On Friday night, October 15, I participated in a community discussion with about fifty people at the Maysles Institute on Malcolm X Boulevard in Harlem. I was invited to be part of a panel commenting on the ninety-minute opening segment of a documentary film Then I'll Be Free To Travel Home produced and directed by documentary filmmaker Eric Tait. Tait uses the struggle to reclaim the African burial ground in lower Manhattan as a vehicle for discussing the history of slavery in New York City from the colonial era through the Civil War.
I was invited to be on the panel although almost everyone else who attended was Black and I am White and although everyone else was local and I am from distant Brooklyn. I am not sure which was the deeper chasm to bridge. The people there were interested in what I had to say because of my work editing the New York and Slavery: Complicity and Resistance curriculum, which received an award from the National Council for the Social Studies but has never been adopted by New York State. I am also the author of a book, New York and Slavery: Time to Teach the Truth (SUNY, 2008).
Following the showing of the film, panelists, who included Eric Tait, Sheryl Wills from New York 1 television, Reverend Patricia Singletary, Pastor of East Harlem's Elmendorf Church, and educational consultant Gene Peterson, joined the audience in a free-flowing far ranging examination of race in New York's past and today. Tait's film is a powerful depiction of the history of race in New York City starting with the original Dutch settlement. It's great strength is that it shows Blacks as historical actors battling for freedom and rights rather than as just victims of savage injustices.
Most of the discussion that night focused on contemporary events because Reverend Singletary and her church are part of the Harlem African Burial Ground Task Force and are deeply involved in a struggle to preserve a colonial era burial site on 126th Street near the East River. The site is currently used as a bus garage by the Metropolitan Transit Authority. Skeletal remains were recently located near the site when construction was being done on a new access road for the RFK Bridge. MTA officials agreed to conduct an archeological study of the land and search for human remains, but there has been no movement.
Church records show that between the middle of the 17th century and the 1850s, free and enslaved Africans from all over Manhattan buried their dead in the cemetery of the Reformed Low Dutch Church, now Elmendorf Reformed Church, on First Avenue between 126th and 127th Streets. The Elmendorf church, founded in 1660, is the oldest church in Harlem. It dates from a decision in 1658 by New Amsterdam Governor Peter Stuyvesant to build a second Dutch village on Manhattan Island. The project began with enslaved Africans constructing a road from what is now Greenwich Village to northern Manhattan.
My contribution to the evening was to discuss the long delayed official New York State slavery curriculum. The New York State Human Rights curriculum is supposed to include guidelines and material for teaching about the European Holocaust, the Great Irish Famine and Slavery and the Atlantic Slave Trade. However, since 1996 a curriculum for teaching about Slavery and the Atlantic Slave Trade has remained entrapped in a web of racial politics. The State Department of Education initially envisioned the Slavery and the Atlantic Slave Trade curriculum as a celebration of "New York's Freedom Trail," its role on the underground railway and as a base of operations for abolitionists. However, historians, especially those from the African American community, want students to take a much more critical look at the state's role in promoting and profiting from human bondage.
In 2005, the New York State Amistad Commission was established to finally get the show on the road. However, commissioners did not meet until 2009. Much material has now been collected but no money has been allocated for reviewing and editing the material or for making it available for use in schools.
Many people who spoke that night were concerned with honoring ancestors. Both Eric Tait and I argued that honoring ancestors meant fighting for future generations, involving young people in struggles for the preservation of the Harlem cemetery and for the completion and dissemination of an official slavery curriculum, for improved education and schools in New York, and for jobs and dignity.
It was a small group that met in Harlem that Friday night. But as anthropologist Margaret Mead is reported to have said way back in the 1950s, "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has."
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