How Slave Labor Made New York

From the Lehman brothers to Tiffany's founder, the city's early titans benefited from toiling blacks.

Wall Street in New York City (Spencer Platt/Getty Images News)
Wall Street in New York City (Spencer Platt/Getty Images News)

Granted, many white folks did indeed help build America — as they profited from slavery. John Jacob Astor, who was born in Germany in 1763, became America’s first multimillionaire, making his fortune in furs, the China trade and cotton transportation, part of the slave trade. Astor, who died at age 84 in 1848, is the namesake of the Waldorf Astoria hotel and neighborhoods in New York City.

Moses Taylor, who helped finance the illegal slave trade, had his offices at 55 South Street, now part of the 111 Wall Street complex. His decades-long banking operations evolved into Citibank. He sat on the boards of firms that became Con Edison, Bethlehem Steel and AT&T, according to Alan J. Singer’s New York and Slavery: Time to Teach the Truth. When Taylor died in 1882, at age 76, his estate was worth $40 million to $50 million, or roughly $44 billion in current calculations.

Singer also explained how Philip Livingston of Dutchess County, just north of New York City, was “probably the New York merchant most involved in the trans-Atlantic slave trade.” Livingston, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, endowed Yale University’s first professorship using his slave-based wealth. He was also a founder of King’s College, which later became Columbia University, and his name is found on homes and estates, some of them now historical sites, in the Hudson Valley and on Livingston Street in Brooklyn Heights.

There were also the three siblings — Henry Lehman and his two brothers, Mayer and Emanuel — who had emigrated from Germany to Alabama and, by 1850, formed Lehman Brothers, a merchandising business that quickly evolved into a cotton-brokerage firm. In 1870 the two surviving brothers moved to New York and helped establish the New York Cotton Exchange, the first commodities-futures trading venture. The company also helped found the Coffee Exchange and the Petroleum Exchange. (Their international investment firm died in 2008 as the great recession got under way.)

Another of the era’s top businessmen, Charles L. Tiffany, got the financing to open a fancy-goods store in 1837 at 259 Broadway from his father, who operated a cotton mill in eastern Connecticut using cotton picked by Southern slave labor. Thus, slave profits were instrumental in launching what became Tiffany & Co., the internationally renowned jeweler, whose current New York City offices are on Fifth Avenue and at 37 Wall Street.

In his book, Singer also explained: “The founders of Brown Bros. Harriman … built the bank by lending millions of dollars to Southern planters and arranging for the shipment and sale of slave-grown cotton in New England and Great Britain” during the 1800s. When the bank took control of three Louisiana plantations at one point, it also got 346 enslaved Africans.

And finally, after all that work, whites got to enjoy New York as the city played host to the 100,000 planters and their families who came north for cooler weather during the summer. Hotels, restaurants and entertainment venues geared up for their special visitors, offering Southern hospitality up north, as plantation owners rested from ordering about the people who were essential in creating America and its wealth.

Peter Alan Harper is a New York-based writer.

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