Manhattan College Students Studying History of Slavery in the Bronx

Students are learning about little-known areas in their backyard.

Adam Arenson points to headstone in Hunts Point's Drake ParkThirteen Manhattan College students are traveling across the Bronx during the spring semester, learning about the history of slavery in the borough and its legacy that relates to present day.

Slavery in the Bronx (HIST 100) is a community-engaged learning course led by Adam Arenson, Ph.D., associate professor of history and director of the urban studies program. The class is working with community partners, including the Hunts Point Slave Burial Ground Project and the Kingsbridge Historical Society, to explore how the history of slavery continues to reverberate in the Bronx, and to understand what it means for the local communities in Kingsbridge-Van Cortlandt and Hunts Point.

As of now, the burial grounds for enslaved and formerly enslaved peoples in Drake Park, in Hunts Point, and in Van Cortlandt Park are unmarked, despite archaeological and documentary evidence proving their location. In recent years, ground-penetrating radar has proven that some burial sites remain in these areas, despite the fact that other sections have been lost over the decades to railroad and street construction.

“Our big dream is that we are able to find living descendants of the people who were held in slavery and were buried in these burial grounds in the Bronx,” Arenson said. “Even if we aren’t able to do that, what this course does is it helps students think about both the limits and the possibilities of historical sources.

“We can figure out what we can learn from the census, what we can see from old maps, what we can see from going places or looking at archaeological reports. We’re getting a sense of how much there is to learn about the history of African Americans in the Bronx, and what we can present that serves the community’s needs.”

Not only is the course a part of Manhattan College’s community-based learning program, it also earns students credit for the urban studies program and the new digital arts and humanities program, designed to provide liberal arts majors with critical thinking and writing skills that employers are seeking from college graduates.

Bronx Students Learn about Their Hometown

John Perez and other students stand in Drake ParkIn addition to the Liberal Arts majors in the class is John Perez ’19, a computer science major. Perez is from the Bronx, having grown up 10 minutes from Manhattan College. He added the Slavery in the Bronx course to his schedule in his last semester because of his curiosity about his hometown and eagerness to know more about the history prior to emancipation.

“This is right in our backyard but we don’t know much about it,” Perez said. “I’ve learned things in this class that I never knew before.”

In February, the class is meeting with Bronx Community Board 2 in Hunts Point, and continuing to meet with the Hunts Point Slave Burial Ground and Kingsbridge Historical Society experts.

In March, the class will meet with middle school students in Hunts Point to discuss their neighborhood’s history and share some of what the college students have learned over the previous two months.

And at the end of the semester In May, the class is planning to prepare a presentation at the Hunts Point branch of the New York Public Library. At that presentation, the class will share their findings with community members and anyone else from the public who would like to attend.

View photo gallery from the January visit to Drake Park in Hunts Point.

By Pete McHugh