Schuyler Flatts Re-Burial and African Burial Grounds in New York State

 1024x1024Burial grounds of enslaved Americans are landmarks of American history. However, many are abandoned, undocumented, covered over by “development,” and lack any type of recognition or protection.  Societal neglect has forced the burial grounds to continually disappear from our landscape, depriving generations of heritage and history.  The sites are sacred and represent lost stories within our nation’s narrative, and a forgotten people who are deserving of dignity and remembrance.  “They have been bulldozed over by shopping centers, crept over by weeds and forgotten by time. Across the country, from Lower Manhattan to the Deep South, are unmarked slave burial sites, often discovered only by chance or by ignominious circumstance as when construction crews accidentally exhume bodies when building a shopping mall.” — The New York Times


Forgotten Cemeteries of Inwood (Upper Manhattan, NY): Hundreds of years of even sparse population generated numerous graves. In some lay the long forgotten members of once famous families. In other plots were the remains of former enslaved, the fallen dead of the Revolutionary War; and even Native Americans. This colonial burial ground was established in 1677, 417 persons were buried in this graveyard located near what is today West 212th Street. In 1905 the Dyckman family remains…were removed. In the spring of 1890 workers near the present junction of Dyckman Street and Sherman Avenue stumbled upon the fragments of a beautiful jar that appeared to be of aboriginal handiwork. Further digging uncovered large amounts of decaying oyster shells indicating a possible Indian feasting site.


Enslaved burial ground, 10th Avenue between 211th and 212th Streets, map by Reginald Bolton.

According to an 1897 New York Times article, “an examination of the deposit revealed split bones, bits of rude pottery, and a number of arrow points of quartz.” Soon skeletons began to emerge from the earth, and with them proof that what was thought to be an Indian burial ground was actually an early colonial cemetery. In March of 1903 construction workers digging near what is now 212th Street and 10th Avenue made a gruesome, yet bizarre, discovery. News accounts from the time describe about a dozen giant human skeletons, many buried upright in the earth. Workers said the heads of the skeletons were buried three feet beneath the surface. Some of the skeletons measured seven feet in length. According to a New York Times article, “An old cannon ball was found in or near one of the strange graves. Each body rested beneath an uncut stone set endwise. Many similar stones near by as yet undisturbed indicate that more bones will be found.” An Inwood old-timer named Walter White, at the time of the discovery, recalled that in his youth, “it was a well known fact that the Dyckman, Vermilye and Hadly families had once used the little knoll as a burying ground for slaves.” [Read full article: Forgotten Cemeteries of Inwood]


African gravestone marker in the Huguenot Street Cemetery

African Burial Site at Historic Huguenot Street: I visited Huguenot Street during my 3-months in New York. I was immediately struck by how in-tact the historic site had been preserved and even more that the narrative of the Black presence was being interpreted at the site. During the  private tour I received, I asked if there were any Blacks buried on there? After attending several burial ground commemoration events I should not have been surprised when the answer was, ‘yes’! My awesome shared with me that very close by there was an ‘official African burial ground’; however, it was on private property and could not be easily accessed without advanced notice. However, she shared, there was a marker and site of commemorating the remains of one African woman found on the historic site. My awesome guide immediately took me to the cemetery on the property where many Huguenot Street families are buried. Like so many of the remains of Blacks who toiled, it’s as if, from their ‘unmarked graves’ they are one-by-one being re-discovered and being re-interred with the proper ‘rites of passage’. As I stood in front of the marker that bore the ‘Sankofa’ symbol, I felt as if I too was re-claiming a part of my heritage and history..

Schuyler Flats Re-burial: Remains of the 14 presumed enslaved will soon be reburied near the Hudson River, 11 years after construction workers uncovered the unmarked gravesite. This time, local volunteers are honoring the seven adults, five infants and two children in a way that would have been unthinkable when they died. They will be publicly memorialized and buried in personalized boxes beside prominent families in old Albany. “It’s something we agonized over because it’s very rare that you have an opportunity to not just speak about the lives of the enslaved, but to actually do something to honor them,” said Cordell Reaves, of the Schuyler Flatts Burial Ground Project. “We have an obligation to make sure that these people receive a level of dignity and respect that they never received in life.”


‘Forgotten Bones’, by Lois Huey, one of the State of NY archeologists

St. Agnes Cemetery donated a prime plot high on a hillside. Kelly Grimaldi, historian for the Roman Catholic cemetery, said they chose granite over marble because it will last forever. The remains will be placed in handcrafted boxes, each decorated with the symbol for Sankofa, which Reaves translates from the language of Ghana as “return and fetch it.” Their headstone is already set. The etching, echoing the style of 18th-century graves, reads: “Here lies the remains of 14 souls known only to God. Enslaved in life, they are slaves no more.”

Archeologists found remains in 2005 after a backhoe operator uncovered a skull during sewer construction just north of Albany. Graves were in two rows, heads pointed west. No personal items were exhumed, though the graves still yielded clues about who they were.The type of wrought iron nails on the coffins and brass pins on the shrouds indicated burials in the 18th or early 19th centuries. They were buried on the former site of a farm owned by members of the locally prominent Schuyler family, who kept slaves. DNA tests on five of the women and one man showed maternal ancestry either from Africa and Madagascar. Another woman, identified as of African descent based on the shape of her bones, had Native American roots on her mother’s side. Isotope analyses of their remains show they were born locally. Given the time, the place and their race, they were almost certainly slaves.

The thin historical record of slaves is often limited to wills, for sale ads and runaway notices. One rare glimpse from the Schuyler farm comes in the memoir of a woman who spent time there as a girl in the 1760s. Anne Grant writes of slaves cutting wood, threshing wheat, cooking and eating under a big shade tree. In language that can make 21st-century readers wince, Grant described the “gentle treatment” of slaves in the area. But the bones suggest lives that were anything but.


Facial rendering of 3 of the 14 remains found (New York State Museum)

The adults had muscular hands, arms and legs consistent with hard work. They were plagued by arthritis and missing teeth. One woman had arthritis in her back, shoulder and jaw by her 30s. Her front teeth had small notches in them, possibly from pulling thread across them repeatedly. Another woman, older than 50, had arthritis in all her major joints, fractures on her neck and lower back, and four broken ribs. Any markers on the graves were long gone by the time the remains were uncovered. Schuyler Flatts Burial Ground Project manager Evelyn Kamili King said it’s her mission to see that they are never forgotten again. “This is what I need to do for my African ancestors,” she said. Individually decorated boxes with the remains will lie in state on Friday, June 17, at the nearby Schuyler Mansion State Historic Site once inhabited by relatives of the farm operators. They will be buried the next day on a landscaped cemetery hillside within walking distance from where they were first buried [Source: ABC News: Honor at Last – Former Slaves Reburied Centuries Later].

