From Wed Dec 26 19:00:21 2001
From: Art McGee <>
Subject: [BRC-NEWS] The Slave Market
Precedence: bulk
Date: Wed, 26 Dec 2001 18:56:38 -0500 (EST)

Bronx Stroll: The Slave Market

By C.J. Sullivan <>, New York Press, Vol.14 no.7, 14–20 February 2001

Around 1670 the first blacks were brought to the Bronx, as slaves. This handful of slaves had been imported from Barbados, and lived and worked on the farm of a certain Morris family.

That slavery once existed in New York City isn't something whites here like to dwell on. Slavery ended in New York in 1827—and besides, it was something those awful Southerners did. But history will testify that white landowners in the Bronx knew how to work a bullwhip across a black's back as well as any cotton-grower in Mississippi. Along with the Morris family's slaves, there were a few free blacks living in the Bronx at that time. The 1698 census listed an Antone the Neger and his family as living in Kingsbridge, and a black man named Jeffrey Garrot fought in the French and Indian War. But the black presence in the Bronx was small, which might have been an indication that conditions were no better for blacks in the Bronx than they were anywhere else. Bronx newspapers in the early part of the 19th century were full of wanted posters for runaway slaves.

The Bronx is now closely associated with black culture in people's minds, but when the borough started to urbanize in the early 20th century, it was no more meant to be a home base for blacks than was any other place in this country. White ethnics were wanted, but blacks could stay wherever the hell they were. In 1910 there were a mere 4000 blacks living in the Bronx. The proportion of blacks stayed diminutive until after WWII, when the borough's whites started to leave for the suburbs. By 1960 the black population of the Bronx boomed to 200,000, and by 1990 there were more than 400,000 blacks calling the borough home. But for all of their presence in the Bronx, it is the only borough in New York where there is not one neighborhood that is considered a black stronghold. Manhattan has Harlem, Brooklyn has Bedford-Stuyvesant, Queens has the historic St. Albans district and even Staten Island has St. George.

In his essay The Language of the Streets, James Baldwin tried to explain why that happened. He wrote: The life of the city, watching it—I watched—well, I grew up in Harlem...when we made a little money, enough to put something aside—and do not underestimate that effort; it is hard for everybody, but, baby, try it if you're black—we began to move across the river to the Bronx, all those people who had lately become white fled in terror... The motion of the white people of this country has been—and it is a terrifying thing to say this, but it is time to face it—a furious attempt to get away from the niggers.

Back in the 1930s one of the largest black presences in the Bronx was the women who would come over from Harlem and line up on a street corner in the Bronx looking for day work as domestics. It was the Depression, and some of the few jobs available to black women were working as charwomen, cleaning white homes. Most of these women were Southerners recently arrived in New York. One of the most populated corners for the day workers was on 167th St. in the Morrisania section, not far from where the Bronx's original slaves toiled on the Morris farm.

There they would wait, standing around as white women would walk or drive by and eye them up and down. When they were chosen they faced a day of hard housework, for what they were told would be about 30 cents an hour, though sometimes employers reneged and paid only half that. The black women with the most callused knees would be hired first—worn knees indicated that the women were accustomed to scrubbing floors. The work was brutal, as the white mistresses would palm off on their black menials all the nasty jobs they didn't want to do themselves. Statements made to journalists of that time suggest that most of the whites doing the hiring on the corner were Jews, and this may have been the start of the animosity between those two Bronx tribes that exists to this day. The corner of 167th St. became so notorious that people started referring to it as the Bronx Slave Market. The NAACP Crisis, The New York Times and the Amsterdam News all ran lengthy stories about the situation at the time. WPA workers documented the abuse and made it an issue—the Slave Market came to the city government's attention. By 1941 the city stepped in and basically ended the practice of hiring women off that corner. The Bronx Slave Market had become an embarrassment.

Mayor La Guardia's response to the situation was to open the Simpson Street Day Work Office in Soundview. This was a domestic employment office where employers and domestic workers could get together free of charge, and through which wages and work conditions could be regulated. But for all of the city's good intentions, black woman wound up getting screwed again, because poor whites in the Bronx got wind of the good jobs to be had and the blacks were squeezed out. White employers preferred having whites clean their homes.

I talked with Ken Middleton, a black man who has lived in the Bronx for more than 35 years, about the history of the domestic workers in the Bronx. He'd heard some of the stories, and had a more optimistic view of the situation:

My grandmother was living in Harlem in the 1930s and worked Monday to Friday up in Connecticut for a German family named Hess. She and my grandfather worked there as housekeepers. She kept the house and he did the outside. I think they stayed there during the week and only came back to Harlem on the weekends. Anyway, my grandparents started to notice that at night the Hesses started holding these meetings with some strange German men—I guess they were pro-Nazi meetings, and that made my grandparents nervous. They didn't need to be involved with that, so they left and came back to Harlem. My grandmother knew that Southern Blvd. in the Bronx was a place to go for domestic work and she would line up out there. Southern Blvd. was another, less notorious market for black workers. She got lucky and wound up working for a Jewish dentist and his family for over 30 years. There was no ill feelings on my grandmother's part toward the dentist. She thought she was treated fair and she liked them and looked at them like they were a second family.

I talked with Middleton about why no single neighborhood in the Bronx is known as just a black neighborhood:

I came here [to Bassford Ave.] in 1965 from Harlem, and at first it was a shock at how mixed it was. You had blacks, Puerto Ricans, Jews and Italians. The Bronx was a step up for my family. I think everyone in the Bronx is scattered and mixed, and no one group could say they ran a neighborhood. I felt like I had always been treated well here. That's not to say that there was no racism. But that was more at school. Like from September to December, when you're trying to get used to one another. But then it would cool down. I've been here a long time, so I guess I like it. Overall I have to say the Bronx has been a good experience for me.

I later took a trip up to where the old Bronx Slave Market was. Now it's just a small struggling shopping district that closes up early. On the corner of 167th St. and Gerard Ave. there's a Pioneer Supermarket and a store named Bank of Bargains. The only indication that there's any sort of history attached to the place is found a few feet in on Gerard Ave., and it's a different sort of history altogether. There, two people named Jose and Lupe have graffiti testimonials to their deaths.