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Inside the Melting Pot


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"When the nation is made ready by enlightenment, its good fortune will make Black History Month an anachronism. No culture should by its spotlight eclipse another, and the reputation of one cannot flourish at the expense of another. We are a unified but not yet united civilization."
--Ron Issacs
In 1991, the phenomenon of unearthing 400 enslaved Africans from a 17th-century African burial ground in lower Manhattan was the beginning of a search by many for their African ancestral past. That road of discovery has had many twists and turns. However, the records remain. The slavers and historians of that era kept copious notes. And fortunately we have had access to the incalculable research from the African Burial Ground Project OPEI Update founded in 1991 and directed for over a decade by Dr. Sherrill Wilson.
If we take another look at life in colonial New York and search beyond the Dutch West India Company's enticement of free land and free trade, we will see that the DWI Company provided another enticement to white settlers: enslaved Africans to labor without compensation. In the East India Company's charter of Privilege and Exemption for the patrons the following is noted: "in that document for the purpose of encouraging agriculture, the company agreed to furnish colonists as many blacks as they conveniently could. These 'blacks' were brought from the West Indies."
The Historic Wyckoff House, which is located in Brooklyn, N.Y., is an example of colonial life in early New York. A recent article: "Glimpse the 17th Century at Historic Wyckoff House," describes the property as one that spanned 40 acres. It was also viewed as a property that was a highly successful working farm. Wyckoff, its owner, became the richest man in the region. It may also be noted that: "Slaveholdings in New York were second only to its counterpart in Charlotte, North Carolina."
The Native Americans and Africans helped make the Dutch wealthy land barons as they farmed large areas, working fruit orchards and attending the livestock for food. Flax was grown for linen thread and sheep provided wool for clothing. A visit to Philipsburg Manor Upper Mills today in North Tarrytown will provide additional insight into the lifestyle of the Dutch gentry of this period. This site was manned by enslaved Africans as the Philipses reaped the reward from this free African labor.
Bland Taylor writes: "in 1698, 15 percent of Kings County population were slaves. Kings County by the 18th Century became the heaviest slave holding county in New York State. Although one-fifth of New York State black population were free by the end of the 18th Century only 3 percent (46) free blacks resided in Kings County, the smallest number in the state.
As late as 1820, only 55 percent of Kings County blacks and a minuscule 18 percent in Richmond County were free. Blacks older than 45 years remained slaves in 1820, because masters were unwilling to accept responsibility for their maintenance otherwise. Slavery in the United States existed in the North as well as the South."
What is unique about Scarsdale is the heroic effort of New York Governor Daniel Tompkins, a resident of Scarsdale, as he made a recommendation to the Legislature in 1817 to abolish slavery by 1827. We can also witness the courage of the Quakers who manumitted their enslaved Africans by 1782 and even required themselves to train their former slaves to earn a living and to find a place to live. And we can witness the beneficence of Quakers who were active in the Underground Railroad, hiding slaves in barns and secret cupboards on Mamaroneck Road.
Racism today is merely a remnant of slavery's past revisited in the present. Today, we have two separate chronicles of history: one white and one black. Yet, the two belong together.
Understanding our true past will enable one to understand the present. However, the care of the future is in our hands.
Yes, Ron Issacs, "When the nation is made ready by enlightenment, its good fortune will make Black History Month an anachronism."
WHEREAS recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world,
WHEREAS disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind, and the advent of a world in which human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief and freedom from fear and want has been proclaimed as the highest aspiration of the common people,
WHEREAS it is essential, if man is not to be compelled to have recourse, as a last resort, to rebellion against tyranny and oppression, that human rights should be protected by the rule of law.
--United Nations Dec. 1948
Intolerance. What is it? The dictionary has termed intolerance as a negative portrayal of someone or something due to one's own prejudice. Intolerance has also been cited as a precursor to violence and in its severest form it leads to genocide. The Holocaust has been mentioned as the most infamous example of intolerance in the Western culture. Intolerance of different cultures other than the Dutch or British made colonialism and slavery possible in the New World. And we can still see how discrimination continues as the remnants of an old slavery system in America, dies hard.