Video of the news report (May 12, 2016)

Most are now well aware of the African Burial Ground and now a National Park Historic site in midtown Manhattan. Other sites we should all know about include: First, the Saint Marks A.M.E. Church in Jackson Heights, (South Bronx, NY). The church was founded in 1828 on the site of the burial ground as the United African Society. Over the years, the congregation’s name and location changed. “The site is very significant because it is believed to be one of the first places where former (en)slaved organized and started their own church,” said the church’s pastor Kimberly Detherage.“ The construction crew found the body of an African woman in 2011 when a machine accidentally dredged up her iron casket as they were tearing down a decades-old warehouse. She is believed to have died in the 1850s [Read full story: Freed Slave Burial Ground]

The second, includes the sites associated with the Sag Harbor’s Eastville Community Historical Society and Shelter Island’s Sylvester Manor Educational Farm. I attended an interesting event at Bay Street Theatre in February about the stories of African-American East Enders that have “been hidden, forgotten, untold, fragmented and/or fabricated.” The panel discussion and exhibition, titled “How is the Story Told? An observance of East End African-American burying grounds,” is in keeping with this year’s Black History Month theme: Hallowed Grounds: Sites of African-American Memories. “We pay tribute to generations of African-Americans who struggled with adversity to achieve full citizenship rights in life by honoring their varied stories in death. The importance of remembering and telling the story of our past enables us to celebrate our shared history and future,” the museum stated. “By taking account of the sensitivity and sacred nature of burial grounds, we use this discussion as a springboard for re-creating what was invisible, visible. The authenticity of evoked emotion is dependent upon telling the stories, making connections to individuals, mapping social diversity, global connection, and pathways to cultural co-existence and diversity.” The presentation included information about burial ground sites on Shelter Island and in Sag Harbor, East Hampton and Southampton, and the work being done to preserve these grave sites [See video below and read the full article: East End’s African Burial Ground]

Why Slave’s Graves’ Matter 

“Memorialization keeps us connected to what is most significant about those who are no longer with us.”, said Sandra Arnold, founder of the Periwinkle Initiative, established to create the National Burial Database of Enslaved Americans. Sandra asks in her recent article, “Why Slaves’ Graves Matter“, what does it mean that the grave sites of countless enslaved Americans have not been afforded this recognition? Since the emancipation of enslaved Americans, their public memory has become abstract. Cemeteries, graveyards and memorials are visual reminders for us. They exist because we desire to memorialize those buried there. By gracing the sacred spaces of enslaved Americans with that same intention, we can give humanity and dignity to their memory.

That is what propelled Arnold to create the initiative. When the database is completed, it will be the first national repository of information on the grave sites of individuals who died while enslaved or after they were emancipated. Anyone who comes to the website will eventually be able to submit information about these places and conduct searches. many grave sites of formerly enslaved Americans are abandoned, undocumented, desecrated by the asphalt of “development,” and lack any type of memorialization or recognition. The burial grounds are often found incidentally by developers under parks and office buildings, and for many of the sites, oral history is their only source of documentation.

“Our country should explore ways to preserve the public memory of enslaved Americans. Their overlooked lives are an inextricable part of the historical narrative of our country — and not simply because they were the “beneficiaries” of the 13th Amendment. We should remember enslaved Americans for the same reason we remember anyone; because they were fathers, mothers, siblings and grandparents who made great contributions to our nation. Regardless of our country’s history or our ambivalence about the memory of slavery, we can choose to remember the enslaved — the forgotten. They offer our contemporary society examples of resilience and humanity. Preserving their memory contributes to our own humanity.” [Read Arnold’s full article: Why Slave’s Graves’ Matter]

Below is a short video I took of Sandra’s presentation introducing the Periwinkle Initiative, held at the Eastville Historical Society’s ‘African Burial Ground Commemoration’ in Sag Harbor this past February, during Black History Month. I was impressed with how organized the Eastville descendent community were in preserving their cultural heritage.


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Posted by on May 15, 2016 in Black Heritage Tours New York, Uncategorized


History of ‘African Rice’ and It’s Expansion to North and South America


Jola women (from Senegal) transplant the rice seedlings.

Few Americans identify slavery with the cultivation of rice, yet rice was a major plantation crop during the first three centuries of European invasion in the Americas. Rice accompanied enslaved Africans across the Middle Passage throughout the ‘New World’ to Brazil, the Caribbean, and the southern United States. By the middle of the eighteenth century, rice plantations in South Carolina and the enslaved who cultivated them had created one of the most profitable economies in the world.

Oryza glaberrima, commonly known as African rice is believed to have been domesticated 3000+ years ago in the inland delta of the Upper Niger River in what is now Mali. Its wild ancestor, which still grows wild in Africa is Oryza barthii. This species is grown in West Africa. African rice often shows more tolerance to fluctuations in water depth, iron toxicity, infertile soils, severe climatic conditions, and human neglect, and exhibits better resistance to various pests and diseases,


Image of African Rice

The embarkation of the Portuguese into the Atlantic in the fourteenth century led to social and ecological transformations that brought sub-Saharan Africa within the orbit of European navigation. With the ‘discovery’ of the Canary Islands in 1336, just one hundred kilometers from Morocco off the West African coast, the Portuguese found an Atlantic island archipelago inhabited by a people they called the Guanche. The Guanche, whose ancestors left the African mainland in repeated migrations between the second millennium B.C. and the first centuries A.D., were farmers and herders. They tended crops and animals originally domesticated in the Near East, which included wheat, barley, peas, and sheep and goats. But contact with Europeans brought military defeat and enslavement. By 1496 the Guanche had ceased to exist, the first indigenous people to become extinct as a consequence of European maritime expansion. Heralding the fate that would await other peoples over the next 350 years, the islands of the Guanche became stepping-stones for the diffusion of sugarcane plantations and African slavery throughout the Atlantic, a process that radically recast the relationship between Africa, Europe, and the Americas.

