Race, Riots, and the Right to Learn: Black Education in Antebellum New York | Episode 227

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The formal education of Black New Yorkers began with the Manumission Society’s African Free Schools, which first opened in 1787. Though the city was at the forefront of Black education, it would take decades to break down barriers to higher education, and schools, students, teachers, and benefactors were under threat of racial violence. This virtual program will examine the early history of Black schools in the city and neighboring Brooklyn, and the impact the evolving political discourse – and violence – around slavery had on them. This discussion will be hosted not in New York, but near the small town of Canaan, New Hampshire, which was the site of a horrific act of racial violence in 1835: the destruction of the Noyes Academy, the first racially-integrated college preparatory school in the country.

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Slavery and the Brooklyn Navy Yard

After nearly 12 years of leading tours at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, one of the most difficult questions we get – and almost always from young people – is this: Were there slaves here?

This question is vexing not just because of the complex and painful subject matter, but also because the historical record is incomplete. The result is usually an imprecise and unsatisfying answer. In short, yes, enslaved people were an integral part of life at the Brooklyn Navy Yard for the 60 years leading up to the Civil War, just as they were across Brooklyn and New York City.

This is an effort to unpack that complexity and get somewhere closer to the historical truth of the matter.

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