Knowing this, why does intolerance continue to flourish. Why has it grown in leaps and bounds as hate crimes proliferate urban, suburban, and rural communities? Surely, we have seen how discrimination, harassment and bullying leads to violence on school campuses throughout the nation. Columbine is a classic example of that. We have also seen how freedom of speech has been twisted to provide a license for people to wage a war of hate throughout the media and Internet, as ethnic jokes, black-face parodies, and ill humor based on another's race, religious affiliation, sexual orientation become salable. And even though these vignettes are morally wrong, they provide hours of comic relief to a very wide audience, while graffiti strewn on large surfaces become billboards of hate. Desecration of religious symbols in public places (at the pentacle of a holy day) is just another indication that all is not well in morbidly tense communities.
As we look at the growth of intolerance around us, which is mimicked by some children in hate-speech, it becomes obvious that something is missing in our schools. Our schools are entrusted with the job of educating our youth in academic subjects as well as infusing students with moral qualities in order to prepare them for full participation in our democratic society. If this is not being done, then doing nothing is doing something harmful which promotes intolerance.
"Morality cannot be legislated, said Dr. Martin Luther King, " but behavior can be regulated. It may be true that the law cannot change the heart, but it can restrain the heartless. It may be true that the law cannot make a man love me, but it can restrain him from lynching me --and I think that is important also. And so, while education may not be able to change the hearts of men, it can change the habits of men. And when the habits are changed, pretty soon the attitudes will change. The hearts will be changed, and men will be able to come together as brothers, recognizing the naturalness and the rightness of their togetherness." Excerpt from Martin Luther King speech to the United Federation of Teachers 1964
With this truth in mind, we should revisit an April 20, 1994, mandate from The New York State Legislature.
"In order to promote a spirit of patriotic and civic service and obligation and to foster in the children of the state moral and intellectual qualities which are essential in preparing to meet the obligations of citizenship in peace or in war, the regents of the University of the State of New York shall prescribe a course of instruction in patriotism, citizenship and human rights issues, with particular attention to the study of the inhumanity of genocide, slavery, and the Holocaust, to be maintained and followed in all the schools of the state."
Certainly, implementing this mandate in schools, would be a big step today toward ending the growth of intolerance in the future.  This I believe.
3. Martin Luther King, Jr., a civil rights act...

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This essay by NYSUT member Phyllis C. Murray shares her recollections of sometimes an overlooked chapter of civil rights history. It originally appeared in New York Teacher, NYSUT's official publication. Murray is a writing-process teacher at PS 75 in New York City and is a chapter leader for the United Federation of Teachers.
I was born in Farmville, Va., located in Prince Edward County. It is my ancestral home. My parents, aunts, uncles and cousins attended R.R. Moton High School in Farmville. They experienced the injustices of a separate and unequal education policy in the school for "Negroes."
Although I was born in Farmville, my parents were established in New York and that is where I grew up. It was because of family ties to Farmville and frequent visits back home to "Old Virginny" that I became aware of the news of a two-week student protest, which was led by Barbara Johns in April 1951.
The protest of nonviolent direct action launched by the students attending the segregated and overcrowded Moton High School is often cited as the start of the civil rights movement. It led to a lawsuit, Davis v. County School Board, which became one of the cases making up the historic 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision that rejected the premise of separate but equal education.
Writing for the Organization of American Historians, Susan Bagby, a professor at Longwood College, noted: " Moton High School , named for Virginia educator Robert R. Moton, president of Tuskegee Institute, opened in 1939 designed to accommodate 180 students. By the time of the 1951 walkout, 450 African-American students were crowded into the school. The three 'tar paper' shacks erected by the school board beside the high school to add classroom space symbolized for Moton students the inequality in facilities and sparked the protest for a new high school in 1951."
While attending Hunter College in New York City in 1959, I was able to escape the misery of the South and its horrific Jim Crow laws. New York did have remnants of the Jim Crow laws, but for the most part, discrimination was more subtle and racism was institutionalized.
