NYS History Education: A View From the Street

By on

Charging_Bull_statueI recently returned from the 35th annual conference on New York State History in Poughkeepsie, which I attended for the first time. I understand this was the largest convocation of history professionals in New York State, and that the attendance at this conference was the highest ever. As my perspective and background is perhaps slightly different from most attendees at the conference, I feel it appropriate to provide certain observations.

Unfortunately, while others at the conference were somewhat more upbeat, my perception is that for the reasons set forth below there is at all levels an appalling lack of knowledge about critical elements of the history of New York State, and that we as a society suffer from this lack of knowledge every day. While I believe there are individuals in the history community who are in good faith seeking to address this problem, I am not sure that the efforts are close to adequate.

My Background

I should state that I have never taught history in any school nor do I hold any academic degrees in history , but have great admiration for those who do. I do have a J.D. from Columbia Law School and an LLM in taxation from New York University. I have for the past eighteen, years been the partner in charge of the estates and tax practice at a midsize Wall Street law firm, and before that was for 12 and half years the federal tax counsel to the New York City Law Department. In these capacities, I frequently have come into contact with younger lawyers in their late 20’s and early 30’s most of whom have graduated from schools, colleges and law schools in New York State , and have worked in my department either in my firm or at the City. Although my evidence is anecdotal, I believe over the years I have been able to assess the general level of the historical knowledge of both these younger lawyers and my colleagues and contemporaries.

I should also say that I am probably somewhat aberrational among my legal colleagues in that I consider myself a careful student of the State’s history. In the past 25 years I have given probably more than 200 historical walking tours of various areas of Manhattan and written upwards of 20 articles for magazines such as the DAR’s American Spirit, the Museum of American Finance’s Finanical history magazine, and the Wall Street Journal. My most popular tours are an allnight walking tour of Lower Manhattan on New York’s Revolutionary War history sponsored by the Fraunces TavernMuseum which I have given every July 4 for the past 17 years from 3 to 7 a.m., and a three hour walking tour of Wall Street and Lower Manhattan in late October entitled “the Great Crashes of Wall Street” sponsored by the American Museum of Finance which I have given for the past 26 years with my colleague Richard M. Warshauer, an accomplished New York real estate executive.

Importance of History Knowledge

From my perspective, the demand for individuals with appropriate historical knowledge in the offices in which I have worked and thus for the competent teaching of history in this state is large and growing. With the increasing internationalization of the world economy and New York’s position as one of the center’s of that economy, it is in my view essential that young professionals and others be appropriately trained to understand the history of New York State and how it relates to the world economy and other places with whom they have to deal. It is no secret that the modern international economy in which businesses in New York (particularly New York City) operate is increasingly competitive, and that the State’s historical position as a major center of this world economy is continually under attack. I thus believe the work of the state’s history professionals is central to maintaining and disseminating the core values which brought the State to this position of economic preeminence, and to training all workers and citizens who will be able to perform in a way that will meet the demands of the future.

One of the speakers on a panel on teaching history complained that the development of the state’s recent core curriculum for teaching history had been too much influenced by business interests as opposed to teachers. Since I am not familiar with the current core history curriculum or who developed it, I cannot comment on the merits of this assertion. What I can say, as one who regularly encounters the end results of the educational system’s teaching of history (albeit perhaps in a prior period from the present), that in my opinion it falls woefully short of what is necessary to meet the current challenges businesses of the type I work in require. I found it interesting that the Manhattan Borough historian at one of the sessions I attended indicated that as a ”report from the field” that in Manhattan he perceived greater interest in history among 20 to 30-year-olds (among other reasons because of the internet) and that thus things in Manhattan in his view are improving. With all due respect, my personal view of the situation is much more sanguine.

Stories From the Field

My belief based on my years of personal  nonacademic study is that most residents of New York City lack basic knowledge about critical elements of the City and State’s history, and that their failure to understand that history handicaps both them and the society in ways that severely hurt both them and the City both economically and culturally. I recently encountered an anecdotal example which illustrates this principle in my law firm. One of our major clients is a branch of the Habsburg family which seeking to recover property seized by the communists in Romania. I was rather surprised that none of the young lawyers in my group had ever heard of the Habsburg empire. Another recent  example of this principle occurred when we began representing Jimmy McManus, the legendary district leader of 50 years on the West Side of Manhattan and the last vestige of the Tammany Hall political machine (about whom I have written a blog called “Tammany’s Last Stand”). Unfortunately, none of the young lawyers on my staff had ever heard of Tammany Hall. Even more surprising to me was that although a number of the younger lawyers working in my department were graduates of Jewish religious schools such as Yeshiva of Flatbush or Asar, they had no knowledge of basic elements of American Jewish history, such as George Washington’s letter to the Newport Congregation, Gershom Mendes Seixas, the patriot rabbi , or Mordecai Noah, the proto Zionist leader of New York’s Jewish community in the first part of the eighteenth century all of whom I consider critical parts of New York City’s history.

