Having spent slightly over a half-century as a resident of New Haven, I have been witness to numerous physical, economic, and sociological changes which have dramatically altered the face of this city in general and of its neighborhoods in particular. My reactions to these changes are a mixture of awe and understanding.
In contrast, my fifth grade pupils appear to have little realization or appreciation that things weren’t always as they are today. Most live in neighborhoods which struggle on a daily basis with the all too common problems of inner-city life. Poverty, drugs, violence, and their assorted ills are exerting an ever increasing influence upon these pupils whom I teach. They often can identify little chance that anything is going to change for the better. It is difficult for them to imagine that their neighborhood and New Haven as a whole was once far different.
Their view of history is limited and fragmented at best, especially as it relates to African Americans. Due to a system-wide emphasis on “black history” during the month of February, they are generally knowledgeable regarding a wide variety of isolated individuals and particular incidents. In varying degrees, most are aware of Martin Luther King, Jr., the March on Washington, Harriet Tubman, the Underground Railroad, George Washington Carver, Jackie Robinson, and other vital yet disconnected parts of the whole. It has been a reoccurring theme of my last three units that until these people and events are fit together in more of an historical continuum, my pupils not only will miss much of the historical significance played by these individuals and events, but also, and probably more importantly, they will find it difficult to see themselves as part of the larger picture. Without this broader understanding and appreciation of the past, they are unable to fully draw upon this knowledge as a source of self-esteem, direction, and hopefully positive inspiration.
Regarding their understanding of an African American role in the history of New Haven, I imagine that for most there is little more than the image of a courageous Cinque standing tall midst the trials and tribulations of the Amisted affair. With the variety of positive activities planned for this Fall to commemorate the hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the 1842 decision, his imposing figure should stand even more dominantly, yet more isolated, as the symbol of African American history in New Haven.
As with United States history, I strongly feel that in order to gain from the past and to understand their place in the present, my pupils need to be presented with at least a framework of historical information while studying their city. Similarly, it seems logical that a framework of general African American history must clarify the development of the African American history of the smaller municipal unit. The means of providing this broader view of African American history in the United States will vary depending upon the teacher and the nature of the class. I intend to use various combinations of my three units written previously for the Yale New Haven Teachers Institute: “Poetry: A Mirror in which to See Myself” (1989), “The Family that Endured” (1990), and “Building Dreams: Who is There to Help You?” (1991). These units employ a combination of poetry, art, American literature, and specific works of autobiography. Although I realize that not all or even most pupils of this age are developmentally ready to fully understand the order and interrelationship of historical events, I strongly feel that an intent to achieve this understanding should influence the teacher’s manner of presentation.
In this particular unit on New Haven, I hope my students will become more aware of the changes that have taken place in their city and neighborhoods. I especially plan to highlight the role played by African Americans in this development. This will include examining some of the factors which motivated their movement to New Haven, the problems they faced, their sources of strength (family, church, and community), and the progress they have made. Though focus will be on the changing city as it relates to African Americans, the study cannot and should not ignore the development of New Haven as a whole, for the two are unavoidably intertwined. I will also use general works related to any city: non-fiction, fiction, art, and poetry. These will help to further illustrate the physical aspects and atmosphere of a city in the hope that understanding gained will be transferred to the specific, New Haven. These more general works can also open the door to a variety of related classroom activities.
As an interrelated goal, this unit will attempt to utilize and develop my pupils’ writing skills. Opportunities for motivating various types of written creations will be discussed later. Such assignments will not be isolated but will be integrated with the presentation of historical and other types of material.
Although this particular unit is designed with a fifth grade class in mind, the material to be covered and the activities suggested could easily be adapted to other grade levels. The fact that African Americans are its focus does not render it less valuable to white students who also need to acquire a more complete picture of New Haven’s historical development. Though the same is true for New Haven’s Hispanic student population, I strongly feel that additional material related to the Hispanic role in New Haven’s history must be included for these and all New Haven students. I hope in the future to expand this unit to include material of this type.
The unit’s length can vary greatly, depending upon the needs of each classroom and what is feasible in each setting. Though there is some flexibility in the amount of historical material which may be included, I feel that much of the unit’s purpose will be lost without at least presenting the minimal developments which will be discussed here. Without a knowledge of these facts, the students have less chance of feeling the personal connection and the resulting increased understanding of the events which are designed to lead them to the city and neighborhoods in which they live today.
