NYC's Former Pro-Slavery Stance Examined in Governors Island Exhibit

By Emily Frost on July 4, 2014 11:07am | Updated on July 7, 2014 8:21am

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 The exhibit focuses on how New Yorkers experienced the Civil War. 
Teens Curate Civil War Exhibit on Governors Island
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UPPER WEST SIDE — An exhibit on NYC's history during the Civil War that examines the city's ambivalent history on the institution of slavery — including a former city mayor's unwavering support for it — is headed to Governors Island this summer.

"NYC & the Civil War," curated by high school interns who spent a year digging through the archives of the New-York Historical Society as part of the museum's eight-month Teen Historian Internship Program, opens Saturday.

The exhibit, which is free to visit and runs through Sept. 28., is located in a 19th century home in Governors Island's Nolan Park and includes historical photographs, newspaper clippings and works of art, alongside explanatory text. 

The students who curated the exhibit said they were surprised to discover NYC's ambivalent position on the war and on slavery.

"New York is the city of contradictions" when it came to the Civil War, said intern and rising Beacon High School senior Andrew Sobelsohn, 17, one of the curators.

In the early to mid-1860s, New Yorkers vacillated between support for the war, marching through Union Square with Ft. Sumtner's flag, and protesting it, when riots over the draft broke out in 1863, Sobelsohn explained. 

The Draft Riots led to the death of more than 100 people, the burning of a black orphanage and lynchings, Sobelsohn learned.

After combing through the museum's archives, which included photos and writings from the period, Sobelsohn realized that in most school history books and lessons, "New York City sort of gets glossed over, and we’re sort of thrown into the northern mix."

During that time, NYC Mayor Fernando Wood was pro-slavery, believing it was economically crucial for the city — a fact Sobelsohn learned during his research.

All of these discoveries led to a much more complex picture of the city during the war and made collecting the information into a single exhibit a daunting task, he added. 

But looking through actual documents and artifacts, rather than just reading about them in a book, "you start to connect more to the history and you start to live it," Sobelsohn said.

The teens were interested in portraying the history in different ways, so in addition to the exhibit, they planted a medicinal garden with herbs that were used by Union doctors during the war, said Timothy Wroten, associate manager of communications at the museum.

"It's a great entry point for visitors to learn about Civil War history through less conventional means," he said. 

For Sobelsohn and his peers, looking at the war through a local lens helped make an overwhelming topic more approachable, he said.

And, "when you throw in personal stories," he noted, "it gets this much more human feel."

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