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Reclaiming Hidden History

High school students face opposition when they create a slavery walking tour in Manhattan.
Reclaiming Hidden History

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.

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