was even called that, back when Dutch and English settlers and Native Americans were still wrestling for control of it.
The project was born in 2008, when Ware, then an educator at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, was asked a question that he couldn’t answer. The museum, which aims to honor the immigrant experience, offers tours of the apartments inhabited in the late 19th and early 20th centuries by recent arrivals—most of them Irish, Jewish, or Italian. As one of Ware’s tour groups trudged along, a little girl wanted to know: Where were the black people?
In pursuit of an answer, Ware started with Ira Berlin and Leslie M. Harris’s anthology, Slavery in New York, and a related exhibit at the New-York Historical Society. Soon he was poring over primary sources, including court documents on slave uprisings, trying to stitch together a more complete picture of daily life for the city’s earliest African residents.
The first Africans arrived in New Amsterdam in 1626; by the 1740s, the city—then called New York—was a center of urban slavery: Slaves made up 21 percent of its population. Ware’s walking tours, which launched in 2010, invite participants to envision themselves moving through this bygone landscape. Most tours wind past the South Street Seaport, where many slave ships off-loaded their human cargo. They stop on Wall Street, where the city’s slave market opened in 1711, and at the site, now flanked by a parking lot and office towers, of a slave revolt the following year. They also visit Federal Hall (then City Hall), where 30 black New Yorkers were sentenced to death for their alleged role in another rebellion, in 1741.
As he goes, Ware narrates the squabbles between the Dutch and the British, and tells how, when the island changed hands in 1664, slaves’ thin freedoms—to travel, to gamble and drink, to marry and own land—began to wither. He invokes the lives of real slaves and freemen, among them Domingo and Catalina Anthony and Manuel Trumpeter, who settled the Land of the Blacks, a patchwork of homes and farmland north of contemporary SoHo. Each tour-goer receives a note card with the name and story of one such individual; sometimes, members of the group act out historical scenes.
These scenes draw heavily on imagination, as few historic images flesh out this world. Ware hopes to haul the era up from what he describes as a “visual abyss” with a forthcoming series of graphic novels, the first of which is titled Other Side of Wall Street. The novels layer Ware’s own photographs of costumed actors with illustrations by William Ellis and snippets of historical letters and maps. Given the dearth of archival material from New York, Ware and Ellis found inspiration in images from other parts of North America (like an engraving of a Jamaican slave uprising, below). Part of the first volume, charting an ocean voyage, comes out this summer; Ware plans to stretch the multi-century story across five installments.
Meanwhile, Ware’s team is working to share Other Side of Wall Street with the people who today inhabit the Financial District. With the backing of the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council and the Department of Transportation, BGX has put up posters featuring imagery from the series, together with historical context, on kiosks near the Seaport. Through July, it is also hosting events and exhibits at a pop-up space a few blocks from the water.
Ware’s tour ends at Trinity Church, where slaves once congregated and took classes. (They also helped construct the church’s original building, which later burned down.) New York’s slave owners were more likely than their Southern and rural counterparts to train slaves for skilled work, Ware explains. As a result, many local slaves were multilingual, literate, or both. Behind him, the church’s graveyard is filled with centuries-old tombstones. During the colonial era, Ware notes, thousands of slaves were interred at a burial ground half a mile away; the African Burial Ground National Monument was dedicated there in 2006.
Ware says he sees his tours, and the novels he is unspooling from them, as a way to honor the area’s ghosts. “This is a ceremony of sorts,” he says, before we scatter into the night, and back to the land of the living.
This post originally appeared on The Atlantic.