Talking advantage of abundant marine resources for food supplies, the Portuguese established a trading fort north of the Senegal River on Arguim Island off the coast of Mauritania in 1448. The location served to provision the quickening number of Portuguese forays southward along the coast. This resulted in the discovery of the uninhabited Cape Verde archipelago, fourteen small volcanic islands some five hundred kilometers west of Senegal, on one return voyage in 1455. By 1460 the Portuguese had completed reconnaissance of the Upper Guinea Coast, the densely populated region from Senegal to Liberia that would serve as a major focus for the Atlantic slave trade.


Men prepare the rice fields using the kajandu.

Carolina Gold is now considered an heirloom variety of rice that is no longer grown widely, Historical accounts suggest that Carolina Gold first reached America on a cargo ship from Madagascar, indicating that the rice variety was picked up on the African island country. Over the next centuries European mariners would call this region the Grain or Rice Coast after its specialized production of cereals. Following the lead of the Portuguese, others too would depend upon surplus grain production for provisions. Thus for European ships voyaging along the West African coast, passage south beyond the Senegal River brought them to a region abundant in cereals (see map below). East of Liberia, grain cultivation gradually gave way to root crops like yams. While reference to the Upper Guinea Coast conjures up images of the Atlantic slave trade, the term “Grain or Rice Coast” does not. Yet, the two reveal the Janus-faced relationship of food surpluses to the dense populations that Europeans enslaved in the region from Senegal to Liberia. Widespread cereal availability resulted from the sophisticated level indigenous agriculture had already attained in Africa in the early modern period.

The first Portuguese chronicler to mention rice-growing in the Upper Guinea Coast was Gomes Eanes de Azurara in 1446. He described a voyage along the coast 60 leagues south of Cape Verde, where a handful of men, navigating down a river that was probably the Gambia, went ashore. They said they ‘found the country covered by vast crops, with many cotton trees and large fields planted in rice’. Portuguese observers greatly admired the native rice-growing technology, because it involved diking, transplanting, and other “intensive” practices. Already in the 1590s, André Alvares d’Almada, who was born in Cabo Verde of mixed European and African heritage…provides us with an account of rice cultivation as practiced by peoples living along the Gambia, Casamance, and Geba rivers. He wrote that “in these parts the rainy season starts at the end of April, beginning of May. The Blacks make their rice fields in these plains; they construct dikes of earth for fear of the tides, but despite them [the dikes] the river breaks them frequently, flooding the rice fields. Once the rice has sprouted, they pull it out and transplant it on land that is less inundated, where the rice yields.”


Rice regions of Africa

Nearly a century was to pass before we have another detailed account of local rice-growing practices. In 1685 or thereabouts, Sieur de la Courbe crossed the hinterland between the Gambia and Guinea Bissau, a territory that he mentions was occupied by the Felupos (the Jola) and the Banyun (the ancient Bainouk). He wrote, “I saw fields of rice located along the river; they are traversed by small walkways from space to space that prevents the water from running out; after it rains, one seeds the rice, which grows in the water”. Further on he describes the technology used by the Felupos or Jola: “The lands that are flat and well irrigated are perfectly cultivated, and they do not use but shovels of wood provided with a flat piece of iron at one end and a long handle to cultivate” (ref. Labat  J.-B., (1728Nouvelle Relation de l’Afrique Occidentalepp. 43–44). This is one of the most detailed early references (circa 1685) to the kajandu, the long-handled fulcrum shovel used by the Jola and their close relatives in Guinea-Bissau to turn over the earth and prepare their fields. the Jola and their neighbors were certainly growing wet rice and using intensive techniques, such as diking to retain rainwater and transplanting, at the time they first encountered the Europeans. The rice they grew was doubtless the African species O. glaberrima. Although it is not known with certainty when and where the first varieties of Asian rice O. sativa were first introduced into West Africa, the general consensus is that, beginning in the 16th century, the species spread and was adopted by people living in the Upper Guinea Coast who had previous experience growing the local African species.

Two British trading companies based in England operated the slave prison at Bunce Island (formerly called Bance Island), located in the Sierra Leone River. Henry Laurens was their agent in Charleston and was a planter and slave trader. His counterpart in England was Richard Oswald. Many of the enslaved Africans taken in West Africa were processed through Bunce Island. It was a prime export site for slaves to South Carolina and Georgia. Slave forts in Ghana, for instance, transported their captives to sites in the Caribbean islands. Once British colonial ‘planters’ in the American South discovered that rice would grow in that region, they often sought enslaved Africans from the rice-growing regions because of their skills and knowledge needed to develop and build irrigation, dams and earthworks. By the middle of the 18th century, thousands of acres in the Georgia and South Carolina Low Country, and the Sea Islands were developed as rice fields. African farmers from the “Rice Coast” brought the skills for cultivation and tidal irrigation that made rice farming one of the most successful industries in early America. It’s African inhabitants were known as ‘Gullah / Geechee people. According to South Carolina archival records, enslaved Africans shipped to the port came from the following areas: Angola (39%), Senegamibia (20%), the Windward Coast (17%), the Gold Coast (13%), Sierra Leone (6%), and Madagascar, and Mozambique (5% combined) (Pollitzer, 1999:43). By the year 1700, 300 tons of American rice, referred to as “Carolina Gold Rice,” was being shipped to England. Enslaved were producing more rice than there were ships to carry it. By 1726, the Port of Charleston, SC was exporting about 4,500 metric tons of “Carolina Golden”. [Sources: African Rice History and Future Potential and U.S. Slave Blogspot]

Who are the Gullah/Geechee people?

The Gullah people are the descendants of enslaved Africans who were transported to the ‘low country’ regions to 1389011Georgia and South Carolina, which includes both the coastal plain and the Sea islands. The Gullah/Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor is home to one of America’s most interesting cultures, a tradition first shaped by captive Africans that were enslaved and brought to the southern United States from West Africa and continued their traditions in later generations by their descendants. Gullah developed their own creole language. Gullah/Geechee culture is such an important thread of our American fabric that in 2006 U.S. Congress designated, the Gullah/Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor which extends from Wilmington, NC in the North to St. Augustine, FL in the South.