I might also add that this appalling lack of historical knowledge is by no means limited to young lawyers of the type that work in my department. Many colleagues and clients my age also have no proper appreciation of New York history. One of the basic questions that I sometimes ask people to determine their level of historical knowledge, for example, is “What was the most important battle in the American Revolution?” Fewer than one in four can answer that question accurately.

This lack of appropriate historical knowledge in my view is of more than academic interest, but can affect basic decisions made by governments and individuals. For example, on our annual Wall Street walking tour, one of the most important stops is the former headquarters of J>P. Morgan & Co at 23 Wall Street, which is probably the most historically important building in the history of Wall Street and American Finance. Some years ago Mr. Warshauer and I were amazed to learn that this icon of finance had been sold by the real estate department at JPMorgan Chase it to an orthodox Jewish Brooklyn developer partnering with an Israeli based company most of whose funds allegedly come from investments in Russia, where the principal is reputedly close with Vladimir Putin.

From the point of view of the JPMorgan Chase, the building as just another commercial real estate asset to be sold to the highest bidder when its function was no longer needed. The foreign buyers apparently looked at the building differently and reportedly were able to more than double the value of the building by converting it to condominiums. A portion of this icon to American capitalism was then resold part of it to a Chinese company (in a transaction in which was involved as a lawyer) whose funds reportedly come from the Communist Chinese government. I cannot but feel that had our society properly educated the executives in the JPMorgan real estate department about the historical significance of the building (and about the importance of retaining such a great asset), this bank, whose roots in New York date back to 1799 would still be the owner .

What Should Be Taught

A further question of course, which was not fully discussed at the conference is what events are important and which should be taught in our schools and Universities. This is a very difficult question and here again I may have a unique though somewhat aberrational perspective. For example, t he centerpiece of My nighttime July 4 walking tour sponsored by the Fraunces Tavern Museum which I will be giving this July 4 for the eighteenth year had always been the unmarked grave of General Horatio Gates. General Gates as you may or may not know , was the commanding general at the Battle of Saratoga, which most authorities agree was the most important battle in the American Revolution. I sometimes feel that three out of four New Yorkers may be excused for not knowing the most important battle in the American Revolution since the commanding general at that battle has for the last 200 years been buried in Trinity Churchyard in an unmarked grave. Fortunately, partially as a result of my efforts and those of a friend and colleague named Charlotte van Horne Squarcy who came on the tour some years and at the time was an active member of the New York City Daughters of the American Revolution, the good women of the DAR led by Regent Denise Van Buren placed a marker in Trinity Churchyard recognizing that he was there in October 2012.

Although the fact that Gates grave was “lost” in Trinity Churchyard is noted in all full length biographies (of which there are only two that I know of), and several other books on the Battle of Saratoga (such as West Point professor John Elting’s the Battles of Saratoga where I first discovered it ) the average New Yorker getting out at the Wall Street subway stop (as I did for some years) who had not consulted these sources s would be completely oblivious to the fact that the resting place of the most important Revolutionary War General buried In New York State was just a few feet away.

Another example which comes up on a tour of the Hell’s Kitchen area that I annually give relates to the proper understanding of Tammany Hall and the history of the Irish . On June 25, 2013, there was a hearing before the New York City landmarks Commission on whether to landmark the last Tammany Hall at 100 West 17th Street (built in 1929) at which approximately 30 people spoke. The speakers unanimously endorsed landmark designation building but their reasons for doing so and their views of this area of New York history were quite different. The overwhelming majority of the speakers and the Landmarks Designation Report took the view that even though Tammany Hall (and presumably the people who inhabited the building such as Boss Tweed) was one of the most corrupt organizations in New York City’s history, its importance to the City’s history could not be denied.

I, speaking on behalf of the  National Democratic Club and the McManus Midtown Democratic Club, had an entirely different point of view. Firstly, Boss Tweed who ruled Tammany for three years in the 1870’s was in many ways a transitional figure who died 50 years before the building was constructed. Rather the building was constructed during the “golden age” of New York politics when the country looked to New York for leadership because of the policies of governor Al Smith, one of whose key aides was Frances Perkins (who began her career working with Thomas J. McManus in Hell’s Kitchen) . The keynote address at the building’s opening on July 4, 1929 was by Governor Franklin Roosevelt (not Boss Tweed), who when he became President for years later would take Perkins with him to Washington where in her four terms as the first female Secretary of Labor would design Social Security and many of the other important social welfare programs of the New Deal.

