Our Events


Members' Room: Leslie M. Harris, The New York Society Library in the Age of Slavery and Abolition

Thursday, February 22, 2024 - 6:00 PM | Members' Room | open to the public | free of charge | registration required


When the New York Society Library was founded in 1754 as a “Public Library” with 700 “new, well-chosen” volumes, the enslavement of people of African descent was firmly established as a central path to prosperity in the Americas, and New York City was no exception. Like the city and the nation, the Library and its members would experience the slow movement away from the enslavement of people of African descent as a necessary part of the economic, social, and political life of the city and its own existence from the late 18th century through the late 19th century, a revolution as profound as the one that led to the creation of the United States.

In this keynote event for our 270th anniversary exhibition, A Belief in Books, Dr. Leslie M. Harris speaks about the Library in the context of this history and about historical African American reading practices - print culture, reading rooms, and literary societies - in the absence of access to places like the Library.

Dr. Leslie M. Harris, professor of history at Northwestern University, has focused on complicating the ideas we all hold about the history of African Americans in the United States, and finding ways to communicate these new ideas to the general public. In her first book, In the Shadow of Slavery: African Americans in New York City, 1626-1863 (University of Chicago, 2003), she examines the impact of northern and southern slavery on the definitions of class, gender, citizenship and political activism promulgated by New York’s blacks and whites. That work led to her participation in the New-York Historical Society’s groundbreaking exhibition Slavery in New York (2005-2006), for which she was a principal advisor as well as co-editor, with Ira Berlin, of the accompanying book. In collaboration with Telfair Museum’s Owens-Thomas House in Savannah, Georgia, she co-edited with Daina Ramey Berry Slavery and Freedom in Savannah (University of Georgia Press), which contains the work of 30 experts on the history of slavery, Georgia, and Savannah. Harris is currently at work on a book on New Orleans that uses Hurricane Katrina and her family’s history as a way to interrogate the history of African Americans in the city from the nineteenth century to the present. She also has ongoing research interests in the history of slavery, gender and sexuality in the antebellum U.S. south, and the historiography of U.S. slavery.

Learn more about A Belief in Books: The 270th Anniversary Exhibition here.

This event is a Harriet Shapiro Lecture, generously supported by Deirdre Kessler.

Interested but not yet ready to register? Get a reminder closer to the date, space permitting.

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