Gullah Cultural Roots: The Gullah people have been able to preserve much of their African cultural heritage mainly because of their determination to do, but also because of climate, geography, and patterns of importation of enslaved Africans. They developed a culture that has preserved much of the African linguistic and cultural heritage from various people, as well as absorbed new influences from the region. The Gullah people speak an English-based ‘creole language’ containing many African words and influenced by African languages in grammar and sentence structure. Referred to as “Sea Island Creole”, the Gullah language is related to Bahamian Dialect, Barbadian Dialect, Belizean Creole, Jamaican Patois, Trinidadian Creole, and the Krio language of Sierra Leone, in West Africa. Gullah crafts, farming and fishing traditions, folk beliefs, music, rice-based cuisine, and story-telling traditions all exhibit strong influences from Central and West African cultures. [Learn more:  Gullah Geeche Nation and Gullah: Rice, Slavery and Sierra Leone]

History of African Rice in Suriname, South America: Not surprisingly, as I continued my research connections to African rice doesn’t stop at the introduction into the Southern U.S. economy. The establishment of African rice culture in Suriname, my ancestral home, followed similar historical pathways. Africans transported to Suriname came from some of the same locations along West Africa’s indigenous rice region. Rice continues to have special significance for Maroon identity. Through ritual offerings of the grain to their ancestors, Maroons symbolize and commemorate the gifts it conferred: freedom from hunger and freedom from bondage. Each handful of rice recalls the legend of Paanza and the founding generation of African women, whose smuggled seeds made that hope possible. Maroon women, in the manner of generations before them, continue to plant rice in the ‘African way’: by sowing the seeds directly, performing the weeding, harvesting the panicles with a small knife, hand milling the cereal with mortar and pestle, and cooking it so that all the grains are separate. Such are the key features of African rice culture wherever the cereal was planted in the ‘Black Atlantic’.

IndpeoplesCredit for rice history in Suriname is typically attributed to Dutch and Asian settlers. This follows from the emphasis of historical research on rice as an export commodity. When attention turns to subsistence, however, another history comes into view, one based on oral accounts. The oral history presents rice as a African crop, attributing its presence in the colony to the deliberate efforts of enslaved Africans. Suriname’s Maroons, whose freedom-seeking forebears escaped enslavement in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and for whom rice remains an indispensable dietary staple, commemorate rice as food from Africa. Today we now have compelling confluence between the oral history of Suriname Maroons and as previously noted, recent findings in botany, archaeology and historical linguistics that West Africans domesticated an independent species of rice (Oryza glaberrima) thousands of years ago.

In 1627 the leader of the Barbados settlement petitioned fellow Protestant and Dutch governor of the older colony of Essequibo (present day Guyana) for ‘roots and seeds for planting’. Rice could easily have figured among these unidentified food stocks, especially as people from African rice-growing societies had already been forcibly migrated to the Americas. It is interesting to note that the colony of South Carolina was founded in 1670 by planters from Barbados and enslaved Africans. Documentation on the first rice exports from the Carolina colony in 1690 refer to rice cultivation in Barbados at least a decade earlier. Evidence for rice cultivation in Suriname follows the arrival of refugee Sephardic Jewish planters from Brazil, who lost their religious freedom granted with Dutch rule when Portugal retook the colony in 1654.

The extension of the plantation sector into Suriname’s rainforested interior provided enslaved Africans opportunities to escape. In 1762, a full century before the ‘official’ emancipation in 1863, of the enslaved in Suriname, the Maroons (Ndyuka, Saramaka, and Matawai) won their freedom and signed a treaty with the Dutch Crown to acknowledge their territorial rights and trading privileges. Written confirmation of rice as a Maroon subsistence crop dates to this period. Maroon oral histories indicate an even earlier involvement with rice cultivation. Two accounts, collected among the Saramaka by anthropologist Richard Price in the 1970s, indicate the importance of rice to the Maroons in the late seventeenth century.

Screen Shot 2016-05-15 at 16.39.53

Figure 3: 1590 of what spices and grains grew in Suriname. Plate No. 13. Legend A: sugar cane, B: maize, C: rice, D: millet, E: cowpeas/black-eyed peas, F: fonio (Digitaria exilis), G: ginger, H: ne ́re ́ (Parkia biglobosa), I: pepper.

Rice is still an indispensable food item to the Suriname ‘self-emancipated’ African descendants of today.  Written accounts reveal that subsistence rice culture in Suriname has not much changed over the past 200 years and rice cultivation among the Maroons exhibits many features typical of its production in West Africa.

The growing Dutch participation in the Transatlantic slave trade was accompanied by considerable attention to areas of African food availability. Pieter de
Marees, who traveled to the Gold Coast in 1590, observed the brisk regional trade in African foodstuffs. He described and illustrated the rice market in a settlement just outside Elmina (not yet under Dutch control), where women sold their surplus production. His engraving of the spices and grains that grew in the Gold Coast captures the significance of plants grown in Africa for the expanding European presence in West Africa. A closer examination of Marees’ engraving indicates that the rice plant he illustrated (Figure 3, item ‘C’) is the African species, Oryza glaberrima. With the proliferation of forts and slavers along the Gold Coast in the first half of the seventeenth century, Dutch accounts offer salient details on the cultivation of rice in the geographical locales where it was grown. The area around Cape Mount in north-western Liberia (and part of West Africa’s indigenous rice region) generated a number of commentaries on indigenous rice culture and marketing [Read full article by Judith Carney: Rice and Memory in the Age of Enslavement: Atlantic Passages to Suriname]

Despite the significance of these agricultural systems in the regional economy and commerce with Portuguese caravels, the cereals produced along the Upper Guinea Coast have received little attention in historical scholarship. More research has focused on the food staples of New World provenance introduced into Africa, such as maize, manioc, and peanuts, than on those the Portuguese found in West Africa during the first century of exploration. Yet increased scholarly attention to the Grain or Rice Coast reveals a hidden narrative of the Atlantic slave trade, one that contributes significantly to the historical recovery of the African experience in the Americas. From its meager beginnings in South Carolina, rice has become a major U.S. agricultural product. Nearly 90 percent of the rice consumed in the United States today is produced within its borders. Presently, the United States is the world’s most advanced and innovative rice producer. The United States is also one of the largest exporters of rice in the world, and is respected worldwide for its abundant production of high-quality rice; and, half of Suriname’s cultivable land today is devoted to rice production, which makes up around 10 percent of Suriname’s total exports (Sources: USA Rice Federation and National Rice Conference in Suriname, 2016)


The standard belief that Europeans introduced rice to West Africa and then brought the knowledge of its cultivation to the Americas is a fundamental fallacy, one which succeeds in effacing the origins of the crop and the role of Africans and African-American enslaved in transferring the seed, the cultivation skills, and the cultural practices necessary for establishing it in the ‘New World’.

