Daring to Do Mighty Things: New York and the Ideas that Changed the World
Photograph from the first meeting of the Niagara Movement in Buffalo, New York. Courtesy of the New York Public Library.

It takes more than a thinker, an architect, an engineer or a financer to make a “big idea” a reality. It also takes other women and men, who work every day, to see that vision to completion. While this exhibit has celebrated the accomplishments of the inventors and entrepreneurs who were behind some of the innovations that changed our world, it is worth noting that for each of these revolutionaries there were literally thousands of people who performed vital work and whose contributions has largely been ignored by the history books. Their success is as important as any of the world changing ideas this exhibit has explored.

One of the most important communities whose work helped make New York the home of big ideas were immigrants. As millions of new Americans streamed into New York City projects like the Erie Canal and building construction gave them the opportunity to find steady, paying work as soon as they arrived.

Photo of immigrants ready to disembark on Ellis Island. Courtesy of the New York State Archives.

This enabled them to stay, make New York their home and raise families here. Over time, the economic opportunities that New York made available to the immigrant community made it one of the most diverse and populous states in the nation.

This ribbon was from the first meeting of the Free Soil Party, which met in Buffalo, New York to promote abolitionism. Courtesy of the Buffalo History Museum.

Another important community who contributed to New York’s success as the home of big ideas was the black community living in the State. Since the Dutch Colonial era there had been black men and women living in New York. Many initially came as slaves and earned their freedom while living here. When slavery finally came to an end in 1827, many black people made New York their home. Work along the Erie Canal as a boatman or in the construction of one of the secondary canals provided a ready source of employment for many. Other construction projects or employment as a result of New York’s growing international commercial importance also made New York a place where black families could stay and earn a living. The relatively early presence of financially successful black New Yorkers helped propel this state to the forefront of civil and economic rights movements that impacted the rest of the nation.

Women, regardless of ethnicity or color, were second class citizens for much of the state’s history. Despite their social and economic status, many women were able to forge an identity in the workplace and prove that they had the skill and capacity to have a positive impact on the economy. The role women were playing in the state’s growing economy helped spur them on to seek a larger role in the state’s political, educational and civic arenas. One of the reasons New York became the birthplace of the women’s rights movement was the fact that women were playing an important role in the economy.

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