Reclaiming Hidden History
High school students face opposition when they create a slavery walking tour in Manhattan
Illustrator: New-York Historical Society (neg. no. 46085)
A group of more than 60 high school students chanted, “Time to tell the truth, our local history, New York was a land of slavery!” and “Resist! Resist! Resist! Time to be free! Resist! Resist! Resist! No more slavery!” as they marched around New York City’s financial district. At each of 11 stops they hung up posters detailing New York City’s complicity with slavery and stories of heroic resistance and they handed out hundreds of fliers to tourists, workers, and students on school trips.
According to Shiyanne Moore, a senior at Law, Government and Community Service Magnet High School in Cambria Heights, Queens, and a trip organizer, “I learned the truth about our city’s past from this project. I also learned the more noise you make the more things can change. Permanent historical markers about slavery could inspire people to fight for change. I am proud that I was involved in helping to create the African-American Slavery Trail.”
Shouting was especially spirited at the downtown offices of Citibank, because one of the bank’s founders helped finance the illegal trans-Atlantic slave trade from 1830 to 1860. Kerry-Ann Rowe, another high school senior, told assembled students, “New York City’s role in the African slave trade has been erased from history. This trip gives us a chance to write it back in.”
Evidently the students had an impact. A reporter from Newsday, one of New York’s major daily newspapers, accompanied them on the walk and wrote a feature story on the project that included photographs of their posters.
They also had an impact in other ways. The director of public safety for the Downtown Alliance, a nonprofit group that advocates for businesses in the New York financial district, sent one of the tour guides an email that read, “It is not legal to place these posters on traffic poles, light poles, or pedestrian poles. We, the Alliance, are removing the posters and have them at the office of public safety located at 104 Washington Street, NYC.”
When the class met to evaluate the trip, students engaged in a provocative discussion about the ways in which corporate interests dominate public spaces. They wanted to know “How can the voices of the ‘little people’ be heard?”
The students were outraged by the actions of the Downtown Alliance. “Who gave the Downtown Alliance the authority to touch our signs?” asked Jennifer Caroccio. “We put back some of the pieces of history that the people in power would rather stay hidden.” The students believed the Downtown Alliance violated their freedom of speech by taking down the posters.
The class decided to contact the reporter from Newsday and see if she could help them make their grievances public. The following Friday, Newsday ran another feature story, this time focusing on civil liberties issues. The story was picked up by a local ABC television affiliate that sent a crew to the school to interview students. The television news story brought the history of slavery in New York to a much broader audience. The broadcast journalist also went to a number of the lower Manhattan sites visited by the students.
But the story did not end there.
The New York Post, a right-wing tabloid, published an editorial denouncing the high school students for illegally hanging up “home-made signs” on public property: lamposts. It sarcastically suggested that the name of their school be changed to the “High School for Ignorance and Law-Breaking.”
Once again students met, and with the help of their teachers, they drafted a response. Although the Post refused to publish their letter, they disseminated it widely on the Internet. Students explained that the “field trip was not designed or intended as an act of civil disobedience” and apologized “if any city ordinance was violated.” However, they did not “believe anyone should be faulted for making an incorrect assumption about the law concerning the hanging of temporary posters. Any resident or visitor to the city sees posters hanging all over. Last election cycle, [New York City] Mayor Michael Bloomberg had campaign posters hanging all around the city. We believe the law is used selectively as a device to censor unwanted messages.”
They explained that they are “committed to working within the law to get permanent historical markers erected commemorating the history of slavery in downtown Manhattan,” and planned “to meet, and hopefully to work with, the Downtown Alliance and any other interested parties in a productive manner.”
The bulk of their letter focused on the “hostility and name-calling” in the editorial which they found “counterproductive” and insulting. “It was inappropriate for the New York Post to mock the students and the school. The students at Law, Government and Community Service Magnet High School are African American, Caribbean, and Hispanic. We question whether your editorial would have had a similar mocking tone if the students were from a suburban school.”