For my purposes, I see this as an integrated unit taught within a self-contained classroom. It is probably most easily initiated in the area of social studies but could grow from the areas of language arts such as with the reading of an appropriate “city” story or with a similarly related writing assignment. New Haven’s fifth grade focus on American history could easily take a more detailed sidetrip to examine our city. In fact, our city’s history obviously includes the major threads of our nation’s history, helping to make the larger events more meaningful to students as they are encountered. Whatever the approach employed, the minimal continuity of events mentioned in this unit should be maintained.
In launching the historical material to be wavered, attention needs to focus on the company of Puritans led by Theophilus Eaton, the religious man of business and trade, and John Davenport, the practical minded clergyman, who after sailing from Massachusetts Bay reached the harbor by the Indian village of Quinnipiac (Long River Place) on March 30, 1638. We will examine the intertwining religious and economic motives which brought them to this point, factors which to a large extent determined the future development of New Haven.
The words of hymns sung and written throughout this early period vividly reflect the influence which religion had upon all aspects of life. Two examples which might be presented to pupils for examination are included later in the unit.
The physical establishment of the town, relationships with Indians, expansion to other towns, the prominent role which religion continued to play, along with business and education, the plight of the “three judges”, and the facts behind the “Phantom Ship” are a few examples of topics from the history of New Haven Colony which provide material of value and interest to the pupils I teach. The fascination which this grade level usually has with Indians, any type of “phantom”, or a good old fashioned chase should suggest a number of roads to follow in expanding some of these topics.
The unit should now lead us through the inclusion of New Haven Colony as part of Connecticut Colony in 1665, events surrounding the Revolutionary period, incorporation as a city in 1784, and on to the years leading to the Civil War and war itself. From there we will highlight important points of economic, physical, and social change as New Haven moved toward the present. It is difficult to present the amount of specific detail which should be included in each area since I think exact content will vary depending upon the class and their previous background. Considerable information on these early periods may be found in Rollin G. Osterweis’ “Three Centuries of New Haven 1638-1938.” The material is invaluable for teacher reference and also may be modified to a level appropriate for presentation to pupils. “New Haven: An Illustrated History,” edited by Floyd Shumway and Richard Hegel, is similarly valuable. In addition, it is written on a level which may be understood by most fifth grade students and contains excellent maps and thought provoking pictures.
Throughout, references will be made to the roles played by African Americans in New Haven and to the related attitudes and actions taken by white New Haveners at various times in our city’s history. Beginning with the early days of New Haven Colony until the present, when John Daniels serves as New Haven’s first African American mayor, there is much to be examined.
From the early days of New Haven Colony, blacks were present, but initially had little impact upon the community at large. Probably most of them were slaves. Although blacks were not allowed to become members of the Connecticut militia before the war, a few fought in the Revolution, with one being killed during a British invasion. For a short period in 1781-2, Connecticut formed an all black unit. The city’s black population was around 200 in 1790 and rose to over 600 in 1820.
After the War, a number of New Haven leaders spoke out against slavery. Black churches also took an active stance on this issue. Amos Beman (1812-1874) was one of New Haven’s most effective black spokesmen of this time. During the late 18th Century, African Americans of Connecticut achieved the official status of “Free People of Color.” Then in 1784 the Gradual Emancipation Act provided that all those born of slave parents would be free at age twenty-five. (This was later changed to twenty-one.)
Despite these official changes, life for New Haven’s African Americans was still a hard and segregated one. As has been the case throughout history, the black community of New Haven turned within itself to develop its own social, religious, and political system and leadership. The first official African American church, the United African Society, was established in about 1820 on Temple Street with the aid of same concerned whites, especially Simeon Jocelyn, Its first minister was a runaway slave, James W.C. Pennington, and later the famous leader Amos Beman. The church eventually became the Dixwell Avenue Congregational Church and is now ministered by Edwin Edmonds, an equally prominent community figure.
The first “colored school” was established in 1811 with the next coming in 1825. Known as the Artisan Street School, the Spireworth or Mt. Pleasant School, and the Goffe Street School, they were physically quite inadequate and offered only a very basic education. In 1864 a new Goffe Street School was built. A picture of this and other important structures in the African American community may be found in a brochure titled New Haven’s Afro-American Heritage. (See bibliography.)
On July 7, 1969, the Board of Education finally incorporated African American pupils into the school system. Earlier, in 1831, there was a movement by Simeon S. Jocelyn to establish a black college in the city, but general sentiment was strongly opposed, at least partly in response to fear motivated by the Nat Turner insurrection of the same year. Since newspapers of the time spoke out against the proposal, pupils might be asked to write opposing articles giving appropriate arguments for establishing such an institution.
