Subscribe to the IHARE Blog

Vision of New York State History: Lessons from Harlem

Harlem Preservation Conference

The different approaches to local and state history championed by Representative Tonko versus Governor Cuomo manifested itself in some recent blogs on New York History Blog and the Adirondack Alamanack. These pieces were not written in conjunction with my post on the subject but help to flesh out on the local level what is actually at stake if the social fabric model is jettisoned on behalf of the economic/transactional model. In this blog, I focus on one event that could be replicated in communities throughout the state, specifically:

Harlem Preservation Conference April 29th

On Saturday, April 29, twelve community-based organizations held a day-long forum titled “Harlem and the Future: Preserving Culture and Sustaining History in a Changing Environment” (“Harlem and the Future”) at CUNY to discuss the changes, the best practices, and the imminent challenges that are affecting Harlem’s social fabric, built environment, and cultural heritage. Harlem’s first historic preservation conference comes at a time of change to this iconic neighborhood. The welcoming remarks were by Manhattan Borough President Gale A Brewer.


Sessions were held throughout the day to address the issues raised in the conference notice. They may be summarized as follows:

Cultural Heritage

Harlem is not just a geographic locale in Upper Manhattan, but a diverse African-American community with a rich history represented by a remarkable architectural heritage. While the success of the play “Hamilton” has led to an explosive growth in visitors headed uptown to see the Hamilton Grange historic site, the physical embodiments of Harlem’s cultural heritage have long been simultaneously celebrated and threatened. Who decides what stories are preserved and retold?  What is the cultural brand of Harlem and does it represents the community as a whole.

The musical “Hamilton” ends with “who will the story?”, the exact question challenging every community.

In response to my blog on the vanishing of local history, I received a reply from Camille Linen, creator of Flashbacks, a musical covering the 350 year history of the Town of Rye where we both live. She wrote:

Flashbacks has just become a part of the Port Chester fourth grade curriculum so Port Chester is now a grassroots exception to the Vanishing Breed title.

Maybe Flashbacks can serve as a model for others in the area, to start,

Last year we had Rye, Rye Brook and Port Chester fourth graders at the Capitol Theatre performance. The teachers were all given copies of the teacher/artist/historian written curriculum and were very pleased with the program.

This year I was unable to obtain enough funding for the theater performance, but worked to get it established on solid ground in the Port Chester district curriculum.

Using the arts to deliver local history was the deciding factor.

Let’s meet sometime over the summer to brainstorm.

Flashbacks was the subject of my post What Works: Flashback to Your Community’s Heritage. In that post, I touted the benefits of history storytelling as performance at the local level. My suggestions then and still roughly applicable today were:

  1. We need to do a better job reaching out to all the schools in the local school districts.
  2. We need to do a better job of reaching into the community through its civic, social, and religious organizations.
  3. We need to do a better job of reaching into the business community for financial support.  The musical mentions four current businesses. Talk about product placement!
  4. We need to reach out to the high school drama/theater clubs to participate.
  5. We need to provide better photo opportunities, both for the Town Supervisor giving the certificates to each class and for the students with the cast. The students really loved seeing the people on stage up close and personal in costume, even though they already knew some of them.
  6. We need to build on this event with additional civic activities including mock sessions in the town and village halls, visits to the county and state chambers, walking tours of the town, and the use of apps with maps, photos, and stories.

Whether it is preserving the heritage of the village of Port Chester which will reach its sesquicentennial next year or of Harlem which once was a Dutch village before it became part of a larger political entity or to your own community, we need to link our youth to their local heritage through the arts.

Built Environment

Harlem’s built environment, from its ornate brownstones to its human-scale character, tells the story of the neighborhood’s development and evolution. Unfortunately, much of Harlem’s physical fabric has been lost to demolition, both by neglect and redevelopment, over time.

Landmark designation has proven itself to be an important tool in the fight to preserve character and manage change but it may not always be the most effective nor desirable way to protect a neighborhood. How can Harlem residents reinforce their community’s identity while also adapting to growth and development?

The reference to “physical fabric” raises an important and often overlooked component of history heritage. We exist physically and our sense of touch shouldn’t be limited to a mouse or touchscreen. People need to see, touch, and physically experience their community. This means walking, this means observing, this means touching. The brain needs the physical sensations to aid in creating the memories that will endure even when physical contact is lost. When I took teachers behind the scenes in some museums where they then could touch physical artifacts from thousands of years ago, the experience resonated and was remembered even if the artifact was simply the piece of a broken pot. Touching is part of the human experience and by separating that sensation from local history, we separate people from the past.

And what are the buildings in the community? What are their stories? For example, the Lower East Side Tenement Museum has made the stories of the people in the apartments the basis of the tourist experience. What are the stories in the buildings of your community? Here is where there are opportunities for high school senior service projects to connect students to their own community. Let them work with the local historians and preservationists to document using the technologies which are second nature to them, to tell the stories and place them on the web. When a building is demolished it is part of their heritage which is being destroyed as well. Before the refrain of “Another one bites the dust,” wipes out the past, let’s encourage the next generation to help their community to tell its story by becoming familiar with what that story is.

Social Fabric: What’s the New Religion? Churches at Risk

The beautiful stone churches of Harlem stand out as landmarks in the neighborhood. While these buildings have lasted decades, the congregants that utilized them reflect the evolving character of the community. Throughout their history, Harlem’s churches have served as a home and well-spring in shaping the neighborhood’s social dynamics. In particular, the role of the church in Harlem’s African American community is evidenced in everything from music to the civil rights movement. Today, technological and demographic shifts, both globally and locally, have reshaped the way Harlemites interact with one another and created new “congregations” outside of religious institutions. These changes leave congregants, preservationists, and residents asking what’s to become of the buildings imbued with historical, architectural, and social value.

