In the 1700s, New York had the largest slave population of any American city, after Charleston. Enslaved African Americans were at the heart of the city’s workforce, tilling land, building roads, and constructing some of the most prominent landmarks, including City Hall and the wall after which Wall Street took its name.

On the eve of the Civil War, as recounted in “Gotham: A History of New York,” a southern editor asked, “What would New York be without slavery? The ships would rot at her docks; grass would grow in Wall Street and Broadway, and the glory of New York, like that of Babylon and Rome, would be numbered with the things of the past.”

That history is at the center of a fledgling but resurgent push to secure reparations in New York, by connecting past injustices to racialized inequality today. The push has included efforts in the City Council and state Legislature to at least start a conversation around the issue, while key details, including who would benefit and how, remain off in the distance.

“There really has been a movement overall to put your money where your mouth is,” said Leah Goodridge, a housing advocate who has been pushing for New York to consider reparations.

The matter has been on the plate of city leaders for some time.

There really has been a movement overall to put your money where your mouth is

Leah Goodridge

“Slavery’s impact on New York remains significant and perpetuates a growing wealth disparity and socioeconomic disposition that African-Americans today face as a result of historical, discriminatory policies and ongoing segregation,” reads a 2019 City Council resolution, calling on the state Legislature to establish the New York State Community Commission on Reparations Remedies.

Although the resolution was approved by the Council on the final day of 2021, and the state Assembly voted last June to establish a Reparations Commission, the plan faltered in the state Senate, leaving the future of local reparations uncertain. Bloomberg reported in January that key allies of Democratic Mayor Eric Adams were conducting “road-test” polling on a host of issues, including reparations. The report made no suggestion a proposal would follow.

The proposed state commission would be tasked with examining the institution of slavery as it existed in New York as well as “federal and state laws that discriminated against freed enslaved Africans and their descendants during the period between the end of the Civil War and the present.”

Despite the setbacks, advocates for reparations argue that with an unprecedented alignment of Black electoral power – represented by Mayor Adams, Council Speaker Adrienne Adams, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie and Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins – the conditions to advance reparations are promising.

The idea of securing reparations, said Goodridge, was “pie in the sky” until the protests that erupted after the killing of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin in 2020.

A reparations taskforce in California has been meeting since June. It considered historic precedents, such as the billions of dollars paid by Germany to victims of the Holocaust and payments made by the United States to Japanese Americans held in detention during World War II. Last week, members of the Boston City Council proposed the creation of a commission to study reparations.

Goodridge provided testimony in support of a Reparations Commission in December. Her argument centered on the displacement of Black New Yorkers in the 1800s from Seneca Village, a neighborhood in upper Manhattan.

“And why were they displaced?” she said in an interview with Gothamist. “For the city of New York to build Central Park.”

That single act, she said, had a profound impact not only on those homeowners, but on their children and later descendants, by depriving them of inter-generational wealth.

Darrick Hamilton, director of the Institute for the Study of Race, Stratification and Political Economy at The New School, said that while the political viability for reparations remains unclear, “certainly there is greater plausibility and greater actions all across the United States than there was five years ago.”

Ultimately, while local efforts help build the argument, reparations need to be accomplished at the federal level, said Hamilton, named last year to New York City’s first Racial Justice Commission, speaking in his personal capacity.

Costs for reparations to the descendants of enslaved Americans vary widely, but economist William Darrity, the director of the Samuel DuBois Cook Center on Social Equity at Duke University, put it at $10 trillion to $12 trillion in federal expenditures.

Only 1 in 5 Americans voiced support for reparations for the descendants of slavery, according to a 2020 poll conducted by Reuters/Ipsos. Another poll, conducted by the University of Massachusetts Amherst in 2021, found that two-thirds of Americans opposed reparations.

In 2019, then Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said, “I don’t think reparations for something that happened 150 years ago for whom none of us currently living are responsible is a good idea.”

Supporters of reparations argue that modern-day inequality bears the clear imprint of past injustices. The median household income of a white family in New York state was $122,200 in 2015. For a Black family, the figure was $69,100.

One of the biggest questions in New York is whether current political leadership actually has the appetite for reparations. Among the many recommendations made to Mayor Adams by a Citizens Commission known as New Yorkers for Social Justice, reparations was nowhere to be seen.

And Charles Barron, who sponsored the legislation for a Reparations Commission in the state Assembly, no longer serves in that body, having been re-elected to the City Council. It is uncertain who would champion any legislation at the state level.

Stephen Levin, who left the City Council at the end of 2021, co-sponsored the council resolution in support of a reparations commission.

“The biggest roadblock is that it gets used by opponents as a political wedge,” said Levin. “It doesn’t change that it’s the right thing to do.”