To begin the process of the historical recovery of African agricultural achievements and their linkage to the Americas, we need to examine early accounts of rice cultivation along the West African coast. Black Rice, by Judith Carney (2001), tells the story of the true provenance of rice in the Americas and reveals how racism has shaped our historical memory and neglected this critical African contribution to the making of the Americas. It establishes, through agricultural and historical evidence, the vital significance of rice in West African society for a millennium before Europeans arrived and the slave trade began.

Conventional scholarship has placed the knowledge and extent of African rice cultivation in the context of Portuguese exploration and the transoceanic crop exchanges that subsequently became known as the “Columbian Exchange. The book explores the indigenous knowledge systems in which crops developed, a process which brings a West African rather than a European protagonist to the history of rice cultivation and its dissemination.


Watch short video showing culture and history of African rice.

Unlike the Southern colonies agriculture in the Northern Middle Colonies, which consisted of Pennsylvania, Delaware, New York, and New Jersey had a mix of the New England and Southern features but had fertile soil and land that was suited to farming. The Middle Colonies had a mild climate with warm summers and mild winters. The natural resources available for trade in the Middle Colonies included good farmland, timber, furs and coal. Iron ore was


Inside the gristmill in Philipsburg Manor Center

a particularly important natural resource. The Middle Colonies were the big food producing region that included corn and wheat and livestock including beef and pork. Other industries included the production of iron ore, lumber, coal, textiles, furs and shipbuilding [Source: Trade in the Colonies]

Philipsburg Manor Historic Stie in Sleepy Hollow, NY was a thriving farming, milling, and trading owned by the Phillipses’,  a family of Anglo-Dutch merchants that represents the agriculture of the Northern colonies and a site along the <em>Native American – African – Dutch Heritage Tour.</em>  The Philips rented land to tenant farmers of diverse European backgrounds and relied on a community of 23 enslaved Africans to operate the complex. The site carefully re-enacts the lived experiences of its inhabitants, including the working gristmill, where, surrounded by the sound of rushing water and the creaking of wooden gears, you learn about the skills of Caesar, the enslaved African miller. A colonial bateau tied to the wharf reflects the flourishing river trade and the skills of Dimond, an enslaved riverboat pilot. Nearby is the enslaved’s garden, where they grew vegetables and herbs for consumption, market, and medicinal purposes.  Whether it’s the rice fields of South Carolina or the wheat mills in New York, the importance of the black presence and skills brought with them is evident.


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Posted by on May 15, 2016 in Black Heritage Tours New York


A 18th Century Brazilian Coin Worn By Enslaved Africans?

I had been looking forward to my interview with archeologist, Paul Huey. I had heard so much about his landmark research in finding the first remains of Fort Orange, the first permanent Dutch settlement in New Netherland, on the site that is the present-day city of Albany, New York. It was built in 1624. During our almost 2 hour discussion Paul described in intricate detail how his research had begun and after several years and many twists and turns the excavation process had finally been completed. Near the end of our meeting he asks me if I knew about the finding of the ‘Brazilian coin’ that showed evidence it was owned and used by an enslaved African during the 18th century. I had not, but I was intrigued. I was given the opportunity to actually see and hold the coin in my hands. My spirit quickened as I felt I was coming in direct contact with our ancestors.. While there is not inconclusive evidence who wore it, I was immediately reminded that even though all attempts had been made from the beginning of ‘chattel slavery’ to strip enslaved Africans of their culture and identity, Africans had made a way to not only preserve their culture, but as a sign of ‘resistance’, ensured its survival. Below is the story about how the coin was discovered and its possible meanings.

Brazil coin

Image made of the front and back of the coin

A New Look at an Old Object – by, Paul Huey

The re-examination of older archeological collections often produces valuable results. New sources of information sometimes enable the identification of previously unidentified artifacts and old collections and excavation records can be used to answer new research questions. In 1972, Bureau of Historic Sites archaeologists monitored excavations for the installation of new electrical conduits in downtown Albany, retrieving and recording artifacts to be used for research about Dutch and English colonial history. One of them, an eighteenth century coin, had never been identified. The coin, made of copper alloy, is 32 mm in diameter, featuring a globe on one side and a crown, a large ‘X’, and the date 1736 on the other. Two holes had been drilled through the edge so that it could only be worn as a pendant. In 2004, thanks to an Internet search, the coin was identified as a 10 reis coin (Brazilian currency) from Brazil.

The coin was found in an 18th Century soil layer (an early street level) deep under State Street, opposite the Northwest corner of James Street. Research indicates that the corner is the site of the 17th Century residence of Anneke Jans Bogardus. After Bogardus’ death in Albany in 1663, the lot passed to the Ten Broeck family and subsequently to Luycas Wyngaerd, who left it to his cousin, Albany merchant Simon Veeder (1709-1786). Veeder probably built a new house there, and in the early 19th Century, given that only a very few individuals of Spanish or Portuguese origin lived in the Albany area during this period.

During the 18th century, Brazil was an important source of cocoa, coffee, sugar and tobacco. The tobacco was used in the trade with Native Americans. Brazil depended heavily on enslaved African labor to produce these products. Such goods came to America via England, which dominated the trade network with Portugal and Brazil. There were also direct ‘voyages’ between New York and Barbados that included the importation of the enslaved. It is possible that the coin found its way to Albany with the purchase of a captive African from Brazil. In fact, in 1800, Volkert Veeder ‘owned one slave’.

Pierced coins worn by enslaved Africans to ward off evil spirits…have been found by archaeologists at many Southern plantation sites. However, this pierced coin with its large ‘X’ could have had many meanings. Some Native Americans attributed supernatural power to the symbol ‘X’, or it may have represented the four directions, winds, or elements. In Native American pictographs, an ‘X’ was often used to represent a person as part of a record, and Native American tattoos often included this symbol.

While the history of Albany’s Brazilian coin remains a mystery, today increasingly advanced research tools offer new opportunities to reexamine and reinterpreted previously excavated artifacts, helping to expand our knowledge of earlier cultures, places and events.” Another theory is that the pendant was taken off an African captive by an enslaver, who would not have allowed any ‘symbol’ or talisman to be worn. During that time, anything was possible.

