P.S. 24 Spuyten Duyvil decided to take a more local approach to black history this year.
Through the collaborative efforts of Kingsbridge Historical Society president Nick Dembowski and Van Cortlandt Conservancy president Margot Perron — as well as author and Manhattan College professor Sherrill Wilson — fourth- and fifth-graders at the West 236th Street school traveled back in time to explore what is now Van Cortlandt Park back in the 18th century.
“I learned that many African-Americans were not a part of any stories that were told back then,” said Alexandra Kovacs, 10. “And that they were also an important part of the stories.”
For a few moments at least, P.S. 24’s auditorium turned into a college lecture hall. Wilson flipped through slides of historical documents that referred to blacks the same way a farmer might refer to cattle. Wilson taught the students about the contributions of the enslaved Africans, such as their maintenance of the crops which helped to build New York’s economy.
For Dembowski, his visit to P.S. 24 was a homecoming since he spent 14 years of his career as a teacher at the Spuyten Duyvil school. He and the coalition dedicated to unearthing the history of enslaved Africans at Van Cortlandt plantation brought the presentation idea to principal Steven Schwartz in January.
“What I noticed was that the enslaved Africans who built the (Van Cortlandt) plantations were only mentioned as footnotes in a couple of places,” Perron said. “So people don’t know this. It’s like a hidden secret, and we don’t want it to be a secret.”
An awareness campaign was created by the coalition to get the word out about the history of blacks in the northwest Bronx, with P.S. 24 serving as the kick-off point. It won’t be the only point, however, as the coalition plans to spread this piece of little-known local history to other nearby schools and organizations.
Wilson is used to teaching adults, so it took a little work to tweak her presentation so it could reach the minds of much younger students. That allowed her to focus on family, a dynamic kids could relate to. She spoke about how some enslaved African mothers would murder their babies to keep them from living a life in slavery.
The mention of infanticide caused a collective gasp from the kids. Lessons like these are what teachers call “difficult history,” Perron said. Teaching subjects like slavery to students is important, but it doesn’t make it any easier to hear.
“It was a very difficult time,” Perron said. “And yet people persevered, and it is something that should be acknowledged.”
Dembowski worked with Wilson on the presentation to include critical information while remaining sensitive to their young audience.
“I’m programmed now that whenever a speaker is speaking to also look at our students,” Schwartz said. “And looking at their reactions there was definitely some shock value. I think it’s important because then they realize the importance of the information.”
After the event, the P.S. 24 students were given small packets of old advertisements hunting runaway slaves to really hit the point home about what enslaved people went through a few short centuries ago.
The presentation ended a week-long project designed to help them better understand each other in the midst of Black History Month in February. Education officials citywide had developed a “Respect for All” week, with each day dedicated to inclusive ideals like tolerance and acceptance. Through wacky exercises like wearing two mix-matched shoes, for example, the students learned to literally walk in someone else’s shoes.
“Tolerance means people are being kind and accepting you,” the young Kovacs said. “Respect means that I am kind.”
On the final day of Respect for All week, P.S. 24 students showed their kindness through actions.
“No one eats alone today,” conflict resolution officer Wendy Maldonado said. “We are going to show action today and show what you’ve all been symbolizing all week.”
While Respect for All events working with the Black History Month presentation was a coincidence, it still tried to create a space of acceptance and diversity.
“Our goal is to teach students to really recognize and respect everyone regardless of gender or culture,” Schwartz said. Respect for All events were “just an opportunity to have a fun way for kids to represent themselves, and to show the importance of who they are.”