Workshops to teach the legacy of slavery in Irvington, New York

A predominantly white village in the Hudson Valley wants to correct the way slavery in the region has been portrayed as a monument is set to be unveiled to honor enslaved Africans.

Irvington is about to erect its monument to the slaves who cleared the land where the village now stands along the Hudson River.

The black granite sculpture, titled ‘Yesterday’, depicts an enslaved African girl with other slaves clearing land in the background. It is located outside Main Street School, which teaches fourth and fifth graders, in the center of the village.

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Modification of discomfort:This predominantly white, affluent village in the Hudson Valley reckon with its history of slavery

Organized by local advocacy group, Commemorate, they say the monument gives better context for how the area was founded. Today, the village is three-quarters white and had a median household income of nearly $140,000 in 2019.

Leading up to the installation of the sculpture this summer, workshops will help tell the story of slaves in Irvington’s history.

“It’s not just a statue that says enslaved Africans lived here,” said Injy Sullivan, an educator and consultant who develops workshops with Commemorate. “We want to honor and recognize that the people who helped build this city were enslaved and had dreams. (They) had ways to be strong and to survive.

Local history workshops

The workshops are designed to start conversations about the history of slavery in the region and to inspire parents to talk to their children, at age-appropriate levels, about the significance of the monument. The first workshop is scheduled for May 31 at Main Street School, although more are planned.

The workshops allow participants to learn a language that centers the humanity of enslaved people (i.e., not using “slaves” or “slave owners”, but “enslaved people” and “slavers”),” Sullivan said. Understanding slavery also requires addressing what can be uncomfortable, especially talking about race.

The workshop will also provide simple language explaining slavery to children, many of whom will see the child statue that could be their age.

“You really have to consider history,” said Arlene Burgos, village administrator, member of Commemorate. “We have to be critical thinkers. I think kids of all ages are really capable of understanding this story.

A rendering of

The workshops come as dozens of states have moved to ban “critical race theory,” an academic framework not traditionally taught in K-12 education but in law classes. In many districts, prohibitions limited teaching about race in the context of American slavery.

As things stand, there appears to be little understanding of slavery in the United States, education and history researchers said.

In a 2018 report, the Southern Poverty Law Center, a nonprofit hate watchdog, found common mistakes in American teaching about African slavery.

Less than a quarter of the 1,000 high school students surveyed could identify how provisions of the Constitution benefited slaveholders, and two-thirds were unaware of a constitutional amendment, the 13th, officially ending slavery, according to the report. Meanwhile, only 8% knew that slavery was the central cause of the Civil War.

This extends to understanding American slavery in the North, where enslaved labor built New York’s Wall Street. According to Sarah-SoonLing Heng Blackburn, associate director of learning in schools at Learning for Justice, an SPLC program, many fail to realize that investments in the Atlantic slave trade turned Wall Street into a financial hub. global.

“A common pitfall is teaching lessons that portray slavery as a uniquely southern institution,” she wrote in an email. “This limits young people’s understanding of existing inequalities across the country, including the North which has deep roots in slavery.”

From left, Vinnie Bagwell, Cathy Sears and Sarah Cox pose for a photo next to Bagwell's sculpture.  The three women worked to create a monument to honor enslaved Africans in the village of Tarrytown

Citizen engagement is progressing

After the 2020 murder of George Floyd, Black Lives Matter protests highlighted the legacy of slavery and racism across the United States

Local protests culminated in the Irvington June 19 celebration, the American June 19 holiday marking the emancipation of slaves. Commemoration organizers plan to unveil the monument, designed by Yonkers sculptor Vinnie Bagwell, on June 19.

Civic engagement, Bagwell said, is the cornerstone of public art.

“When you’re talking about history, it’s a great opportunity to educate people while you’re doing the work,” she said. “It’s easier than making a movie, easier than writing a book.”

Sara Cox, pictured in her home in Irvington on Friday December 3, 2021, with the display of the monument dedicated to local enslaved Africans which will be placed at Main Street School on June 16, 2022.

The Irvington monument began with research into how slavery shaped the area, by Sarah Cox, who works in educational programs at Philipsburg Manor, part of the Historic Hudson Valley nonprofit , and Cathy Sears, journalist and researcher. The two formed the band Commemorate.

For four years, Cox and Sears searched the estate inventories, court records and wills of Dutch families who lived at the Philipsburg mansion, which spanned some 57,000 acres from the Bronx to Croton-on-Hudson.

In 2019, they published their findings in “The Roost”, a journal of the Irvington Historical Society. They revealed 14 enslaved people, many of them children, who lived in what became Irvington in the early 18th century. It is unclear how many other enslaved people were not named in the records. They also highlighted what is believed to be an enslaved African cemetery near Buckhout Street in Irvington, named after a slaveholder.

This research initiated the idea behind the monument and a planned memorial garden at the cemetery. In addition to the workshops, the Commemorate Group is considering age-appropriate tours of both sites, supported by more than $20,000 in Westchester County funding.

"Yesterday" cast in wax.

Veronica Gedrich, president of the Irvington Historical Society, said the village was proud of the centuries-old mansions of industrial magnates. But, she says, “it is also important for us to remember those who lived here and whose work has never been recognized. That’s part of it.

In November, the school board approved the monument in front of Main Street School. It should be placed near a statue of Rip Van Winkle, a fictional Dutch settler created by 19th-century American author Washington Irvington, the town’s namesake.

A month later, the board renamed the area in front of Village Hall the Madam CJ Walker Plaza, after an African-American entrepreneur from Irvington who was the first self-made millionaire, according to the Guinness Book of World Records. of the world.

The Main Street School in Irivngton will house a monument for enslaved Africans.  Friday, December 3, 2021.

The monument plaque design bears the names of 14 enslaved children, women and men. It also has a Sankofa heart, a symbol used by the Akan people of Ghana to signify retrieving knowledge from the past.

Sullivan looks to Sankofa for inspiration in the workshops.

“You can’t move on if you don’t understand your past,” she said. “People need to understand how our country got to this point.”

Eduardo Cuevas covers diversity, equity and inclusion in Westchester and Rockland counties. He can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @eduardomcuevas.