Consider the example of a community where the old architecture is being demolished to be replaced by roads and cookie-cutter high-rise apartment complexes. The people have rallied together to save their common memory. They have created a blog with stories about 60 sites in their community. They have created an online discussion group for their community with about 100 members including local artists, architects, and scholars to discuss and plan how to preserve their community’s heritage. Many of its churches and synagogues have been destroyed. Finally it dawned on them that the surviving architectural treasures might have tourist appeal but it might be too late.

They complained that the character of their district had been destroyed. As one sociology professor put it, “Cultural preservation means nothing to real estate developers and the government. Nothing is being considered but economic interests.”  They complained that the city lacked good channels for local scholars and preservationists to communicate with the government. The city is Harbin in the former Manchuria now part of China with a Russian heritage of both Russian Orthodox and Russian Jews (“A Chinese City with a Russian Past Struggles to Preserve Its Legacy,” NYT 6/5/17).

St. Sophia Cathedral in Harbin China.
Gilles Sabrie for the NYT

Today in New York and America, students can study the role of religion in the social fabric of every community but their own. Today adults travel the globe visiting the physical expressions of religion without knowing what it is in their own community. The pyramids may have lasted for millennia but they are dead structures of a dead society. But the questions people asked and wondered about have remained and our common to all cultures. Especially in New York, one doesn’t have to travel far for a close encounter of a different kind. The social fabric of a community is intangible but it can be glimpsed in the tangible expressions of it. When we only know our own kind and at this moment, the social fabric unravels. We always are part of something larger than ourselves whether we realize it or not. Understanding the social fabric of our home community begins a journey that helps us to understand the community of the starship earth.

Considering Harlem’s cultural heritage panel, experts will evaluate the cultural brand of Harlem, which has attracted global attention, and reflect on whether it now represents the community as a whole. On the topic of the built environment, panelists will discuss retaining identity and a sense of place, as defined by the physical environment, cultural legacy, and inhabitants, the effectiveness of working with landmarks designation, building community activism and forging private-public partnerships while also adapting to growth and development. And lastly for the community’s social fabric, using the church as a microcosm of a community in transition, leaders from Harlem’s churches will consider how contemporary needs and uses may revitalize and breathe new life into Harlem’s historic church buildings.

The Harlem Preservation Conference is a worthy undertaking. It should be replicated in communities which are not political entities in their own right and those that are. I do not know what the results were of the conference and what the next steps (if any) the participants have chosen to take. I do know a journey begins with a single step and community preservation conferences are an excellent first step to reknitting the social fabric at the local, state, and national level.

Teaching Slavery: A SHEAR Perspective


Teaching Slavery: A Roundtable Discussion was the third session I attended as part of the SHEAR conference on July 23. It was scheduled after the lunchbreak and I made a point of arriving early just in case…and, yes, the room ended up being filled to capacity and then some. I along with others “purloined” chairs from neighboring and less full rooms but soon there was no more space even for chairs. People sat on the floor or leaned against the walls.

The session consisted of a series of “brief” presentations where people sort of stuck to their allotted time. The presentations were followed by questions from the moderator posed to each presenter and then the discussion was opened to the floor. As one might expect the session was more fluid than some of the other ones and my notes reflect that dynamic. One of the lessons I learned in college especially from undergraduate history classes was that the organization of my notes tended to mirror the organization of the lecture. But this session was not a lecture but a roundtable.

Vanessa Holden, Michigan State University
Survey Strife: Transparent Pedagogy as a Multiracial Woman in the Classroom

Holden often was the first black teacher many of the white students in her survey class on United States history had ever had. The TA met with smaller groups of students while her contact tended to be in the lecture format. She chose not to start the class with 1492. Michigan itself was not a slave state and had minimal Underground Railroad involvement.  Holden did not mention the Great Migration so I don’t know what she teaches in the 20th century. Since the SHEAR conference doesn’t extend to that time period and the session was limited to slavery (and not its impact or legacy as part of American history), she was not obligated to mention it but it would have interesting to know. Of course, her time was very limited.

On the pedagogical side, Holden shared that many college students were unaware that as part of slavery families could be separated. Her comment exposed an important dilemma. In the Public Roundtable session earlier that day covered in a previous post, curriculum was regarded as if not a panacea, at least, a positive, in promoting awareness of the historic sites/museums and encouraging visitors. A common refrain in this session beginning with the first speaker highlighted the shortcomings of the curriculum.

One should note that social studies has a varied presence in the k-12 curriculum at the state level. The current focus on the Common Core and STEM has been detrimental to the teaching of social studies including history especially in the early grades where reading and math skills have become the god standards against which students and teachers are evaluated. Regardless of the content, not all states or school districts teach social studies at each grade level. New York State does which is a contributory factor to New York State social studies teachers often having positions of prominence in national social studies organizations. Just as learning a foreign language is easier the younger one starts, so is learning language of history. Introducing teenagers to history through boring factoids is not conducive to developing a life-long love for history as part of the civic health of the society.

Edward Baptist, Cornell University
Teaching with Survivors Testimony

Baptist spoke on the use of primary sources. He observed that students were not tabula rasas on slavery. They arrived in the classroom with the slave story already “spun.” This comment again goes the issue of what is taught at the k-12 level although Baptist did not specifically refer to it. His experience as a teacher led him to conclude that the values the students ascribe to the testimonies read in class correlates with the race of the race of the student. [My notes may be a little confusing on this point.]

Jason Young, State University of New York, Buffalo
The Persistent Propaganda of History

Young commented on the textbook controversies, on how textbooks present the topic of slavery. Here again curriculum is an issue. He specifically mentioned McGraw Hill’s designation of the Middle Passage as one of “migrants.” He expressed concern about the rejection of critical thinking. It should be noted that the new social studies guidelines just released by New York State stress the importance of critical thinking. I don’t know how familiar Young is with those guidelines or the role of history professors in developing them. While it will be years before the products of those guidelines enter college, it would be worthwhile to foster dialog between the college professors who teach the graduates of the k-12 guidelines with the social studies teachers (and State Education departments) about what is actually taught in the classroom. True students in an undergraduate class may come from multiple states with divergent requirements and curriculums, but there is benefit to having teachers of undergraduates knowing what the college students were exposed to and are supposed to have learned already.

Brenda Stevenson, UCLA
Navigating Emotional Triggers for Black Students in the Multicultural Classroom

Her topic was the challenge of teaching slavery in the world of trauma today. She depicted the college classroom as contested turf.

Elizabeth Stordeur Pryor, Smith College
Humanity as a Thing Unraced: Classroom Conversations on the History of Slavery

Pryor revealed traumatic experiences of her own. She reiterated the refrain on the lack of racial education prior to college. The point was dramatically broached when a student in the classroom raised the question of teaching the “N” word. The student did so in the context of a joke the student had heard. After the class the teacher cried and was frightened. Later the students recounted the various experiences in their own lives where they had encountered the “N’ word. This class became the first opportunity they had ever had to discuss the topic in a formal setting. The very question of whether to even pronounce the “word” was an issue of discussion. Pryor ended up devoting three classes in the semester to addressing this trauma.

I am curious to know if the word “Negro” factored into these conversations. For centuries the word was the name of a people devoid of approbation in and of itself. Lately it has acquired a negative stigma. The source documents from the 1600s-1800s that might be used in a SHEAR time period routinely use this term and it continued to be positively used at least through the time of Martin Luther King. Is it becoming a trauma term requiring trigger warnings and if so what does that mean for use of source documents?

Moderator Questions
Ousmane Power-Greene, Clark University

1. The question asked whose expertise would be useful in joining this conversation.

Young introduced the unspoken issues that generate guilt and shame.  The sale of Africans into slavery by Africans always is brought up. He referred to this technique as the sharing of culpability. Teachers need to recognize what really concerns the students who ask that question or make that claim.

Baptist reiterated that by college we are too late in our interventions.

Pryor noted that not too many black students take history classes. She further observed that black students are mad at white students who use the classroom to unburden themselves. I might add that there are white people who don’t look favorably upon white people engaged in a pissing context of how guilty they are and how passionately they seek to cleanse themselves of their guilt. Has slavery become the original sin for Americans of Christian heritage who don’t believe in the Fall?  Do white people with American ancestors from before slavery became illegal [which was in 1827 in New York] react differently than those who arrived afterwards?

2. What do you say about slaveholders to the students?

Young informed us based on his classes that students say most whites didn’t own slaves or only owned 1 or 2. They see slavery as a systemic problem and therefore not one where the students should feel individual guilt [a contrast to the perceptions expressed in Pryor’s class. I wonder if the demographics of the student body contribute to the discrepancy – a public school in Buffalo versus an independent women’s liberal college in Northampton.]

Stevenson recommended following the money. She claimed that if students trace the money they can more easily see how slavery could exist. In other words, you didn’t have to own slaves to profit from slavery.

Holden observed that poor whites and others did own slaves. She suggested reading the letters of the slaveholder families. Since slaveholders were people too [my choice of words] it was beneficial to encounter them as people through their own writings.

A series of short-answer questions/comments followed given the time constraints.\

  1. Reparations – put off the question in a classroom. But in class debates the pro-side wins on merits and the negative-side wins the debate [it sounds a little like the difference between Fantasy Football and the Superbowl.]
  2. Slavery in other places and times – Roman slavery is not the equivalent of American slavery.
  1. Impact of the slaves on the nation as unpaid labor.
  1. Anger at not being taught about slavery.
  1. Is it necessary to use all the examples of the horror of slavery? Trauma.

Obviously there is a lot to discuss on this subject and the likelihood the conversation will be ongoing. It is important that the conversation not be limited to teaching slavery at the undergraduate level but include k-12 as well.

The American Revolution and Presentism: The Triumph of Mel Gibson

Mel Gibson's The Patriot

In 2000, Mel Gibson released The Patriot. On one level, one could view the movie as another stirring action story in the tradition of Braveheart. If the characters in the movie weren’t exactly historical that was OK; it was set in a real war with real locations and the good guys won. The movie wasn’t intended to be “the true story” of some specific individual or individuals, so relax and enjoy the entertainment.

There were certain caveats which rendered the escapism troublesome. Certainly the British didn’t fare too well as human beings. They were more in the tradition of Romans or Nazis in the Gibson universe. More troubling perhaps was Gibson’s presentism. Presentism refers to the retrojection of cultural values of the present into the past. It is the judgmental equivalent of having Washington use satellite imagery to locate the British troops or having Elliot Ness read Al Capone his rights. Typically, presentism is used to cast negative judgment against people in the past, to knock them off their pedestal, to take them down a notch, to make the judge, jury, and executioner of reputations in the present superior to the targeted person in history. It is not such much about setting the record straight as it is in being morally superior and self-righteous. There is no “walk a mile in someone’s shoes” or sensitivity in presentism.

Gibson used presentism in a different sense. Instead of retrojecting politically correct values to condemn someone in the past, he retrojected the values to create a community living in accordance with them. Gibson’s secret hideaway for fugitives from the British was a kumbaya community of people living in harmony with each other regardless of race or gender. Except for the fact that there was a war going on out there somewhere in the real world, Gibson’s “Gilligan’s Island” exemplified life as it should be lived in an idyllic setting. As one might expect, Gibson was taken to task for this artificial reality he created in the American and southern past.

Artists, unlike honest biographers, have choices to make about what to include or exclude in an artistic creation.  After all, everything can’t be included. In the commencement address last spring at the University of Pennsylvania, Lin-Manuel Miranda discussed the power of stories to shape our lives and expressed the realization that story-telling is an act of pruning the truth, not representing it in its entirety. Miranda said:

Every story you choose to tell by necessity omits others from the larger narrative. One could write five totally different musicals from Hamilton’s eventful, singular American life … For every detail I chose to dramatize, there are 10 I left out. I include King George at the expense of Ben Franklin. I dramatize Angelica Schuyler’s intelligence and heart at the expense of Benedict Arnold’s betrayal. James Madison and Hamilton were friends, and political allies-but their personal and political fallout falls right on our act break, during intermission. (The Pennsylvania Gazette July/August 2016, 15)

Miranda’s Hamilton in one striking inclusion and one striking omission demonstrates that Mel Gibson is alive and well in the portrayal of the American Revolution. In his commencement address, Miranda referred to one of the defining stories this presidential election year.

In a year when politicians traffic in anti-immigrant rhetoric, there is also a Broadway musical reminding us that a broke, orphan immigrant from the West Indies built our financial system. A story that reminds us that since the beginning of the great unfinished symphony that is our American experiment, time and time again immigrants get the job done. (The Pennsylvania Gazette July/August 2016, 15)

Miranda is to be praised for reminding us that America from the start has been an unfinished experiment and that the journey continues. That expression is part of why Hamilton is the great sign that the journey will continue to be a successful one, that the work that still needs to be done, will be done. But he can be faulted for going overboard on Hamilton the pro-immigrant person based on politically correct values in the present. In the musical, the line “immigrants get the job done” generates the loudest applause. There is no doubting its theatrical effectiveness in New York City in 2015-2016 and beyond. There also is no doubting it is an example of Mel Gibson kumbaya.

In the musical, Hamilton and Lafayette high-five each other as they exclaim this thought. Technically, of course, Lafayette, was not an immigrant but a visitor. The musical does not specifically identify him as an immigrant but it is easy to infer that he is if one didn’t already know better. Immigration during the war wasn’t a big issue.  There was more concern about Loyalist Brits returning and participating in the American political entity than about non-British immigration. It would be decades before immigration would become an issue with the arrival of America’s first “Moslems,” the Catholics who pledged loyalty to a foreign master and who were going to infiltrate and take over the country. Do you know how matter Catholics there are on the Supreme Court today? And as Republicans!? One may raise legitimate issues about how welcoming Federalist Protestant Hamilton would have been of the arrival of multitudes of riff raff. But not in the musical Miranda chose to write.

In honor of Schuyler Slaves
In honor of Schuyler Slaves

Similarly there is a race problem. Hamilton was not a slave owner and he did join John Jay’s manumission society. On the other hand, he did marry into a slave-owning family. Just recently, there was ceremony at Schuyler Flatts in Colonie, just north of Albany, of the remains of 14 of the Schuyler slaves. They were first discovered during a construction project in 2005 and then analyzed by the New York State Museum in 2010. I tried to go there as part of Teacherhostel/Historyhostel, but was informed by the New York State archaeologist that there was nothing to see at Schuyler Flatts. It just was flat piece of land. Now there are artistically-created burial coffins for these people. So while Hamilton casts some of the Schuyler daughters as black it does not address the slaves those daughters owned through their father. Not an easy subject for Miranda’ musical but an essential one for a biography by a historian.

Gibson’s presentism continues on in the AMC series Turn, another American Revolution story with 21st century values. I refer here not to John Graves Simcoe, the future founder of York, now named Toronto. In the TV series he is cast in the Darth Vader role as a “ruthless attack dog” according to the website. I am referring to Anna Strong, the older married woman with children who is transformed into a sexy tavern wench lusted for by men on both sides of the conflict. But at the Turn panel discussion at the New-York Historical Society last spring, the audience was informed that the character’s position would take a turn for the better in season three. She would be transformed this time into an active participant in the spy ring who travelled about and contributed to the decisions made. Her travels take her to John André’s black servant, Abigail, a former slave in the Strong household. The scenes involving Anna, Abigail, and her son are dangerously reminiscent of Gibson’s kumbaya community in The Patriot. One might wonder if the enhanced role for the lead female figure was due to some new discovery or scholarship but that would be foolish. The decision, of course, was a marketing one to provide a character to appeal to the desired demographic. If changing this bewitching female into a witch would help ratings then that might be considered too except The Legend of Sleepy Hollow already has that niche covered for the American Revolution.

Overall, it is good that there is such interest in the birth of the country. After all, we never were a country of one ethnicity or religion. That demographic diversity is part of the reason why we have continued to exist even as the number of ethnicities (Palatines-Irish-Italian-Indian) and religions (Methodist, Catholic, Jewish, Moslem) continues to grow. We are better as a country if we continually return to the story of our birth as country to make the story relevant to We the People today. Take a look at the story of the Exodus and see how many times Moses climbs up and down the mountain and all the activities at the mountain and you see examples of Exodus Midrash, the Jewish tradition of retelling the story of the foundation of the people, a tradition which continues today both in the different Passover ceremonies which are held and the different Exodus movies which are made. Mixed multitudes and diverse demographics become one in the ideas that constitute or covenant them as a single people. To stop telling the story of that birth is to die as a people, to cease to exist as a culture. But there are limits. The presentisms of Mel Gibson, Lin-Manuel Miranda, and AMC are not the first time the story of the American Revolution was retold and won’t be the last. In fact, part of the story of America, is the recognition that we are telling and retelling the story of our birth again and again.

The Haunted History Trail versus the Underground Railroad in New York State

         Casper the Friendly Ghost 

After my post on the abysmal state of the state Underground Railroad effort, I received comments from around the state about the situation. Below are the highlights of some of what is going on at the grassroots level.

Buffalo (Erie County) – The Director of Library and Archives reported that she had created a UGRR page for Buffalo. After I forward the information to Judy Wellman, she put them in touch with the Niagara Falls UGRR group in the hopes of them forming a western New York contingent. On a personal note, during the NYSHA conference in Niagara Falls when Wallenda walked across the Falls, as Judy and I were walking to the park from the parking lot, she pointed out various buildings that had been locations for the Underground Railroad.

Cayuga, Wayne, Seneca, Onondaga counties all studied and published underground railroad discoveries from their area with the assistance of Judy Wellman. In a subsequent email from Judy, she added Oneida County to this list submitted by Cayuga County and the North Country.

Haverstraw (Rockland County) – will be celebrating its first Juneteenth this year. The village is investigating its own slavery history in the 18th century and working with neighboring Nyack on the Underground Railroad in the area.

Manhattan – private group attempting to develop an equivalent to Boston’s Freedom Trail focusing on the underground railroad especially in lower Manhattan.

Montgomery County – a private citizen posted a comment on New York History Blog about wanting to become involved in telling the story of slavery in the county.

Queens – The President of the Friends of the Douglaston/Little Neck Community Library posted a comment to New York History Blog about wanting to become involved in the telling the story of slavery in the borough.

SUNY Oneonta – Students in the Cooperstown Graduate Program last semester with recommendations for the Harriet Myers residence in Albany did a comprehensive study on the travelling exhibition that was part of the original Freedom Commission under Governor Pataki.  The college is interested in making the work of its students and the exhibition better known throughout the state.

My response was:

As you might expect, I favor Teacherhostels/Historyhostels [and attached an example of an underground railroad program for teachers in New Bedford, MA]. One recommendation is to create two-day (weekend) programs throughout the state featuring the NYSOPRHP traveling exhibition which your students have updated. Day one of the program would focus on content including the exhibit while day two would be based on field trips to the appropriate locations in your area. While the exhibit would make the circuit the speakers wouldn’t necessarily have to and could be drawn from local resources whenever possible. 

I have cced people from the North Country, Capital Region, Hudson Valley, New York, the Finger Lakes and western NY in addition to you in the Mohawk Valley who all might serve as regional hosts. I think there is more to be gained by announcing a statewide program than in doing things individually or waiting for the State to get its act together. I don’t know if it is too late for this summer or not but they also could be done during the school year. It might even bring in tourists if marketed properly.

A second suggestion is to present at various conferences such as the social studies councils and MANY.

Underground Railroad Consortium – private organization of 21 sites which incorporated in the fall of 2015. It recently met in conjunction with the Underground Railroad Project Conference at Russell Sage College. The consortium was organized in part to compensate for the lack of state leadership.

This list excludes the comments about New York State including those that are fit to print.

What are the lessons to be learned from these responses and my posts:

  1. There is no mechanism at present for people to share information about they are doing. Neither New York History Blog nor private emails to me can compensate for the lack of an effective statewide communication system. In theory the New York State Freedom Commission and/or Underground Railroad Heritage Trail at OPRHP could but as we all know there is no chance of that happening.
  2. There are incomplete and multiple different sources of information. With the NPS, NYSOPRHP, and private efforts, there is no one reliable comprehensive source for the locations of actual Underground Railroad sites and for debunking the false sites as well (a feature on the Buffalo site).
  3. The Underground Railroad Consortium represents a major step in the right direction. My impression is that the group was created by dedicated private individuals who are already involved in maintaining their own local sites and do not have the staff or funding to take on administering a statewide program.
  4. Judy Wellman is the key person in New York State at this time.

One should add that the same issues could be mentioned for other areas of New York State history such as the Women’s Suffrage centennial or the American Revolution. There is no racism here by New York State, when it comes to State history, the government is dysfunctional on an equal opportunity basis.

My recommendation is that as soon as the new state historian is hired in May, the Underground Railroad Consortium hold a meeting in Albany to discuss an Underground Railroad agenda. The Consortium should invite all the players from the defunct Freedom Commission including from

the state sphere: the NYS Archives, NYS Education Department, NYS Historian, NYS Library, NYS Museum, NYSOPRHP, SUNY

the non-state public sphere: APHNYS, NYLA, NYSCSS

the private sphere: MANY, NYCH

as well as the grassroots members of the Consortium. And of course, the press like me, Bruce Dearstyne, and John Warren. The purpose of the meeting would be to determine

  1. an agenda of what needs to be done
  2. who is going to do it
  3. what resources are needed.

Waiting for hell to freeze over is not a viable option.

Perhaps there is a lesson to be learned from the Haunted History Trail, the subject of my post to New York History Blog on April 21, 2014, Can New York History Sites Compete with the Supernatural Sites?”

In my post, I reported speaking with Kelly Rapone of the Genesee County Chamber of Commerce which serves as the County Tourist Department. She informed me of the collaborative effort among various county tourist departments to get this trail up and running. I was reminded of this project by a newspaper article dated May 1, 2016, just over two years later. The number of participating counties has increased from 12 to 31 with each contributing $1500 annually (Do they do that for paths through history?). So far this year, website visitors have requested over 22,000 guidebooks, almost ten times the number from 2013. Rapone uses Facebook and social media to promote the trail. There is a “come for the ghosts, stay for the history” attitude expressed by Paul Lear, Fort Ontario State Historic Site in Oswego who reports an increase in attendance following the Fort’s appearance on the TV show Ghost Hunters. Spooky, isn’t it? Maybe I Love NY should hire Kelly to create paths through history for the Underground Railroad and other areas as well.


Harriet Tubman (courtesy of NPS)

The Underground Railroad in New York State: Black Lives Still Don’t Matter

Underground Railroad: Seward House

While recently investigating the dismal record of the more-or-less defunct Amistad Commission that was the subject of two posts, I came across the Underground Railroad on the website of the NYSOPRHP. That subject was a topic of an earlier post on March 6, 2014, Resurrecting the NY Freedom Trail about efforts in Manhattan to create a freedom trail.

The New York State Freedom Trail today is perhaps even less well-known than the New York State Amistad Commission. It began as a state project with similar high hopes and followed the same trajectory to substandard results.

The New York State Freedom Trail Act of 1997 proposed the establishment of a Freedom Trail Commission to plan and implement a New York State Freedom Trail program to commemorate these acts of freedom and to foster public understanding of their significance in New York State history and heritage.

There was an Underground Railroad traveling exhibit “Journey to the North: New York’s Freedom Trail” which could be borrowed by contacting Cordell Reaves who does still work at the OPRHP. There were hundreds of sites identified. There was a commission which was to issue annual reports to the Board of Regents. The State Education Department supported it unlike with the future Amistad Commission. So what happened? Where are these reports? What action has been taken?

The regulations which is still on the books states:

§ 233-b. New York state freedom trail commission. 1. a. There is hereby established within the department [of Education] the New  York state freedom trail commission. The commission shall consist of  twelve members, to be appointed as follows: three members to be  appointed by the  governor, three members to be appointed by the board of regents, two members to be appointed  by  the temporary president of the senate, one member to be appointed by the minority leader of  the senate, two members to be appointed by the speaker of the assembly, and one member to be appointed by the minority leader of the assembly. Such members shall be representative of  academic or public historians, corporations, foundations, historical societies, civic organizations, and religious denominations. In addition, the following state officers, or their designees, shall serve as members of the commission: the commissioner of education, the head of the state museum, the head of the state archives, the head of the office of state history, the commissioner of economic development, the head of the state tourism advisory council and the commissioner of parks, recreation and historic preservation.

Impressive group isn’t it? Assemblyman Englebright has gotten nowhere with his attempt to create a state history committee that brings together precisely these state organizations and here the regulation does that but only for the Underground Railroad.

Just as the Department of Education was supposed to provide the support for the Amistad Commission, the OPRHP was to for the Underground Railroad Commission. There was to be a master plan including “sponsoring commemorations, linkages, seminars and public forum[s].” There were to be annual reports for five years beginning no later than 1999 so perhaps it was intended to die in 2004 even though it was never repealed.

Clearly nothing happened afterwards but did anything happen even after the regulation went into effect? A FOIL request in 2016 to the State Education Department was forwarded to the State Historian and produced the following response:

The New York State Museum History Office has no records pertaining to the New York State Freedom Trail Commission. I am under the impression that the New York State Parks, Recreation, and Historic Preservation were involved with this commission. Also note that there is a published book on the commission that may be helpful: New York State Freedom Trail Program Study: Report to the New York State Freedom Trail Commission, published by the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, 1999.

That report was initiated in 1997. I have a copy of it as I attended a meeting when it was later released. It is not one of the annual reports required by the regulation. The answer as to what happened after the regulation went into effect appears to be that the Freedom Commission like the Amistad Commision like the Heritage Areas like the Path through History was a project of regulations and press releases but devoid of substance.

So let’s see what is going on now. I started with the Parks website. Since Parks was the designated support department, that’s where the website ended up. I clicked on

Discover the many important historic sites, museums and interpretive centers related to Underground Railroad, slavery and anti-slavery themes in New York State which took me to a non-New York State government website. The map contained many hotspots presumably where underground railroad sites are to be located. I selected the Albany flag. I did so because Paul and Mary Liz Stewart, co-founders of The Stephen and Harriet Myers Residence and The Underground Railroad History Project in the Capital Region have participated in IHARE Teacherhostels/ Historyhostels, I have been to the Residence with and without teachers, I see them at various conferences, and it received at $70,000 grant in the 2015 REDC Awards announced last December. I have attended their annual conference but it is not held on the Path through History weekend nor is the one in Peterboro. As you might suspect given this buildup when I clicked on the Albany flag a blank inset box appeared. There was no information at all about any underground railroad site in Albany, just a flag indicating there was. It made it look like the project simply had been abandoned in mid-stream.

The Stephen and Harriet Myers Residence (Lakestolocks)

The Stephen and Harriet Myers Residence (Lakestolocks)

Paul Stewart did write about the residence:

In a similar spirit, the site doesn’t feel monumental—it feels intimate—and it doesn’t act like a traditional museum—it functions as a center for outreach and generates conversation about a history that continues to demonstrate its relevance as part of a lineage of struggle that can easily be tied to the aims of Martin Luther King, and, in our contemporary world, Black Lives Matter.

But not on the Parks website. Sorry Paul, those black lives don’t matter there.

Then in 2013, a change occurred. As reported in New York History Blog

New Map, App Feature NY Underground Railroad Sites

Federal and state partners have recently released a new online map and mobile app to help people explore New York State’s connection to abolitionism and the Underground Railroad. The map includes sites, programs and tours that have been approved by the National Park Service Network to Freedom Program or the New York State Underground Railroad Heritage Trail.

The New York sites were now part of a national effort led by the National Park Service.

Ruth Pierpont, Deputy Commissioner for Historic Preservation at OPRHP said in a statement issued to the press: “We are happy to partner with the Erie Canalway Heritage Corridor and I Love New York in making this user-friendly map available to promote an understanding of this important, and still under-recognized, aspect of the history of our state.”

This map was available on an app and on the web. So now there were two New York maps of underground railroad sites, one at NYSOPRHP and one which can be accessed through the National Park Service Erie Canal Heritage Corridor if it occurs to someone that for the purposes of the underground railroad in the entire state of New York the Erie Canal Heritage Corridor website is the place to go.

On that map, the Stephen and Harriet Myers Residence can be located by clicking on one of the stars in the Albany region. The website link for the Residence takes you to “Body and Home Improvement” which asks why you should hire a water damage restoration company, the advantages of metal roofing, and Healthy Meal Prep Options: Lemon Pepper Chicken. Keeping links up-to-date can be a challenge especially if no one is responsible for doing it.


Images from website directed to by New York State Network to Freedom -Underground Railroad

Note: The error on the web link has been corrected – “Note: was once associated with the underground workshop. This website is not affiliated in any way with its previous owners.”

I then decided to try the star for the First Congregational Church of Poughkeepsie where I know the Mid-Hudson Anti-Slavery Project meets. Rebecca Edwards, Vassar College, one of the founders, did speak to teachers in a IHARE program and IHARE once helped fund a stop of the Amistad replica in Poughkeepsie. The click on the website link from the map took me to “Oops! That page can’t be found.”

Finally, I tried the one site in Westchester where I live. It is for Philipsburg Manor in Sleepy Hollow which also has participated in IHARE programs. I was a little surprised to see it on an Underground Railroad site since it was Loyalist property that was confiscated after the American Revolution and didn’t exist in the 1800s. The historic site has focused on runaway slave ads from the time slavery was legal in New York and it wasn’t part of the Underground Railroad movement. In this case the link from the Erie Canal Heritage Corridor did work. When I reached the Philipsburg Manor website I did a search on “Underground Railroad” and found nothing which is to be expected.

In case you were wondering, the Stephen and Harriet Myers Residence is not on the Path through History website either. This makes sense since it doesn’t mean the qualifications of I Love NY for a tourist site regardless of its listing on the National Park Service Erie Canal Heritage Corridor map.

There is more that could be written about the New York State Freedom Trail/Underground Railroad Heritage trail with its defunct commission, no staff, inadequate websites, and the lack of support for conferences, public forums, and teacher programs but the point should be clear. Unfunded, dysfunctional, silo organized history projects are standard operating procedure in New York State. Although black lives don’t matter in New York State history it’s not because the State is racist, it is because the State’s ineptitude occurs on an equal opportunity basis.

The New York State Amistad Commission: Do Black Lives Matter?

“In 2005 [during Governor Pataki’s administration], New York’s Legislature created an Amistad Commission to review state curriculum regarding the slave trade. All people should know of and remember the human carnage and dehumanizing atrocities committed during the period of the African slave trade and slavery in America and consider the vestiges of slavery in this country. It is vital to educate our citizens on these events, the legacy of slavery, the sad history of racism in this country, and on the principles of human rights and dignity in a civilized society.”

This excerpt comes from the website of the Amistad Commission which is part of the Department of State in the organization chart of New York State (

The legislation authorizing the commission is New York Arts and Cultural Affairs Law, Article 57B (57.51-57.54). It provides the historical background for the importance of the subject:

1. During the period beginning late in the fifteenth century through the nineteenth century, millions of persons of African origin were enslaved and brought to the Western Hemisphere, including the United States of America; anywhere from between twenty to fifty percent of enslaved Africans died during their journey to the Western Hemisphere; the enslavement of Africans and their descendants was part of a concerted effort of physical and psychological terrorism that deprived groups of people of African descent the opportunity to preserve many of their social, religious, political and other customs; the vestiges of slavery in this country continued with the legalization of second class citizenship status for African-Americans through Jim Crow laws, segregation and other similar practices; the legacy of slavery has pervaded the fabric of our society; and in spite of these events there are endless examples of the triumphs of African-Americans and their significant contributions to the development of this country.

It calls upon our civic and moral responsibility to remember what happened.

2. All people should know of and remember the human carnage and dehumanizing atrocities committed during the period of the African slave trade and slavery in America and of the vestiges of slavery in this country; and it is in fact vital to educate our citizens on these events, the legacy of slavery, the sad history of racism in this country, and on the principles of human rights and dignity in a civilized society.

It declares the policy of the State to fulfill this responsibility through the schools.

3. It is the policy of the state of New York that the history of the African slave trade, slavery in America, the depth of their impact in our society, and the triumphs of African-Americans and their significant contributions to the development of this country is the proper concern of all people, particularly students enrolled in the schools of the state of New York.

Finally, it authorizes the establishment of a commission to act to fulfill that policy.

4. It is therefore desirable to create a state-level commission, which shall research and survey the extent to which the African slave trade and slavery in America is included in the curricula of New York state schools, and make recommendations to the legislature and executive regarding the implementation of education and awareness programs in New York concerned with the African slave trade, slavery in America, the vestiges of slavery in this country, and the contributions of African-Americans in building our country. Such recommendations may include, but not be limited to, the development of workshops, institutes, seminars, and other teacher training activities designed to educate teachers on this subject matter; the coordination of events on a regular basis, throughout the state, that provide appropriate memorialization of the events concerning the enslavement of Africans and their descendants in America as well as their struggle for freedom and liberty; (emphasis added) and suggestions for revisions to the curricula and textbooks used to educate the students of New York state to reflect a more adequate inclusion of issues identified by the commission.

Section § 57.52 establishes the unfunded Amistad commission of 19 people with details about the composition, duties, and term of office. The commission includes as one would hope the Commissioner of Education and the Department of Education is called upon to provide technical assistance for the completion of the task as needed.

Section § 57.53 details the duties and responsibilities. The commission has a very broad mandate and scope truly national in perspective.

1. to survey and catalog the extent and breadth of education concerning the African slave trade, slavery in America, the vestiges of slavery in this country and the contributions of African-Americans to our society presently being incorporated into the curricula and textbooks and taught in the school systems of the state; and, to inventory those African slave trade, American slavery, or relevant African-American history memorials, exhibits and resources which should be incorporated into courses of study at educational institutions and schools throughout the state.
2. to compile a roster of individual volunteers who are willing to share their knowledge and experience in classrooms, seminars and workshops with students and teachers (emphasis added) on the subject of the African slave trade, American slavery and the impact of slavery on our society today, and the contributions of African-Americans to our country; and
3. to prepare reports for the governor and the legislature regarding its findings (emphasis added) and recommendations on facilitating the inclusion of the African slave trade, American slavery studies, African-American history and special programs in the educational system of the state.

On paper, this clearly is a major undertaking.

Turning now to the commission in charge of fulling this mission, one does indeed note the listing of the Commissioner of Education as part of the team. However, the name of the Commissioner listed is John P. King; he, of course, has not been the Commissioner for over a year. This raises the question of whether or not the Amistad Commission is a viable entity. Surely if it still functioned, the new Commissioner of Education would be listed. It is reasonable to conclude that this Commission is defunct and has been for years but lives on only on the New York State website.

The website has a tab for upcoming meetings. When I first checked it several months ago, none were scheduled. That is still true as of the writing of this post. The Commission does not appear to be functioning and hasn’t for a long time.

Need more documentary proof? Under a listing of current exhibitions at the New York State Museum, one finds:

An Irrepressible Conflict: The Empire State in the Civil War
Saturday, September 22, 2012 – Sunday, September 22, 2013
Exhibition Hall
For more information:

I Shall Think of You Often: The Civil War Story of Doctor and Mary Tarbell
Saturday, March 30, 2013 – Sunday, September 22, 2013
South Lobby
For more information:

Is it necessary to point out that is hasn’t been 2013 for several years now. The Underground Railroad History Project of the Capital Region conference for 2014 is listed but the one from 2015 is not. This is a website that needs serious work.

However, someone is still adding items to the Amistad Commission website under Resources. There is a notice about one event for the 2016 Martin Luther King Day holiday. There is a listing for AFRICAN AMERICAN HISTORY OF WESTERN NEW YORK which when clicked takes you to the Department of Mathematics at the University of Buffalo. There is a link to the SCHOMBURG CENTER FOR RESEARCH IN BLACK CULTURE which does seems appropriate and does work. Then there is a link to the Governor’s announcement in November, 2015, of a new Path through History website which is of questionable relevance to the purpose of the Amistad Commission. Several additional conferences, exhibits, and events from 2015 are listed so evidently some effort was spent to stay current. One should note that these are not events created by the Amistad Commission but items listed by the Commission somewhat like the Path through History listing events without creating them either.

Finally, let’s return to the emphasized items above in the legislation.

the development of workshops, institutes, seminars, and other teacher training activities designed to educate teachers on this subject matter; the coordination of events on a regular basis, throughout the state, that provide appropriate memorialization of the events concerning the enslavement of Africans and their descendants in America as well as their struggle for freedom and liberty;

roster of individual volunteers who are willing to share their knowledge and experience in classrooms, seminars and workshops with students and teachers

prepare reports for the governor and the legislature regarding its findings

While other organizations do things in this subject area, I did not locate any information on the website listing the rooster of these individuals, any programs the Amistad Commission has developed, any evidence that it functions as a coordinator for such events, or any reports that have been submitted. Perhaps if the Governor can be persuaded to call a history meeting in Albany as recommended in my New Year Resolution post, a decision can be made to fish or cut bait with something that at present only exists on the web and not in the real world.

Remembering America’s Fallen In Every Community

There is a special group of people who are remembered by a society. These are the fallen, those who die in battle on behalf of something larger than themselves. In the Bible there is an infrequently used term “nephilim” from the verb “to fall.”

Based on the archaeological evidence, the Nephilim appear to have been part of group who were remembered in Canaanite societies in the Middle and Late Bronze Age (second millennium BCE). These fallen warriors were remembered in feasts and stories just as warriors who have fallen in battle are still remembered today. It’s part of the human experience. Continue reading “Remembering America’s Fallen In Every Community”

Slavery And The New York State History Community

Slavery and New York State have a long history together. Indeed, the history of slavery in New York predates the birth of New York as an English and originates in the days of New Netherland, part of the extensive international slave trade.

As we are regularly reminded by events today, slavery has not disappeared. The current issue of Time includes an article on the worldwide continuance of slavery today, especially targeting young women and girls.

What does this have to do with New York history today? Continue reading “Slavery And The New York State History Community”

Resurrecting the NY Freedom Trail

The wheel is about to be reinvented. In response to an earlier post on the State Tourism Advisory Council, Rosemary Vietor wrote the following comment:

Peter – Perhaps you saw the article in yesterday’s WSJ NY section on the underground railroad (not precise title) tourism sites proposed for Manhattan. It is an effort to link those sites (most of which no longer exist) into a walking tour. There has been for a number of years a similar effort in Flushing, the Flushing Freedom Mile. It links sites such as the Quaker Meeting House, Bowne House and others. There are markers so one can do this tour. Here is a great example of what might be done to increase history tourism – link both sites and others around the city. Why is this not done? It’s so obvious. As for Mystic Seaport, I can tell you from involvement there that CT has long recognized the importance of history and tourism and has devoted substantial funds to those efforts. New York seems indifferent at best. NY Culture. Continue reading “Resurrecting the NY Freedom Trail”