The rare coins will be on display in an upcoming exhibition at the Senate House State Historic Site in Kingston, NY. The site housed the first meeting of New York’s newly organized State Senate. Built in 1676, only 12 years after the British assumed control of New York from the Dutch, the house reflects both the building traditions of the original Dutch colonists and the gradual acceptance of English construction styles.The new exhibition will present newly translated Dutch documents that gives new insight into inner workings (transactions, land deeds, etc.) of the period and the close nit network of the prominent families that inhabited the region, like the Schuylers and Ten Broecks.


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Posted by on May 13, 2016 in Black Heritage Tours New York, Uncategorized


Slavery in New York State

Slavery in New York Image

Studying the history of ‘Slavery in New York’ and particularly the Dutch period in the early 17th Century, is a complex and at times frustrating, because there are so many gaps in the historical records both archived in the U.S. and in the Netherlands that is akin to piecing together fragments of a puzzle.

By now we all should know that ‘Black History’ did not begin with slavery! However, we can’t talk about the origins of the colonial period in North America or any of the territories colonized by Europe without understanding how enslavement of African people influenced its development.

Fact Sheet: New Netherland was the territory granted to the Dutch West India Company in 1621 by the government of Holland. It stretched from Manhattan to Albany along both sides of the Hudson, then called the North River. New Amsterdam was the main settlement in the colony and was located at the tip of Manhattan Island. In 1655, New Netherland gained territory along the Delaware River.

The first enslaved Africans arrived in New Amsterdam around 1627. Some sources say that they came as a distinct group of 11 men, but recent scholarship suggests a less precise beginning. By comparison, the first “20 and odd” blacks arrived in Jamestown Colony in Virginia in 1619 and were then sold into slavery. Many of the early enslaved had Spanish or Portuguese names and may have been Christians. Later they came from areas of Africa where many people were Muslim.

By the late 1630s, there were 100 enslaved men and women in New Amsterdam, amounting to one-third of the population. Other northern coloniesindex.php held slaves, too, but there were many more in New Amsterdam. In the early years of New Amsterdam, the enslaved worked for the Dutch West India Company, not for individual residents of the colony. On 27 June 2015, a plaque marking the site of New York City’s main 18th-century slave market was unveiled in Lower Manhattan by Mayor Bill de Blasio. Reflecting on 300 years of local history, he drew a comparison between black life then and now: “It was true two, three centuries ago, even though it was never acknowledged. It was true then, it is true today. It will be true tomorrow. Black lives matter.” The recognition of black New Yorkers’ vital role in the history of the city was long overdue [Source article: New York City’s Slave Market]

Without ‘slave labor’, New Amsterdam might not have survived. The enslaved sawed down trees, turned the soil so it could be farmed, built roads, and constructed important buildings. Wall Street today runs along what was once the wall of the fort, built by the enslaved. Africans in New Netherland and New Amsterdam wore Dutch clothing, learned the Dutch language, and adopted the Dutch Pentecost holiday of Pinkster as their own. The impact and influence of slavery in the Dutch Empire is explored in an exhibit entitled A Dishonorable Trade at Crailo State Historic Site in Rensselaer N.Y.


Dyckman Farmhouse

The Dutch West India Company began to grant partial freedom, referred to by historians as half-freedom, in the 1640s. These former enslaved owed a tax to the Company; white colonists did not. They also had to work for the colony whenever they were needed, and their children were automatically enslaved. However, these blacks no longer lived the life of the enslaved. They were able to farm their own lands, sell their produce, and keep the profits beyond what they owed in tax. They also created the first black community in Manhattan, on farms granted them in the Land of the Blacks, located where Washington Square is now. [Reprinted from the ‘Slavery In New York – Fact Sheet’: Slavery in New York Fact Sheet].

Several state and city historic sites interpret the complex history of ‘Slavery in New York’ including sites in upstate NY. Namely, in Albany, NY (Harriet and Stephen Myers Residence), a historic site that was part of the Underground Railroad and Schuyler Mansion State HistoricCrailo State Historic Site in Rensselaer in Brooklyn (Old Stone House), Harlem (Morris-Jumel Mansion), and in upper Manhattan (Inwood), the Dyckman Farmhouse. to name a few.

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Posted by on May 13, 2016 in Black Heritage Tours New York


Upstate New York: Abolitionists and Freedom-Seekers


There are so many ‘untold stories’ about slavery, ‘freedom seekers’ and even lesser known abolitionists.
Did you know in 1836 in Troy, New York about, The Mobbing of Abolitionist Theodore D. Weld?
In 1836 in Troy, NY that apparently there were plenty of people living in the area who were ‘pro slavery’, or who didn’t want to get involved in the southern problem and that came real apparent one day in 1836 in Troy – the mobbing of Theodore D, Weld, a distinguished philanthropist, in the Bethel, a mission church founded for the spiritual benefit of boatmen, and located on the Northwest corner of Fifth and Elbow (Fulton) streets, (for baby boomer residents of the ares, it’s the site of the Fifth Avenue hotel).

At that time the majority of the inhabitants of Troy were opposed to the then increasing movement for the abolition of slavery, and many bitter controversies had arisen between the abolitionists and those who advocated non-interference with the South…

Weld had delivered several lectures on the subject of slavery and had attracted large audiences to the Bethel. Soon after he had arrived in Troy there appeared in one of the city papers an incendiary letter regarding him and his teachings… On the afternoon of June 2 Weld was delivering a lecture in the church before a large audience, when a mob entered and attacked him, attempting to drag him from the pulpit…[Read the full story by Don Rittner:]

When talking about ‘Freedom-seekers’ in upstate New York, you must include the story of Stephen and Harriet Myers..The Myers Residence, located at 94 smeyersLivingston Avenue in Albany, New York and the first historic site we visit on the Native American – African – Dutch Heritage Tour, is an official Underground Railroad (UGRR) site. At the heart of the site is the museum co-Directors Paul and Mary Liz Stewart.They passionately share the history of the Myers’, including Stephen Myers Dutch connections. This special place is where the community can come to learn about the inspiring story of the Underground Railroad and the network throughout the region. The experience they evoke when guests visit the family residence not only brings to life the history  of the Myers, but also the long struggle for justice and freedom sought by lesser known ‘freedom-seekers’.