Virginians faced the day-to-day blatant realities of separate and unequal facilities. Even the newspaper, the Farmville Herald, had a little section for the Colored News.
And of course there were colored cemeteries.
"The Prince Edward County Board of Supervisors closed the public schools rather than desegregate. Thus, the arenas for the legal battles were the courts. This culminated in the 1964 Supreme Court case Griffin v. County School Board, which forced local authorities to fund public education and reopen the schools." (Bagby)
President Kennedy sent U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy to Farmville to ensure the reopening of the public schools. Our national affiliate, the American Federation of Teachers, established its Human Rights Department at that time to address the concerns related to segregation in public schools. Dr. Barbara Van Blake, director of the AFT Human Rights Department, recalls how the AFT sent educators to Farmville to teach in the newly integrated schools. AFT President Sandra Feldman and other members of the United Federation of Teachers in New York City were also involved in this civil rights struggle.
Many private homes in Farmville were opened to the teachers from the North. My grandfather's home was one of those available to members of this delegation of teachers.
"The vast majority of the county's 1,700 African American students went without formal education between 1959 and 1964," Bagby writes, "although some families sent their children to relatives outside the area, and other students were placed by the American Friends Service Committee with families or private schools in the Northeast and Midwest."
Hence, my cousins came to New York and New Jersey to complete their education. Barbara Johns, the young student activist, was sent to Alabama for her safety. Years later, the Johns family moved to the nation's capital. Their Farmville home was burned to ground.
"The students who lost five years of public education have been variously dubbed 'the lost generation' and 'the crippled generation' by reporters and researchers studying the long-term effects of educational deprivation," Bagby says. It is sad to say, yet true, that white students who could not afford to attend the segregated private schools were also a part of the lost generation.
The problems faced by one member of our society become everyone's problem.
After visiting Farmville, Va., in the 1950s; after not being permitted to sit at a counter in the local Woolworth's or the local pharmacy; after remembering the colored-only balcony in Farmville's movie theater; it was easy for me to return to Hunter College and participate in the first march on Washington with a rainbow coalition of college coeds from around New York State.
Our caravan of buses left New York City at 3 a.m., joined by students from Bard, New York University, Sarah Lawrence, Barnard and all the City University of New York colleges.
With singer Harry Belafonte a part of our delegation, we marched along Pennsylvania Avenue toward the Lincoln Monument. Neither the president nor any member of his Cabinet greeted us.
Our march is often forgotten in official accounts of the civil rights movement, but our fervor carried forward. Protests continued in areas surrounding the University of Pennsylvania 's campus. As a graduate student at Penn in 1960, I helped the undergraduates make placards that were used to protest Woolworth's discriminatory policies and Tastycakes' discriminatory hiring practices.
Today's problems with racial discrimination are only mirrors to the former years of slavery in the North. Lest we forget, even the nation's capital had its problems with segregated buses, schools and facilities --again, remnants of slavery.
Fifty years after Brown v. Board of Education, the New York City public schools and housing are still virtually segregated by economics. Minorities, also known as the poor, rest at the bottom of the economic ladder. They live in poorer neighborhoods known for their failing schools, high crime rates and inadequate services.
Teachers in these inner-city schools are always struggling to get the necessities for their students. When lobbying in Albany does not do enough, many teachers are forced to take out-of-pocket monies to create the proper classroom environments. But despite their efforts, the schools become as poor as the neighborhoods they serve.
The impoverished schools are placed on the bottom of a list for repairs and renovation. Crumbling ceilings, walls, floors become the daily realities of students and teachers. Mice, roaches and more are a part of the setting for lessons unrelated to science. And both students and teachers become caught in the crossfire on the streets and in the schools as crime makes daily inroads.
"Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere," said Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. It is evident that we cannot build a strong foundation for this nation on a foundation of misery for any one of its citizens. There is more work to be done.
Brown v. Board of Education was merely a beginning.
We must press on.#
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