Metro Students Probe New Haven's Past, Vision Its Future
When Derek Bedoya heard his hometown mentioned in the movie Judas and the Black Messiah, he was so surprised that he almost paused the film. Four months and one research project later, he’s working to teach his peers about the Black Panthers’ footprint in New Haven—and to question what else might have been left out of their history books.
Bedoya is a senior at Metropolitan Business Academy, where students have been researching and mapping New Haven’s Black, Latinx and Indigenous history as part of Nataliya Braginsky’s African American and Latinx History Class. Friday morning, students gathered in the school’s library and on Google Meet for back-to-back presentations on their findings. Friends and community members attended in person and on Zoom, some building their own cheer section.
Although this is the class’s second year in existence, it marks the first time students are able to publicly present their work. Their new discoveries now live on an annotated map of New Haven. For the first time, students have also written works of speculative fiction; more on that below.
“This class has evolved in lots of ways,” Braginsky said Friday in between class sections. “A lot had to change for so many reasons … students are at home, at their jobs, taking care of siblings. I’m trying to make sure that the curriculum that I’m teaching feels culturally relevant, but it also feels healing."
Students’ findings come as high schools across the state prepare to offer an elective in Black and Latinx history by fall 2022. A curriculum for that course is set to become publicly available from the State Education Resource Center next month.
In the library, the air crackled with excitement and mid-morning jitters. Students slipped into a wide semicircle of desks as others signed in online with a doorbell sound. The bookshelves stood at attention, as if they were waiting with open ears. Leilani Rivera helped fellow student Michael Martinez fix the buttons on his shirt.
“Does everyone feel ready?” asked Braginsky as she checked to make sure the tech equipment was working. Two microphones—one for in-classroom amplification and one for students online—waited eagerly. A sign with multicolored fists and the words “Together We Rise” blinked out from a bulletin board against the wall.
From the moment senior Jyrese Cooper began to speak from his remote perch, it was as if the whole room leaned in to listen. For the past several months, Cooper has been researching the development of the city’s New Guinea neighborhood under Black engineer William Lanson. In 1820, Lanson began work on the neighborhood, close to what is now recognized as Wooster Square. Five years later, he was elected “the Black King” of New Haven, a sobriquet that has stuck for two centuries.
on made his mark with both housing and businesses that included “a slaughterhouse, a livery store, hotel, and a grocery store.” For a time, he was prosperous—and often found a way to share his wealth. He paid Black laborers and offered housing and work to formerly enslaved Black people. He helped found Temple Street Congregational Church, now recognized as the Dixwell Avenue Congregational Church. While the neighborhood sat beside a working-class Irish neighborhood known as Slineyville, it was not completely segregated.
But Lanson also struggled: his advocacy for voting rights and abolition made him a target. He ultimately faced harassment and violence from the state. He died in an almshouse in 1851, and much of the history temporarily died with him. A sculpture of the engineer by the artist Dana King now stands at the mouth of the Farmington Canal. Last year, activists also proposed renaming Wooster Square Park in his honor.
The class listened, the library quiet enough to hear the rustle of papers and footfalls of a late visitor. Cooper’s voice came through a speaker, clear as a bell. “I think this is important because he stimulated an economy,” he said.
Read more in the full article: https://www.newhavenarts.org/arts-paper/articles/metro-students-probe-new-havens-past-vision-its-future