They also accused the newspaper of irresponsible journalism, saying the editorial mischaracterized a statement by one of the students.
In the following weeks, a committee met with the Downtown Alliance to secure its cooperation in a campaign for permanent historical markers. Students plan to resume their campaign for permanent historical markers in the 2006-07 school year. On May 25, students are planning another walking tour of the slavery sites. Teams of students from Law, Government and Community Service Magnet School plan to station themselves at the historical sites in lower Manhattan. Some students will hold up posters and act as tour guides, and others will escort middle and high school classes from other schools as they visit the sites. They are planning to hold the tour in May because in May 1741 Africans accused of plotting a slave rebellion in lower Manhattan were publicly executed.
New York and Slavery
The project developed out of discussions of the conflict over slavery in the early years of the settlement of the British North American colonies in Michael Pezone’s 12th-grade Advanced Placement government class at Law, Government and Community Service Magnet High. Students were especially knowledgeable about the history of enslavement in New York City and its merchants’ involvement in the trans-Atlantic slave trade because many had taken Pezone’s African-American History elective course where they helped field-test lessons from the curriculum guide New York and Slavery: Complicity and Resistance (www.nyscss.org).
The students were able to plan one field trip and decided they wanted to take a walking tour of slavery-related sites in Lower Manhattan. The difficulty was that other than the colonial-era African American Burial Ground, which was uncovered during excavations for a federal office building in 1991, these sites, and slavery in New York in general, have been erased from historical memory. There is not even a historical marker at the South Street Seaport in the financial district of Manhattan where enslaved Africans were traded in the 17th and 18th centuries, and where illegal slaving expeditions were planned and financed until the time of the American Civil War.
New York City has 85 museums listed on a popular website for tourists (www.ny.com). They celebrate art, science, culture, and history, including the histories of numerous ethnic groups. But there is not one museum or permanent exhibit on slavery in New York City. There is plenty of material and a high demand for this type of museum. The New York Historical Society has sponsored two special shows on the history of slavery in New York City that have drawn thousands of visitors, including tens of thousands of secondary school students.
Students met with Alan Singer of Hofstra University, editor of the curriculum guide, and many realized that the problem was largely political rather than historical or educational. Students decided on a bit of guerrilla theater that would combine the study of history with political action. Students mapped out the walking tour and designed poster-sized placards including information about the “Slave Market” on Wall Street, the bank that financed the slave trade, the meetinghouse where “blackbirders” (slave traders) planned their voyages, and black insurrections in 1712 and 1741.
The students wrote a press release, invited local politicians and students from other schools to join them, and then visited the sites and posted their own historical markers. Two local council members expressed interest and have remained in contact with the teachers, although they were unable to attend. However, 20 students from a high school in another part of the city whose teacher had received an invitation via email joined the Law, Government students. Two other classes that were visiting lower Manhattan on field trips also joined the group for part of the tour.
The students expressed amazement at what they learned during the project. In her evaluation, Naadira Nemley wrote, “It is hard to believe that Citi-bank comes from a bank that helped to finance the slave trade or that Wall Street was once a slave market. I am African-American and I never knew about this history. Learning about the African American Free School in 1787 really helps me to appreciate the opportunity I have to learn in school. Taking part in this political action made me feel like a young activist. Now that they have taken down our posters, I understand that I took part in one of the steps to change New York.”
Celeste Rimple wrote, “I never realized how many locations and businesses were directly connected to slavery and the slave trade. It is disappointing that there are no permanent markers in the downtown area. It is disrespectful to the people who were enslaved and the people who fought against slavery. My topic was the Amistad defense committee. They worked hard to end slavery but their office was destroyed by a pro-slavery mob right here in New York City.”
In their class letter to the Post, students expressed a new understanding of both education and social struggle. They wrote, “We are proud to have engaged in an activity that has helped to educate many New Yorkers about a crucial part of the city’s history. We believe that students should be actively engaged as citizens, and we are happy to say that our teachers and our school encourage us to do so.”