Stephen Myers was born into slavery in Hooksick, New York, a town just north of Albany. He was freed when he was 18 years old (it’s not clear whether or not he was ‘self-emancipated). In 1827 he married Harriet Johnson and together they had four children. Myers worked as a grocer and a steamboat steward on vessels sailing between New York City and Albany. Into the late 1830s, he began helping other ‘freedom-seekers’. In 1842 Myers began publishing the Elevator, a short-lived abolitionist sheet. Soon, he began working with the Northern Star Association, an abolitionist group, and founded its newspaper, the Northern Star and Freeman’s Advocate. This anti-slavery and reform newspaper was directed toward local free blacks and was published with the assistance of his wife, Harriet. By 1848 Myers had become the leading spokesperson in the Albany area for anti-slavery activism. He appeared at events and conferences in the region as a representative of the Albany Vigilance Committee, the leading local abolitionist group.  The Myers helped lead countless African-Americans to reach freedom and throughout their lives were dedicated to achieving racial, social and political justice! [Sources: UGRR History Project and Black Past Remembered]


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Posted by on May 13, 2016 in Black Heritage Tours New York


Juan Rodriguez: African-Dominican Descendent was the First ‘non-native’ Citizen of New York


A contemporary illustration showing Juan Rodriguez (holding pan) establishing a trading post with Native Americans on Manhattan Island in 1613. Credit: Charles Lilly Art and Artifacts Division, New York Public Library, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.

The previous story about ‘Black Indians’ would not be complete without also sharing this piece of ‘hidden history’ of African-Dominican Juan Rodriguez – the first documented ‘non Native-American’ to live on Manhattan Island.

Who was Juan Rodriguez? He was born in Santo Domingo (formerly, present day Dominican Republic) to an African woman (not clear if she was enslaved or free) and a Portuguese ‘sailor’. Except for a small number of Spanish officials and colonists, the majority of people on Santo Domingo were black or mixed race—some enslaved, some free—and many shared a culture that was influenced by the indigenous Taino population.

Rodriguez was known for his linguistic talents and was hired by the Dutch captain Thijs Volckenz Mossel, captain of the Jonge Tobias to serve as the translator on a trading voyage to the Native American island of Mannahatta (Island of many hills).

In the Spring of 1613 the Jonge Tobias arrived in the Hudson Harbor to explore the potential wealth of the area, especially the potential for trade with the local Native Americans for animal furs that could be resold in Europe’s garment market. The ship’s crew included a black or mulatto free man “born in Saint Domingo” (the Spanish colony-island in the Caribbean also known as La Española) and whose name appears spelled as Jan Rodrigues in the few pages of Dutch notary records that have survived on the matter, currently held in the City Archives of Amsterdam, the Netherlands. Rodriguez is also described in Dutch records as “Spanish” and a “black rascal,” After spending some time in the Hudson area, the sources state that the Dutch captain decided to return to the Netherlands with his crew, only to find out that Juan Rodriguez who soon came to learn the Algonquian language of the Lenape people and married into the local community, did not want to continue the trip to Europe and wanted to stay in the Hudson Harbor instead, and even threatening to jump overboard at the first opportunity if he was forced to go on the ship to the Netherlands. Ultimately, the captain agreed to leave Rodriguez behind and left for Europe. Rodriguez with his native American family had set up his own trading post with goods given to him by Mossel, consisting of eighty hatchets, some knives, a musket and a sword.

The following year, 1614, another Dutch expedition arrived from the Netherlands with the intention of engaging in fur trading with the Native Americans of the area as the 1613 expedition had done. They found Juan Rodriguez in the Hudson Harbor area and hired him to work for them. Shortly afterwards the captain of the ship that brought Rodriguez to the Hudson the year before arrived on a second expedition and found Rodriguez working for the crew that had arrived a few weeks before him. A confrontation erupted between the two competing expeditions and in the process Rodriguez hurt some individuals while himself sustaining a wound. When the warring merchants returned to Holland, they went before the Dutch authorities to dispute each other the concession of a trade monopoly in North America. In presenting their case, they described the incidents and skirmishes in which they had been involved on the other side of the Atlantic, in the Hudson Harbor, including a few comments about the participation of the “black” or “mulatto” man from Santo Domingo in the events. We do not know exactly how the dispute between the trading crews concluded in the Netherlands, and subsequently the notarial records containing the testimonies or depositions given by the Dutch sailors from both crews seem to have gone into a lengthy archival silence of more than three centuries, until well after World War II. No additional data has been found on Rodriguez in the Dutch historical records.


Mural of Jan Rodriguez in Harlem River Park, Manhattan, New York City (Courtesy of the National Park Service)

In the early spring of 1613, fur trader Adriaen Block, a Dutch ‘private trader’ and navigator, with the help from the Lenape people, built the 44.5-foot (13.6 m) ship 16-ton called the Onrust (Dutch for “Restless”). Block complained bitterly that a ‘competitor’, Thijs Volckenz Mossel, commander of the Jonge Tobias, had tried to “spoil the trade” by offering three times more for a beaver than Block did. In his report against Mossel, which he submitted to the Amsterdam Notary upon his return to Holland, Block topped off his list of accusations against Mossel with his outrage that, ‘crewman Rodriguez had become a permanent fixture in the Manhattan frontier, trading and living alone among the natives. When the said Mossel sailed away from the river with his ship, Rodriguez, born in Sto. Domingo, who had arrived there with the ship of said Mossel, stayed ashore at the same place.’ According to Block, Mossel denied that Rodriguez was working on his behalf. Rodriguez had taken it upon himself to gain friendship with the natives, set up a trading post, and live comfortably on Manhattan Island. Mossel declared that ‘this Spaniard [Rodriguez] had run away from the ship and gone ashore against his intent and will and that he had given him the said goods in payment of his wages and therefore had nothing more to do with him.’

Block closed his report by writing that he knew of no other crewman who stayed behind but Rodriguez. And the natives, who preferred the goods and ironware sold by Rodriguez over their own, seem to have accepted him as the island’s first merchant. By the autumn of 1613, three Dutch ships had arrived: De Tijger, captained by Block; the Fortuyn, captained by Hendrick Christiaensen; and the Nachtegaal, captained by Mossel. This time it was Christiaensen who wrote about Rodriguez. His log states that Rodriguez came aboard the Nachtegaal, presented himself as a freeman, and offered to work for Christiaensen trading furs. The historical record leaves us with few details about the remainder of the life of Juan Rodriguez.