Since the circumstances proved less threatening to whites, Cinque and the Amisted crew gained the sympathy and backing of most New Haveners. From this point forward there was an increase in abolitionist sentiments. With this Fall’s anniversary celebration, considerable information and suggested activities should be available to expand upon the circumstances surrounding New Haven’s role in this famous historical event.
With the North ‘s eventual triumph, the Emancipation Proclamation, the Thirteenth, the Fourteenth, and the Fifteenth Amendments, the long deserved rights of African Americans were finally won. Freedom, however, did not mean an end to prejudice. Generally housing regained segregated, with most blacks living in the Dixwell area after initially locating in the Oak Street neighborhood. Although some craftsmen and professionals emerged, most were blocked from any real advance by prejudice and the availability of only low paying jobs as servants, drivers, porters and waiters, with no real chance of advancement.
With the advent of both World War I and II, the North in general and New Haven in particular saw a dramatic increase in the number of blacks, mainly from the South. Conflict had brought a greater need for labor in the Northern industrial centers. The military conflicts had both stifled the flow of immigrant labor and cut European demand for cotton. Opportunities for blacks in the South were limited. Pay in the North was higher, schools were better, and life was generally safer away from the intimidation of the Klan. Black migration to New Haven to fill jobs created by the wartime boom saw black population figures grow to about 5,000 in 1930 and to 10,000 in 1950. Already limited housing in black neighborhoods became increasingly crowded, black neighborhoods spread, and whites began to move to the suburbs. (The Yale New Haven Teachers Institute has a volume published in 1989, “American Communities 1880-1989,” which contains a number of units on the development of specific neighborhoods if more information is desired.)
The economic decline which spread through the area from the late 1950’s through the 60’s, the closing of factories, unemployment, an increase in Hispanic population, and the acceleration of white flight to the suburbs had a devastating effect upon the New Haven area, especially upon its African American population. The hope of urban renewal under Mayor Richard C. Lee from 1954-1970 did not fulfill its promise to many of the city’s poor. Complicated social and economic forces were too great to overcome in the manner its planners had hoped. Top this off with the neighborhood disturbances of the 70’s, the increase in drug use and its related crime in the 80’s and 90’s, the seeming failure of the educational system, and the general resumption of economic decline in the area, and you don’t have a very hopeful picture to present to the African American youth of New Haven. Unfortunately, this is reality, but fortunately it is not the entire picture.
In order to become more aware of recent progress, pupils will now examine the positives to be found within the New Haven African American Community. This will include some exposure to individual and some group accomplishments dating back to the early 1900’s, including those covered during the initial historical investigation. “Black New Haven 1920-77” and “Black Women in Greater New Haven” are examples of a number of sources which contain a wealth of what may seem a hodgepodge of isolated facts about black New Haveners. Taken as a whole, however, they let us know that in the face of general adversity, much was going on in New Haven’s African American neighborhoods, progress was being made.
Today, schools, including faculty and administration, are integrated, New Haven’s mayor and former superintendent of schools are African Americans, black churches and their clergy are major forces in community and city life, African Americans are prominent in the city’s leading businesses, the political structure of New Haven is amply represented by blacks, and African Americans have assumed a visible role in nearly every phase of New Haven’s life. When compared with the early days of the Colony and measured against the negative forces which have and still do exert themselves against the black Community, this change can certainly be termed progress.
(Other references which present the accomplishments of African American New Haveners of now and from the past are listed in my bibliography. )
Finally, in order to confirm and expand my pupils’ awareness that similar positives still do exist, that progress is still being made, and they still can be part of a better New Haven, they will be asked to investigate their neighborhood as it is today, searching for these sustaining elements.
The pupils who attend my school came from a variety of neighborhoods. This hopefully will provide a variation in material gathered. If this variety of neighborhoods does not exist in another classroom using this unit, lessons will still be applicable and should yield positive results. Many of them have been designed to examine the city as a whole.
Besides the three lesson plans which I have spelled out in detail, activities will include formulating questions for interviews with family and friends, conducting these interviews, and reporting the results to the class; compiling oral history from an older friend, neighbor, or family member; gathering positive newspaper and magazine articles related to both New Haven in particular and cities in general; arranging presentations by members of community, religious, political, and/or social groups from the city; taking a field trip designed to view recent positive physical changes, or those in progress; reading and reacting to fictional stories and poetry about the city; writing “city” fiction and poetry, and finally looking at themselves to find the positives which they each are contributing or might contribute in the future.