Teachers Find Wealth of Lessons in African Burial Ground

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ildren from P.S./I.S. 308 watched the horse-drawn procession

The teachers took the school’s three fifth-grade classes to the Wall Street Pier for the ceremony marking the return of the African’s remains to New York City in October. The teachers – Deborah Barber, Jeannette MacMillan and Aquilla Raiford – have also invited a representative from the African Burial Ground Office’s speakers bureau to address the class. The teachers followed up the burial ground trip by taking their classes on a tour of the Freedom Schooner Amistad when it docked in New York in November.
After the trip, two of the classes wrote essays about their experience and the third started work on a time-line that told about Africans in colonial New York.
“First I gave them reading materials, and we went over important dates, then every child made their own time-line,” Ms. Barber said. “We started with 1625 when the first African Americans arrived in what was then New Amsterdam and we took that time line until 1863 when they had the big draft riots here in New York City.”
Working in teams, the children illustrated and wrote captions about important events in the African American time-line. Their illustrations and captions displayed on a hall bulletin board include such highlights as:
* “Eleven enslaved men are freed along with their wives, but not their children. They were given farmland North of New Amsterdam. 1644.”
* “The first major highway is built by African Americans. 1685.”
* “A slave market is made on Wall Street and the East River. 1711.”
* “African Free School is established with 40 girls and 40 boys. 1782.”
* “Land for the African Burial Ground granted to the Van Buren Family. 1795.”
“The time line is very important because it gives us a perspective of things and helps us better interpret things that were happening to us that are not in the history book,” Ms. Barber said.
For example, she said, while the text tells of the English taking over New Amsterdam from the Dutch, it does not explain what that meant for African Americans, some of whom had been given freedom and farmland north of Wall Street to settle areas the Dutch considered dangerous Native American territory. The British rescinded those deals.
“When the Dutch surrendered to the British, it was devastating for African Americans; we lost a lot of land and a lot of freedom,” Ms. Barber said.
Still big events, even ones involving African Americans, don’t mean as much to little children as stories about what everyday life was like in colonial New York. Reading aloud excerpts from books and articles that tell these stories piques the students’ interest. It also provides an exercise to strengthen the students’ listening and writing skills – important since there’s an essay question on the state social studies exam.
“I read aloud and have the children take notes, then I have them write an essay about it,” Ms. Barber said.
Materials from the New York African Burial Ground Office of Public Education and Interpretation, slave narratives and a growing number of books about African Americans in colonial days (see list) are resources for the read alouds.
The students also made a map of colonial lower Manhattan to go with their time-line, essays and drawings. A map colonial lower Manhattan in an African Burial Ground Office publication was photocopied onto a transparency, which was projected onto a large sheet of paper on the wall. About five at a time, the students traced the map onto the paper.
Besides interesting bulletin boards, the teachers’ work has produced students who have a better understanding about African Americans in colonial times and their role in making the United States the wealthy nation it has become and who ask questions.
“What was most surprising to me was they way they found the bones, how the bones found at the African Burial Ground were all bent up and crushed together because of the way they were treated and they way they had to work,” said student Chenaisia Campbell.
“I feel the same as Chenaisia,” said Kaily Pinto. “I know they had their spines compressed like that because they carried heavy loads on their backs and on their heads.
“It’s not what so surprising to me, but why haven’t they found more bodies in other states because it’s not like they all came here to bury Africans. There had to be other burial grounds other places,” Kaily asked.
The classes’ tour of the Freedom Schooner Amistad gave the children another opportunity to reach out and touch the history of Africans in colonial New York with their hands as well as imaginations. After the events following the Africans’ revolt, the Amistad was found off the coast of Long Island in 1839. However, it was pulled into New Haven, Conn., because the Africans would have been free automatically in New York, which had abolished slavery in 1827.
Boarding the schooner by planks, handling the ship’s thick sail ropes ,then climbing down into its hull made the story come to life for the children. They sat at the captain’s table for a deck hand’s retelling of the Amistad story that not only included the leadership role of Sengbe Pieh in the celebrated drama, but also told about the children who were on board.
“They talked about a boy – and a girl too – who had gone to the market for his mother and got kidnaped and taken to Cuba,” said student Ernest Walls. “We were inside the cabin of the Amistad. They said the ceiling was only 3 feet tall. It would have been hard for the Africans to move around.”