More than three hundred and forty-six years passed before Juan Rodriguez was mentioned again in any written source, until 1959, when historian Simon Hart included a narration of the 1613-1614 Dutch expeditions to the Hudson in his book The Prehistory of the New Netherland Company: Amsterdam Notarial Records of the First Dutch Voyages to the Hudson, including in it the brief data about Juan Rodriguez originally shared by the Dutch sailors in the depositions they gave to a notary in the Netherlands at the time. Hart also included, as an appendix at the end of his book, what were full translations of the few pages of testimonies given by the sailors. These scant pages became the only solid source on Juan Rodriguez and his stay in the Hudson Harbor in 1613-1614.

Legacy: Most people in upper Manhattan are more aware of the history of Juan Rodriguez, which has a large Afro-Dominican community. In October 2012, 20140317204954-1525434_10152186966069184_521162299_nthe New York City Council enacted legislation to name Broadway from 159th Street to 218th Street after Rodriguez. The first street sign was put up in a celebration with a small ceremony at 167th Street and Broadway on May 15, 2013. The Dyckman Farmhouse (built c.1785), is a Dutch-colonial style house, and the oldest remaining farmhouse on Manhattan island. Even though the house was built long after Juan first set foot on the island (c1613) its location is of significance to the Dominican community, situated at the corner of Broadway and 204th Street also along the stretch of road named ‘Juan Rodrigues Way’.  Meredith Sorin, the Director of the Dyckman Farmhouse Museum, shared with me that they have ‘invited the community’ to become partners with the museum and have made a point to share the history of Juan as part of their expanded narrative. This year Dyckman Farmhouse celebrates two centuries in Northern Manhattan with a special exhibition by Camilla Huey (May 12 – August 28). The Native American – African – Dutch Heritage would not be complete without the Dycman Farmhouse Musuem!  Source: Juan Rodriguez and the Beginning of NYC, Dominican Studies Institute, CUNY (2013)  and Dyckman Farmhouse Museum.


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Posted by on May 12, 2016 in Black Heritage Tours New York


History of Black Indians – Past and Present


My family heritage is interwoven with Native America, African and Dutch ancestry. Growing up I had only fragments of these familial links. My mother told me many stories about my paternal grand mother and my great great grand father were descendants of the Arawak Indians indigenous to Suriname, where my family and acceptors are from. I remember a period of my childhood when I learned about these ‘Indian connections’ that I would claim to my friends, “I’m half Indian.” At that time, it was considered cool to have Native American roots. When I added that I also had ‘Dutch heritage’. ‘Most often, as children will do, I was dismissed as being ‘in denial’ about ‘being Black’.  I was puzzled by the assertion that I was ‘denying my Black/African heritage’, because I ‘knew’ I was  ‘Black’ but why could I not be all three? It wasn’t until 2013, when I went to Suriname to do research on my family genealogy that I learned from my great Aunt about our family’s Native American, African/Surinamese and Dutch roots. The history my aunt shared with me was much more enriching than anything I discovered in the archives and continues to define the depth and complexity of my multi-layered heritage..

The study of the history of Black Indians is very much still a ‘hidden history’. My personal history and this gap in public history that continues to influence my research and a major reason why it was so important to include the Native American heritage and history in developing the new tour in New York State. This past April, at the Schomburg – Lapidus Center, Anthropologist Robert Collins and Historian Tiya Miles explored the complexities, tensions, intimacies, alliances, and legacies of the interrelated histories of African Americans and Native Americans..

Introduction: Relations between African Americans and Native Americans have been complex. While some nations enslaved black men and women; others welcomed runaways in their villages and towns. African Americans were integrated into and fought alongside the Seminoles in Florida; but Buffalo Soldiers battled American Indians after the Civil War. All along mixed families were formed, embraced, or rejected.

Watch the event held at Schomburg Center 21 April 2016:

“Within the fabric of American identity is woven a story that has long been invisible—the lives and experiences of people who share African American and Native American ancestry. African and Native peoples came together in the Americas. Over centuries, African Americans and Native Americans created shared histories, communities, families, and ways of life. Prejudice, laws, and twists of history have often divided them from others, yet African-Native American people were united in the struggle against slavery and dispossession, and then for self-determination and freedom.

Background: In 1492, Christopher Columbus landed on the Taíno island of Guanahani (now part of the Bahamas). The arrival of Spanish ships unleashed a series of devastating changes for millions of Natives, Africans and their descendants.European colonizers set about seizing Native land and enslaving Native peoples. The demand for even more laborers swelled, and the slave trade exploded. Sea traders bought kidnapped Africans and shipped them across the Atlantic to sell them into slavery. Colonial rulers made laws and policies that treated Natives and Africans as inferior to Europeans. For many generations, these laws and attitudes damaged the lives of Native and African peoples.

Native peoples experienced slavery—and saw enslaved Africans—differently at different times and places. Early in the colonial period, Native Americans were sometimes enslaved alongside African Americans. They intermarried and lived through common struggles. Some even coordinated armed resistance to white encroachment. Later, Native tribes sometimes took in and harbored runaway slaves, accepting them into their communities and blending in their cultural expressions. But members of some Native nations, particularly the southeastern tribes that emulated white society, themselves kept African American slaves.

Early in the 1800s, some Cherokees acquired slaves, and in the 1830s, enslaved African Americans accompanied the Cherokees when the federal government forced them to move to Indian Territory (Oklahoma), where the tribe struggled to rebuild its culture and institutions. By 1861, there were 4,000 black slaves living among the Cherokees. After the Civil War, the tribe signed a treaty that granted former slaves, or freedmen, “all the rights of Native Cherokees.” But in 2007, Cherokees amended their tribal constitution, making “Indian blood” a requirement for citizenship. As a result, some 2,800 descendants of Cherokee freedmen were excluded from membership..

Read/view full online exhibition: Indivisible: African – Native American Lives in the Americas

Black Indians: An American Story Documentary brings to light a forgotten part of Americans past – the cultural and racial fusion of Native and African Americans. Narrated by James Earl Jones, “Black Indians: An American Story” explores what brought the two groups together, what drove them apart and the challenges they face today.

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Posted by on May 12, 2016 in Black Heritage Tours New York


My New York State of Mind

Hello friends and family, I’ve decided to resurrect my blog to share more of my personal journey.. I hope you’ll join me!


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Posted by on February 6, 2016 in Jennifer's Travels