Thus, properly understood it was Frances Perkins not Boss Tweed who the Landmarks designation report should have cited to understand the building. Obviously this is not what is being taught in our schools, and most New Yorkers are completely unaware of Frances Perkins who is arguably one of the most important women of the 20th Century. She was a life long New Yorker, whose rise to prominence came as a result of her association with Tammany Hall politicians.

A  third example, related to a tour of Harlem that I sometimes give, involves Philip Payton and the Afro American Realty Company. In the period from 1903 to 1907, while in his late 20’s Payton rose from being a penniless janitor to one of the leading owners of Harlem real estate. His Afro American real estate company, backed by men affiliated with Booker T. Washington’s National Negro Business Leagues, brought blacks from the slums of Hell’s Kitchen up to underutilized luxury housing in North Harlem. Although his efforts were bitterly opposed by most white real estate interests, he did have some support from maverick Jewish realtors, and thus was able successfully to defeat the efforts to keep blacks out of Harlem. Notwithstanding his bankruptcy in 1908 his efforts sowed the seeds for the creation of the most important black community in the United States, if not the world. Very few people in Harlem or elsewhere have heard of Payton, and I doubt he is being taught in our schools. The lack of knowledge about Payton I believe hampers the ability of both blacks and whites to understand our City’s racial heritage, and if it were better known it might alleviate certain racial tensions.

I could provide four or five more examples, but I will stop here.

In my view, w e who work in supervisory positions on Wall Street and elsewhere need help. If we are to be able to compete economically or even have citizens who can intelligently participate in the democratic process we need people who know New York history, and we must look to the history community to do the job of training and educating these people. While the recent New York history conference was interesting in drawing together many people apparently interested in performing that task, I remain of the view for the reasons discussed above there is much more to be done. One issue is that many of the people living and working in New York City today were not educated in the New York public schools or Universities. For example, a woman who was born and lived in Latin America until she was 20 came on my July 4 tour. She was recently elected to be an important Judge in New York where she must make the most sensitive legal and personal decisions, in which I would argue knowledge of New York’s history is essential.

While I am not familiar with the current history teaching in the New York schools, certainly this must be the first stating point. I also do know that there are people like Rand Schocolet, the creator of the Alexander Hamilton Awareness Society, Peter Feinman of the Institute for Urban Education, who is running programs training teachers, and Art Piccolo of the Bowling Green Association, the lower Manhattan historical activist who was responsible for one of Manhattan’s most famous landmark, Arturo DiModica’s bull at Bowling Green, who are creatively trying to teach New Yorkers their history outside the academy.

However, in my view, much more is necessary if we are to achieve what we should.

Photo by Wikimedia user Beyond My Ken.

This entry was posted in History and tagged , , , , , on by .
James S. Kaplan

About James S. Kaplan

James S. Kaplan is a lawyer, writer and walking tour historian who is the President and one of the founders of the Lower Manhattan Historical Association. The Association annually celebrates July 4 Weekend with a parade through Lower Manhattan and the Alexander Hamilton Immigrant Achievement Awards ceremony recognizing contributions to New York City by prominent individuals born outside the United States. It also is responsible for naming Evacuation Day Plaza at Bowling Green and efforts to revive the ancient New York City holiday of Evacuation Day and for the Saratoga/Yorktown celebration in Trinity Churchyard annually held in October. Mr. Kaplan is also the founding partner of Greenberg & Kaplan, where his a practicing Tax, Estate and Guardianship lawyer.

3 thoughts on “NYS History Education: A View From the Street

  1. Leo Schreuders

    Dear mister Kaplan,
    A question for you, if I may after reading your article on historical awareness
    In your view is there enough attention given to the dutch roots of New York and the amazing influence of dutch culture since?
    As you mention names like van Horne, van Buren, Roosevelt, Elting, Harlem.
    A lot of elements especially in the field of trade and economics, as well as law in NY stem from the dutch groundwork. Like, the dutch invention of the shares and stock market, the role of dutch women in NY trade?
    Leo Schreuders

  2. J F Sefcik

    While Mr. Kaplan’s premise is important, he draws almost exclusively on New York City for his anecdotal evidence. It is of course the most important city in our state but significant events and people can be found throughout the Empire State, Saratoga being perhaps the best example as he pointed out. Nor should New Yorkers remain unaware of the Dutch origins of New York.
    Finally, taking away nothing from Gates’ accomplishments, most historians recognize the importance of Philip Schuyler and Benedict Arnold to the American victory at Saratoga in 1777.
    Nevertheless Mr. Kaplan’s point is well taken and I do not mean to undermine it at all.

  3. Kenneth T. Jackson

    Just for the record, the 2006 Conference on New York State History at Columbia University attracted more than 600 participants, or at least twice the number who were in Poughkeepsie in 2014.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *