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Runaway Slave Ads: Should They Be in the Curriculum?

Runaway Slave Ad Extra-credit Assignment

In the school district of the Village of Port Chester where I live, a teacher offered an extra-credit option to create a runaway slave ad. The ad was to include:

1. The amount of the reward
2. The name and age of the runaway
3. A five-sentence description of the runaway
4. The moment and location when the act of running away was discovered
5. Contact information in the SOUTHERN STATE of the slaveholder
6. Portrait of the runaway.

Two examples of runaway ads were presented. One runaway was named “Aaron” or “Ape” and the other was from Kentucky. I could not read all the details from the image that I downloaded.

The extra-credit assignment immediately became a news item in print and social media. I read about it in my local paper. According local news reports, the assignment was related to a unit of curriculum on American slavery. The exercise was a follow-up to an exam on slavery, the Civil War, reconstruction, and American society leading up to the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

In response, Port Chester Schools Superintendent Edward Kliszus released a statement after the assignment was posted on Facebook.

The District considers this assignment offensive and inappropriate on multiple levels. This morning we commenced an investigation into the incident and are involving our attorneys on the matter to ensure that we explore all means to best address this issue. I pledge that the District shall take appropriate action to ensure not only that this type of situation does not reoccur, but also, that all of our staff thoroughly understand the gross impropriety of the assignment. We believe firmly that we can discuss the tragedies of American slavery, the Civil War, and Civil Rights in ways that comport rather with the highest orders of human dignity….

The whole process is vetted through our attorney to make sure we do everything we’re supposed to. We’re not going to hide anything. Transparency is very important in these kinds of things.

As it turns out, these statements taking the high road, completely miss the mark and highlight a serious problem.

By coincidence, as this story broke, I attended, as I have on many occasions, the Memorial Day ceremony at the African Burial Ground owned by the Town of Rye in which the Village of Port Chester is located. [I also visit the John Jay family cemetery in Rye.  I am neither a Jay descendant nor black.] To the best of my knowledge, this recently-restored cemetery of free blacks (at death) is not part of the local school curriculum. I touched on this general subject in my post on Twelve Years a Slave – What about the Other Years?

In conversation with a prominent member of the local NAACP chapter, I mentioned my own experiences with runaway slave ads. Years ago when I began Teacherhostels/Historyhostels, we visited Philipsburg Manor, Historic Hudson Valley, in Sleepy Hollow. The historic site had initiated a new project involving runaway slave ads. Visiting students were introduced to the topic. Examples of the ads created by the students were hung on the wall. My impression was that Historic Hudson Valley was quite proud of its venture into this new way of teaching about the reality of slavery. The ads focused on slavery in the north, in the Hudson Valley. It didn’t just happen in the South and people did resist slavery.

Years later, Historic Hudson Valley developed a curriculum based on runaway ads:

During the colonial period, runaway slave advertisements were published in nearly every newspaper. Today these primary documents serve as a painful reminder of our nation’s history, indicate the size and scope of colonial enslavement in the North, and provide evidence of ongoing, active resistance by enslaved individuals against the institution that bound them. They also form the basis for Historic Hudson Valley’s (HHV) interdisciplinary school program, RUNAWAY ART: Interpreting Colonial Slave Ads.

Working in partnership with The Center for Arts Education (CAE), HHV has created an arts-integrated curriculum module which will serve 10,000 students in New York City public middle schools over three years. Set against the backdrop of northern enslavement and resistance and using new age-appropriate curriculum, the program includes:

Professional development workshops for participating teachers and teaching artists held at Philipsburg Manor, an 18th-century working plantation in Sleepy Hollow, NY

A collaborative classroom instructional model

Student creation of two-dimensional art and personal statement inspired by real runaway slave ads printed in local newspapers in the 1700s

Review our classroom materials, our teacher training materials, or download the complete curriculum.

More recently, Historic Hudson Valley was able to offer an NEH seminar for teachers on the subject.

Wednesday’s session will begin with Dr. Harris discussing how the enslaved community responded to their status as property rather than person. Moving from the framework of slavery at the institutional level into the details of enslaved life at a particular time and place opens a conversation about agency and action from the perspective of the enslaved. The afternoon will focus on the use of primary documents and historical fiction as a tool for personalizing the story of enslavement. Teachers will be introduced to a variety of documents ranging from wills, inventories, advertisements, depositions, and personal narratives that begin to humanize the story. Participants will also examine how to make use of creative narrative storytelling like drama, fiction, or visual art in the classroom to bridge gaps in documentation. In particular, HHV will highlight two successful ways in which it has used the arts to help build historical empathy: museum theater and an arts-integrated in-classroom project called “Runaway Art.”

Although not a participant in the seminar, I was able to attend the opening public lecture.

As I briefly recounted this information following the ceremony at the African Burial Ground, the NAACP representative accepted that these developments had occurred and noted the importance of the context in which the assignment was given. I heartily agree. The fact that the assignment mentioned southern state slavery and ignored the north and the regrettable comments of the School Superintendent didn’t bode well for the Port Chester school district. The village is located directly across the county from Philipsburg Manor. In fact I suspect when the Philips first imported slaves in 1685 and landed in Rye, the land route across the county to their manor probably followed parts of Westchester Avenue, the current local road that transverses the county and ends up in the middle of Manor.

By coincidence, two weeks later on June 16, I attended a workshop on slavery in New York at the New-York Historical Society. I asked about runaway ads mentioning this recent development in Westchester. Sure enough during the tour of the exhibits, there were runaway slave ads posted and they were part of the workshop discussion.

The next day, on June 17, there was a major op-ed piece in the local paper by two representatives of the African-American Advisory Board of Historic Hudson Valley. The Board generously offered its assistance to the Port Chester school system.

We invite middle schoolers at Port Chester and students everywhere to study runaway ads with the help of their teachers. Taught in historical context these documents can help students (and adults) grasp the complex and entrenched nature of slavery in the United States….

Parents, teachers, and school leaders in Port Chester may be eager to put the present controversy behind them as the school year winds down. To the contrary, we hope that Port Chester  – and every school district in Westchester – embraces the slavery topic anew. Runaway Art is just one way of doing that; a class trip to Philipsburg Manor is another….Objectionable as the assignment was, the real loss would be a retreat from facing this unpleasant history because of its potential for controversy.

Another way is for organizations like Philipsburg Manor and the New-York Historical Society to reach out to teachers at social studies conferences. Not everything has to be a federally-funded seminar or require travelling to the history organization. It is also possible for the history organization to go to the teacher.

The op-ed piece contains one oddity. There is an example of a runaway slave ad. It is for an escaped slave named George Latimer. I am not sure exactly why they picked this ad in particular. George Latimer happens to be the newly-elected Irish-Italian Westchester county executive.

Years ago, I held a conference on slavery in New York at Manhattanville College. One of the speakers was the then-site manager at Philipsburg Manor. Another was A. J. Williams-Myers, then at SUNY. Later this summer he is hosting a similar conference more geographically confined:

The Conference on Black History in the Hudson Valley

Saturday, July 14, 2018

9:00 AM to 5:30 PM

The Hudson River Maritime Museum and The Library at the A.J. Williams-Myers African Roots Center in Kingston are proud hosts of The Conference on Black History in the Hudson Valley. The focus of this conference is the history of Black and African-American residents in the Hudson Valley, including communities and work along the canals and tributaries of the Hudson River. The Conference on Black History in the Hudson Valley is open to researchers of all levels, with special sessions for short presentations of research-in-progress for students and historians alike. Concurrent sessions at HRMM and the African Roots Library will be scheduled in 60- and 75-minute sessions to accommodate more formal 45 minute presentations and performances, panels of three 15 minute research-in-progress presentations, and for workshops, roundtable discussions, and more.

Here is another example to familiarize oneself with the actual history.

The real problem with runaway slave ads was identified in parentheses in the op-ed piece: (and adults). The lessons of the this incident are adults behaving badly, adults not being well-informed, adults overreacting, adults seeking to take the moral high ground without understanding the situation. I don’t know what preparation occurred in the classroom prior to this extra-credit assignment. I do know that the requirement to limit slavery to the South presents a false picture of the slave experience. I do suspect that teachers, curriculum specialists, principals, and superintendents are not current with the scholarship and work on slavery and the resources available. I do know that field trips should not be considered a frill, an easily eliminated option. Isn’t it possible that students returning from a field trip to an historic site might want to read about it and what they learned there? If not, then shouldn’t the schools and historic sites be working together to create such learning environments? In short, there is an opportunity here that will be wasted to seriously think about the teaching of slavery, the teaching of local, state, and American history, and the role of historic sites as civic organizations in the k-12 curriculum.

What Was the Turning Point of the American Revolution?

John Neilson Farmhouse, the only standing structure on Saratoga Battlefield from the time of the Battles of Saratoga

What was the turning point of the American Revolution? The standard answer is the Battle of Saratoga in October, 1777.  The British under General Johnny Burgoyne sought to divide and conquer the fledgling United States. Through a three-pronged attack, the British, who already occupied New York City, would separate New England from Pennsylvania and Virginia thereby bringing the would-be country to its knees. As many Americans know, the plan was unsuccessful and it was at Saratoga where the floundering effort finally failed. The British surrender there caught the attention of the French who then allied with the United States. The rest, as they say, is history.

During the Teacherhostels/Historyhostels I led, we visited many sites in New York associated with the American Revolution including Saratoga. During one program, I detected a pattern among the various sites: they all claimed to be the turning point of the American Revolution! Once I caught on to this pattern, I shared my observation with the teachers. You can guess what happened next. At our next stop, after about five minutes into the talk, the docent of the site exclaimed that the site was the turning point of the American Revolution. The teachers then began to laugh. I felt sorry for the docent who was not privy to the information I had just mentioned to the teachers before we walked into the museum.

Obviously, all these locations cannot be the turning point of the American Revolution. No doubt American Revolution scholars/professors could easily demolish the arguments made to support these claims. Equally obviously, such a decimation would entirely miss the point. The observable phenomena is that the American Revolution is the foundational event for the creation of this country and everyone wanted to connect their community to that event. By claiming to be the turning point, these people assert that the American Revolution is their story regardless of whether or not they were a biological son or daughter of the American Revolution. Through the claim of being the turning point, these people were proudly declaring and affirming their identity as Americans.

Lately this desire to connect to the American Revolution has expanded beyond a geographical link. Now the link is being claimed based on race, gender, class, and ethnicity. It as if everyone wants to get into the act. The story of the American Revolution isn’t just purview of heroic dead white men. On the contrary, the true story includes a demographically diverse range of a portion of colonists united in their commitment and willingness to sacrifice their lives on behalf of the new born country. They didn’t want the United States to be still-born or die in infancy but to grow and thrive. Just as all these geographical communities link themselves to the story of the American Revolution born on the fourth of July, so increasing number of demographic communities have sought in recent years to make the American Revolution part of their heritage as well.

The most striking current example of connecting a demographically-diverse constituency to the American Revolution is, of course, Hamilton, the musical. When I attended the American Revolution Reborn conference in Philadelphia in 2013 (the subject of five posts), it is reasonable to conclude that no one present anticipated that the American Revolution would be reborn as a musical and one dedicated to Hamilton, of all people. The recent exhibition about him at the New-York Historical Society did not engender such warm and lavish praise on him as a representative of the demographically-changing American population. Quite the contrary. Back then it was more of: here’s another boring exhibition by a staid elitist organization about a dead white man. Who knew?  Now it hosted the summer of Hamilton!


Meryl Streep and the American Revolution (Hollywood Reporter)

As it turns out, our connecting all Americans to the American Revolution is essential if We the People are to continue to exist. Our connecting to the American Revolution is essential to the health and strength of the social fabric of this country. If it unravels or is torn asunder, then the United States ceases to exist. Luminaries like Frederick Douglas, Abraham Lincoln, and Martin Luther King all connected with the Declaration of Independence in some way as did the Seneca Falls Convention and George M. Cohan. Lin-Manuel Miranda is part of a long and hallowed tradition of breathing life into America’s heritage to renew it. Meryl Streep’s shout out to Deborah Sampson at the Democratic National Convention is the most recent highly visible example of linking oneself to that foundational event.

I was reminded of the importance of being the turning point of the American of the great defeat in the American Revolution 240 years ago today. It is called the Battle of Brooklyn or of Long Island or of New York. It has multiple names with Brooklyn now asserting itself and its connection to the American Revolution. (There is no shame anymore in having a 718 area code rather than 212!)  Regardless of the name, the battle marked a major defeat for the country that had just declared its independence the previous month. Suddenly out of nowhere a British fleet with over 30,000 people, a veritable city of its own, appeared on the horizon. As the New Yorkers gazed out to the ocean on August 22, all they could see was this massive flotilla. There were no satellites then to track the movement westward of the level 5 Howe Hurricane from England. It is difficult today to convey the impact the British fleet had then. Perhaps the closest example of this shock-and-awe armada is the fictional appearance of the spaceships in the movie Independence Day before it obliterates the White House [the movie combines American Revolution and War of 1812 resonances].

britishIndependence Day

The British fleet in the lower bay (Harpers Magazine, 1876) and Independence Day

The battle on August 27 is not as well-known as some others, after all we lost. Barnet Schecter tirelessly tells the story of the battle for New York in person and in a book of the same title. John Glover fans strive to sustain the memory of the heroic Massachusetts fisherman/merchant who led the evacuation of the Continental army from Long Island to Manhattan under a providential fog during the night of August 29-30. This escape was made possible in part due to the valiant efforts of the First Maryland Regiment to delay the British to provide Washington the time needed to cross over. Hundreds of Marylanders sacrificed themselves in what was in effect a suicidal but critical mission. Brooklynite Bob Furman has led the effort to identify and commemorate the sites in Gowanus where the Maryland 400 fought and where the British dumped the bodies afterwards (as Lance Ashworth struggles to do at the Fishkill Depot at the cemetery there). The book about the Regiment is titled Washington’s Immortals: The Untold Story of an Elite Regiment Who Changed the Course of the Revolution by Patrick O’Donnell by perhaps no coincidence whatsoever attests the “turning point” ethos.










There even will be “The Battle of Brooklyn” exhibit opening at the New-York Historical Society shortly. Imagine that! According to Valerie Paley, vice president and chief historian, the Battle of Brooklyn was not the turning point of the American Revolution. I repeat: she did not say it was the turning point. She did however say it may have been the most important battle of the American Revolution. She really is saying the battle was the turning point because of what the British didn’t do. They failed to capture George Washington, the indispensable person. If you think the United States is the Great Satan and can go back in time, then you go back and kill him because without him, there would be no America. And if you can’t kill him physically then kill him through your scholarship. The British failed to apprehend him and eventually paid the price when Washington returned to New York to be inaugurated there as President of the United States.


Valerie Paley, New-York Historical Society, Bob Furman (NYT August 26, 2012)

So even though the Battle of New York/Long Island/Brooklyn was lost and New York was occupied territory until Evacuation Day, November 25, 1783, the battle set the stage for what was to come. The failure to capture Washington and his army led to Plan B: shock-and-awe was replaced with divide-and-conquer. Plan B ended in failure at Saratoga.

There is a new exhibit called “Witness to War” at the Old Stone House in Brooklyn where these events transpired. According to the website: “Ten themed areas allow visitors to explore this history and consider how war impacted the community, what choices citizens had to make at the time, battle strategies, and what makes these issues relevant in today’s world” thereby connecting people of America’s present to the people of America’s birth.

Witness to War: Appropriating Revolution brings together contemporary artists inspired by the unique history of the House and of other past revolutions in their efforts to address the most important issues of today. In a contemporary political climate where the term “revolution” (defined as “the overthrow of a government or social order in favor of a new system”) risks association with either polarizing rhetoric or cynical complacency, is there an especially appropriate role for artists to play by bringing the tactics and triumphs of the past to the forefront of our conversations.


Kim Maier, Executive Director, Old Stone House NYT Auguest 26, 2012

Kim Maier, executive director of the Old Stone House said: “It’s a story about loss, but it’s also a story about how we get to where we are today.” Now more than ever, it is important for We the People in words, music, paintings, art, processions, and re-enactments to tell the story of the American Revolution. The experiment continues, the journey goes on, for in every generation, in every place, in every person, we must be the turning point if the vision is to be realized and the dream fulfilled.

Historic Hamilton and America’s Future

Alexander Hamilton is boffo at the box office. The heretofore unsung Founding Father best known for losing a duel is the subject of over two hours of song and dance in the new musical Hamilton. The Off-Broadway show is packing people in to rave reviews and reactions and is expected to move to Broadway this summer. Hamilton has become a bit of a phenomenon that has taken Manhattan by storm.

Hamilton also is of critical importance to health and future of this country. While that might seem like an over-the-top assertion, it isn’t. Continue reading “Historic Hamilton and America’s Future”