Twenty-five teenagers from United Community Centers youth groups in East New York, Brooklyn were amazed to learn that not only was there slavery in Brooklyn during the Revolutionary era, but that the New Lots African burial ground was now covered over by a park across the street from their community center, a park named after the Schenk slave holding family.
Inconvenient history had been erased, but it might be rewritten thanks to local community groups and the efforts of City Councilwoman Inez Barron and New York State Assemblyman Charles Barron. Community residents are discussing rebuilding the New Lots Library on part of the site and adding a museum honoring enslaved African people who helped build Kings County and then were written out of history.
“5 Boros to Freedom” was organized as a celebration of African American history in New York in conjunction with the traditional Afro-Dutch holiday of Pinkster. In the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam, Pinkster was part of Christian Pentecost activities. Enslaved Africans were allowed time off from labor to spend with family and friends and in community get-togethers. “5 Boros to Freedom” activities were initiated by the Underground Railroad History Project of the Capital Region.
Almost 200 middle and high school students took part in a Lower Manhattan walking tour of slavery related sites. The walking tour featured tour guides from the Metropolitan Expeditionary Learning High School in Queens who wrote statements describing seven locations and their connection to slavery in New York. The sites included Foley Square where enslaved Africans were executed in 1741, charged with plotting a rebellion, the African Burial Ground, New York City Hall, the Wall Street Slave Market, and South Street Seaport where slave traders known as “blackbirders” organized the illegal trans-Atlantic slave trade. A high point of the tour was two students from Uncommon Schools High School in Brooklyn who lead students in singing “Amazing Grace,” a song written by a slave trader who recognized the sinfulness of his vocation and became a leader in the campaign to end the trans-Atlantic slave trade.
For “5 Boros to Freedom” the Staten Island Museum produced a successful program with readings from slave narratives and Plymouth Church in Brooklyn organized a presentation on the church’s role in the struggle to end slavery in the United States and a guided tour of its subterranean Underground Railroad safe “station.”
Other walking tours organized as part of the “5 Boros to Freedom” celebration of African American history included visits to the site Seneca Village, a free Black community forcibly displaced when New York City built Central Park in Manhattan, the Hunts Point, Bronx Slave Burial Ground, and the Isaac Hopper House and St. Mark’s in the Bowery Church. Too much about New York’s complicity with slavery has been erased, but projects like these are rewriting the history of New York City to point out what the past was really like and to include the contributions of all of its people.
Photos, from above: Students from MELS High School explain the history of the Wall Street Slave Market; and Students from Uncommon High School in Brooklyn lead tour participants in the song Amazing Grace at the African Burial Ground in Manhattan.